Black People Find Pasadena to Be an Island of Opportunity

The Washington Post

After 75 years in which only white faces could be found amid the multicolored flowers of the famous New Year’s Day parade, a few frustrated black Pasadenans decided to take a stand. A dozen men planned to chain themselves across Colorado Boulevard and stop the Tournament of Roses Parade in its tracks.

But word got out, recalled Henry C. Wilfong, one of the conspirators. Threats that police or white Pasadenans would beat up any demonstrators at the parade discouraged the plotters, and their planned protest withered away--one more occasion when the old and distinguished black community of this tree-lined city decided to avoid violent confrontation.

Effort Finally Pays Off

That was 20 years ago, at the height of the civil-rights movement. Today, despite nagging problems of poverty and crime, the black people who make up more than 20% of Pasadena’s population of 126,600 have reached a moment where their patience and low-key maneuvering appear to them finally to have paid off.


They have one of the seven seats on the city Board of Directors, the equivalent of a city council. The new police chief is black. Blacks are appearing on the city’s appointed commissions. New local regulations are bringing business to black subcontractors and laborers.

Two years ago, the tradition-bound Tournament of Roses Assn. selected a black woman as Rose Queen, a nationally televised reminder that Southern California is populated by more than white people.

Widespread Anger

There is anger and frustration among blacks in big-city America over the apparent insensitivity of the Reagan Administration, the chronic unemployment of their young people and the reluctance of white voters to give blacks’ problems high priority. But in this California suburb, as in similar communities where blacks with enough money to leave the big urban ghettos have gathered, hope and confidence hold sway.

The story of Pasadena’s black community undermines many of the cliches about American race relations. It provides a reminder that the mixture of attitudes and emotions among black Americans is as rich and varied as in any other segment of the population.

The Pasadena story suggests that black communities may be cautious and conservative for the same reasons as white communities. Enjoying both stability and measurable economic success (black family income here is 11% above the national median), most of Pasadena’s blacks see no reason to lash out at others or to rock the boat.

Land of Opportunity

“The opportunities are, I think, much greater here in Pasadena than in a whole host of different places,” said James M. Robenson, the gregarious 44-year-old who heads a police department whose black-officer corps has jumped from 2% to 17% of the force in two decades. “I think Pasadena is really one of those model communities . . . where your limitations really have to do with you.”


Pasadena’s blacks have many opinions about what has brought them to this state of mind, which is noticeably different from what Washington Post reporters have found in Detroit and Atlanta. It could be the city’s manageable size--small enough to make a cross-town school bus trip only 15 minutes long, for example. It could be the original black settlers’ origins--they were servants and gardeners on Pasadena’s old estates and often absorbed the conservative views of their employers.

It could be their pride in the attractiveness of their community, the economic success of many of its members and the unusual longevity of many families here, creating a consciousness of history that is as strong in the black community as in the white.

It could be the receptivity to change of significant portions of the white community, beginning with the anti-slavery views of the Midwesterners who founded this place and continuing with the middle- and upper-income professionals who are now drawn to Pasadena as an oasis of tradition, family life and foothill vistas away from the flat sprawl of Los Angeles.

Not that Pasadena is a racially becalmed paradise. Although a considerable number of black families live among whites, most of the black community is physically separate; the poor and the affluent live close together. Welfare families inhabit two-story stucco apartment buildings near the run-down Fair Oaks Avenue corridor. A few blocks away, two-career professional families own the old frame houses with big porches so dear to Pasadena’s preservationists. In the newer subdivisions farther north, many well-off blacks live in more modern California ranch-style houses.

Tensions are visible, for example, in the community’s attitude toward school desegregation, which has resulted in a decline in white enrollment from 70% of the total to about 25%. “There aren’t nearly the number of white students you would expect from the white population of the city,” said Francine Greer, a Los Angeles teacher who moved to Pasadena from Pittsburgh seven years ago. “It amazes me.”

But Pasadena is far different from communities in the East with substantial black populations. A visitor from Washington is struck by the number of interracial couples in the area. Blacks here, particularly the more successful among them, make it clear in conversation that they feel at ease in Pasadena. “We’re not a black community,” said Ruby McKnight Williams, a legendary activist who in 1930 was the first white-collar black employee of the city government. “We’re an integrated community.”

Pasadena was founded exactly a century ago by Midwestern entrepreneurs, most of them anti-slavery Republicans (one of John Brown’s sons is buried here.) The area’s orchards, flowers and gorgeous view of the San Gabriel Mountains helped it become a popular resort area for the next few decades. Many blacks came to enjoy the climate and work in the mansions, hotels and bustling railroad station.

