Pioneer Black Leader Is Like a Father Figure

Times Staff Writer

Age has finally taken its toll on John Grigsby, forcing the pioneer black leader out of community service for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Grigsby, 92, has been hospitalized with kidney cancer, depriving the central city of a father figure who since 1937 has provided it with calm and reasoned counsel.

"I'm not important, but I've held some important positions," said Grigsby, the Louisiana-born son of former slaves, not long ago.

Grigsby, in fact, helped found Long Beach's Colored Citizens League and organize its first black Boy Scout troop. He also was one of the first members of the local NAACP chapter and co-founder of St. John Baptist Church, one of the largest in this city's black community.

"He was like a father to the whole (black) community," said Ernest McBride, co-founder of the local NAACP in 1940. "He took a leading role in all community life. People would go to him for advice up until he went into the hospital two months ago. He was deliberate, but when he spoke, it usually meant something."

Grigsby and McBride were among a handful of key leaders in a tiny black community near Poly High School that numbered only about 300 before World War II.

City Once Unfriendly to Blacks

They worked for decades, through boycott and persuasion, to eliminate job and housing discrimination in Long Beach, a city once known throughout the region as unfriendly to blacks.

"It was the whitest town I'd ever seen," said Grigsby. "Lots of times, I would spend a whole week at work (at the downtown library) and not see another black person. I was the only black person in the Library Department the whole 23 years I was there." (By 1980, Long Beach had a black population of 40,000, 11% of its total.)

Never a firebrand, Grigsby was a leader almost in spite of himself: "Most of the time he was too modest to go out for the job," McBride remembered. But his good sense and commitment to racial equality forced him into positions of leadership.

"When we had problems with job discrimination, brother Grigsby would always be one of the delegates to talk to the employers," McBride said. "We could always count on brother Grigsby. I remember we'd get in discussions that could last eight or 10 hours, and at the end he just seemed to be able to flatten out the whole thing and straighten it out."

Grigsby was 72 by the time Frank Berry, current NAACP chapter president, came to town 20 years ago. But over the years that has not kept Grigsby from taking Berry aside on numerous occasions to offer "quiet counsel," Berry said.

"A lot of the members of our executive committee have had similar discussions over the years," Berry said. "He might not speak up in the meeting, but he would sit with you on the side and give you the benefit of his knowledge."

Erect and distinguished in appearance, Grigsby has touched his community in many ways.

Even now, despite his critical condition, he remains a deacon at St. John as well as a director at the NAACP and for the Senior Care Action Network, a health-care program for senior citizens.

Since helping found St. John Baptist in 1952, he has sung in the choir, taught Sunday school and served continuously as a deacon.

It was in Sunday school classes that, his eyes brightening, he would occasionally reveal the simpler world of his childhood.

Born in August, 1892, in the piney woods and red-clay hills of northern Louisiana, his parents had been unable to buy toys for him and his five brothers and sisters, Grigsby would tell the children. "So we would make our own."

Then, he would spin the tops, blow the whistles and manipulate the puppets he had crafted 80 years before.

He Held Children Spellbound

"It was a beautiful scene," said St. John's Rev. Ralph Mosby, who remembers watching one Grigsby demonstration.

"The (kids) were almost spellbound at first," Mosby said. "They couldn't believe such fun could come out of this older man. And it was exciting to see this older gentleman acting like just another little boy."

His sense of fun and adventure has taken Grigsby, who had only a sixth-grade education, to Long Beach City College for a few classes during the last four years.

"Booker T. Washington advocated using your hands, and W. E. B. Du Bois said hook a wagon to a star through education," Grigsby said. So he tried to do both, earning a living with his hands as a city maintenance man, but learning throughout his life.

With him through much of that time has been his articulate, college-educated wife, Lilly, whom he married in 1942. "I've been lucky to have been married to this man," she said at a special 90th birthday celebration in 1982.

Others say Grigsby has been lucky as well, since the two complement each other in many ways, and, in at least one way, they are very much alike.

"They both have been great workers behind the scenes," Berry said.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday August 8, 1985 Home Edition Long Beach Part 9 Page 4 Column 1 Zones Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction A profile of John Grigsby that appeared Aug. 1 in the Long Beach and Southeast sections of The Times said Grigsby was the only black employed by the Long Beach Library Department for more than two decades, beginning in 1942. Grigsby was one of several blacks working in the department, he said this week.
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