African Church Roots

The First African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1888, followed by Friendship Baptist and other black houses of worship. New groups like the Afro-American League, also founded in 1888, and a black newspaper, The Enterprise, added to the sense of community and focused attention on a series of racial incidents. A white streetcar worker was shot by a black in a dispute over a few coins in 1903, leading to an attempt to bar blacks from all local restaurants.

Still, the city continued to attract blacks for the same reasons it drew whites. It was a pleasant place to live in a state where economic and social opportunities were growing. Stephen H. Mack, the 66-year-old president of the Pasadena chapter of the NAACP, said his father came to take up landscape gardening work here after leaving St. Louis over a dispute in his church. “Nobody could raise sweet peas like he could,” Mack said.

Black-white confrontations were rare. “Those people who came here, like my parents, tended to go along with what white people did,” said Elbie J. Hickambottom, 61, a retired Army officer who is president of the city school board and its only black. “The white folks were pretty good to some of those people, actually sending some of their kids to college. So blacks had maybe that old slave-master mentality.”

Still a Minority

The delights of rich soil, sweet weather and generous neighbors could not disguise forever the problems of a small minority in a white-run city. The city’s NAACP chapter began in 1919, one of the first in the state. Insults to black Pasadenans continued. The public swimming pool at Brookside Park was open to blacks only once a week--on “International Day,” just before its weekly cleaning. NAACP lawyers sued, but the practice continued until 1944.

Matthew (Mack) Robinson, older brother of baseball star Jackie Robinson, was also an outstanding Pasadena athlete and placed second to Jesse Owens in the 200-meter run at the 1936 Olympics. Returning here after two years of college in Oregon, however, the only city job he found open to him was cleaning sewers. “I looked forward to a hero’s welcome,” he said, “but the family greeted me and that was basically it.”

Jackie Robinson’s success as the first black in major league baseball in 1947 pleased the many Pasadenans who had seen him grow up. (A Little League and softball park in the black community bears his name.)

Black Areas Took Shape

Court victories on housing discrimination helped blacks seek homes beyond their base northwest of city hall, although whites usually fled those areas, creating the usual expanding black neighborhood.

Pasadena’s black community grew steadily after World War II. The civil rights movement in the South inspired community leaders here to step up pressure for more jobs and political influence, but the habits of eight decades kept protests small and discouraged stark confrontations like the planned Rose Parade protest.

Blacks found many whites bewildered, but trying to adjust. When Robenson, now the police chief, arrived here from Illinois in 1964 to join the force, he slammed a white officer against a locker after the man used the word “nigger.” “He was flabbergasted,” Robenson said. “No one had ever told him that was unacceptable.”

Both black and white Pasadenans point to the desegregation of schools as the beginning of a major change in race relations. Race was no longer something to be discussed behind closed doors. As in most cities, school desegregation was a hotly debated issue.

Court-ordered busing began in 1970 after several parents filed suit against the Pasadena Unified School System. In a way, the suit itself reflected black Pasadenans’ spirit of accommodation instead of confrontation; two of the three sets of parents who filed the suit were white.

Compared to the turmoil surrounding busing in larger cities, the integration of schools in Pasadena went reasonably smoothly. But desegregation did produce “white flight.” Some white parents put their children in private schools. La Canada Flintridge, a small, predominantly white neighboring community, pulled out of the school district, leaving the school board with an even harder task of reapportionment.

The school board’s Hickambottom said: “The board couldn’t scrap the desegregation plan because it was the law, but they spent millions of dollars taking the matter back to court. . . . They dragged their feet.”

A Mood Problem

Hickambottom was elected to the board seven years ago and had children in the public school system when it began to desegregate. He said: “I think it was the mood set by that board and the racist people in this community that have kept integration from working. We’ve desegregated the schools, but meaningful integration has never taken place. I’m not satisfied with the progress minority students are making. I want to get more people of color on the school board. We need an outreach program to attract more black teachers and principals, particularly black males, and I want to see the board willing to spend money on special-needs programs.”

The school board that tried to frustrate integration was voted out of office, replaced by one that Hickambottom called “liberal.” He said he is now counting on increased black activism to help improve school programs for minorities. Two months ago, representatives of black churches, sororities, fraternities and civil rights organizations formed the Black Coalition on Education, which Hickambottom refers to as “a first in the history of blacks in Pasadena.”

“That’s going to help get things done,” he said. “The board reacts to pressure. Recently, I got some things done on that board and I know it was because 20 people from that group came down here.”

Black Principal

Jean Mills, one of Pasadena’s 11 black principals (about one-third of the total), is also excited about the formation of the coalition. But when asked if black children receive the same quality of education as white children in Pasadena, she laughed.

“I’m not going out there on that limb,” she said. “I do feel there is a sincere commitment among this board and the new superintendent to see that every child receives a quality education.

“Unfortunately, we had to integrate the system to assure the education of all children. If I had been given up-to-date tools and equipment, I would have been very satisfied teaching in an all-black school.”

“Not too very long from now, we could be back to the same segregated school system we had 10 to 12 years ago,” Hickambottom said. “We now have some schools close to 90% minorities, and there is nothing we can do about it.

“In fact, my attitude is I’m not sure I want to do anything about it. We went through the court order. We tried. It really hasn’t worked because the majority didn’t want it to work. Now I say let’s move ahead with the educating of our kids, providing the best possible education.”

High Dropout Rate

Conditions in the public schools concern black Pasadenans. The minority dropout rate is high, and parents complain of drug use. Shelbi Wilson, a 16-year-old senior at Pasadena High School, said many students at her school drive expensive cars bought with money made from selling drugs, particularly cocaine.

The most successful black public figure in Pasadena has been Loretta Thompson-Glickman, a tall high school English teacher and former singer with the New Christy Minstrels. She was chosen the city’s mayor by fellow members of the city board in 1982 and served a standard two-year term.

Born in New York, she had been adopted in infancy by a live-in handyman and domestic whose families had been in Pasadena for some time. She was active in the church and in the fight for school desegregation, and she was critical of the first black elected to the Pasadena board--Henry Wilfong, one of those who contemplated disrupting the Rose Parade a generation ago. Wilfong, a Republican, had become increasingly conservative over the years, and Thompson-Glickman thought he was out of step with the black community. In 1977, when seven months pregnant, she ran against him.

The campaign included harsh words about her white husband. “Many times I sat on my back porch and cried,” she said. But she beat Wilfong by a 3-to-1 vote and still has a seat on the board.

Thompson-Glickman recalled that “many people were very surprised a black woman was mayor of Pasadena. And then, a black woman who can speak, or as people used to say, ‘Oh, you read that so well, you spoke so well.’ ”

Members of Pasadena’s black middle class, of which Thompson-Glickman is a leading heroine, say the next frontier is economics. As individuals, they appear to have a head start on inner-city blacks, enjoying a markedly higher standard of living, on the average. This is one reason why they seem more optimistic about the future than their urban counterparts.

“Economic Freedom: Victory Through Unity” was the theme this year for the third annual Martin Luther King Banquet, sponsored by the Black Business Assn. of Pasadena-Altadena.

“We are going to have to do some things on purpose, like spending our money in the black business community,” said the association’s president, Lawrence C. Gamell.

Ku Klux Klan

Gamell, one of the area’s most successful black entrepreneurs, owns two beauty supply stores, one in Altadena and another in Pasadena. When he opened his beauty supply business in Altadena seven years ago, he found a calling card from the Ku Klux Klan stuck in the door.

“When I first went out, I wasn’t accepted in the white salons. They wouldn’t buy from me,” he said. “But more blacks have moved in and become a part of the community. After several years of having black neighbors, a black business next door and maybe even going to church with blacks, whites began to accept blacks.” Now Gamell sees white salons hiring black operators to attract black clients.

When Gamell decided to close his Los Angeles insurance agency and open the first beauty supply store, he faced a common problem: finding someone to lend him the money he and his wife needed to launch the business. To get funds, he had to take out a second mortgage on his house.

Help From Japan

Gamell said black entrepreneurs here have found support lately from an unexpected quarter: Japanese-owned banks. “They seem to be more receptive to doing business with us,” he said.

Black businesses received a boost from city regulations, adopted while Thompson-Glickman was mayor, requiring firms receiving large city contracts to maintain a minimum percentage of black employees and subcontractors. Marvin Greer, 36, vice president of a real estate investment firm in Los Angeles, keeps an eye on the enforcement of those requirements as a member of the Pasadena Community Development Committee, which must approve all city contracts over $20,000.

“There is more behind-the-scenes movement than forefront movement among blacks in Pasadena,” Greer said. “A lot of blacks don’t have time to be active, but a few of us do. We do it for various reasons--for exposure, to make a change, to get our personal goals satisfied, whatever. But what is deep down with all those reasons is to make sure there is a change for blacks in Pasadena.