Bittersweet Nostalgia : Housing Gains Disbanded Much of Santa Ana’s Black Community


On the walls of Mr. B’s barbershop are hundreds of fading photos of customers whose satisfied smiles pay tribute to the head barber’s mastery of naturals and bone cuts, flattops and fades.

Billy (Mr. B.) Kirby still savors the sweet memory of when those clients lined up 20 deep in the morning chill outside his shop to wait for a clip or banged on his front door to beg for a razor cut.

Today he and his son, “Dollar Bill” Kirby Jr., linger late in the mid-morning, patiently awaiting the arrival of the first $12 haircut.


Kirby’s warm, welcoming smile masks a certain wistfulness; his community of African Americans is vanishing and he knows it simply by looking beyond his striped barber’s pole.

During the 1960s and into the 1970s, Bristol Street was a solid invisible border that hemmed Orange County’s black population into a Santa Ana neighborhood of pastel bungalows and cottages variously nicknamed “Little Texas” or “the Rock.”

The color line was guarded by the gatekeepers of real estate agents and police officers who held the border against black residents foolish enough to rent a house, order a vodka tonic or cruise down a traffic circle in the wrong neighborhood.

By necessity, the segregated Santa Ana neighborhood became the cultural hub for black Orange County residents, bound together by churches, clubs, barbershops, beauty salons, and barbecue restaurants with the smoky tang of Texas--the home state for many black migrants.

“We were more together than we are now,” remembered Kirby, 55, a tall, lean, former Texan himself whose shaven head is covered by a brimmed hat. “There’s no black neighborhood any more. There’s 44,000 blacks in Orange County, but they’ve scattered all over. I remember when it was fun. We had two or three black nightclubs and people running for City Council. We had community meetings to discuss how to help our own people.”

Outside his window, clubs like the Greasy Spoon and Sneaky Pete’s have given way to a gleaming, flat-roofed shopping strip with offices labeled Clinica Medica. The Ghetto Record Shop, a Santa Ana institution specializing in gospel, jazz, funk and blues music, watched its customer base shift from an equal mix of black and Latino customers to a Latino majority. The trim bungalows and blooming rose bushes are tended by Latino families instead of the black residents who planted the garden patches decades ago.



Gone are the friendly rivals--the barbers at Kelly’s, Baxter’s and Emily’s--who would meet with Kirby most mornings for a cup of coffee and scissors solidarity. And gone are the black doctors and lawyers and teachers who began moving out as fair housing laws opened the borders of new neighborhoods in Orange County.

Even the shop that continued the smoky dynasty of Shaw’s barbecue moved out of Santa Ana last summer--to Irvine.

The exodus of Santa Ana’s historic black settlement has been building steadily since the the opening of housing opportunities in response to federal and state laws and pressure by local groups. While the population of blacks in Orange County has continued to grow, Santa Ana has been losing its share since the 1970s when the number of black residents crested at more than 8,000.

By 1980, the city’s proportion of the county’s black population had dwindled by almost half and that decline continued through 1990, dropping again by almost 20% to 7,594. The black student population in the Santa Ana Unified School District also peaked in the mid-1970s at nearly 10% and steadily dropped to 1.5% this year.

“The ghetto is a thing of the past,” said Lawrence B. de Graaf, a professor of history at Cal State Fullerton. “Once Santa Ana was a bastion of racism and exclusion, but by 1980 the population was dissipating to every corner in the county. And that continues to be a trend. That looks very positive, but it also has a deeper dimension. There’s a lack of a single community of African Americans here. From an integration point, there is something culturally and emotionally missing.”

The history of Santa Ana’s black community dates back to 1885 when a groom named Willis K. Duffy built a home in Santa Ana and later a reputation for himself as the barbecue king of Orange County.

By the 1920s, black home buyers were able to buy spacious, wooded lots in the southwest section of Santa Ana because whites were willing to sell properties to blacks in areas where neighbors did not live close by. The community grew along Bristol Street between 2nd and 4th streets, now Santa Ana Boulevard, and spread north and west.

Johnson Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal church with a trim steeple still rising along north Bristol Street, was the anchor of the neighborhood and a variety of black institutions blossomed nearby that drew the community together like a bright bouquet.

“It used to be the good old days,” remembered Angie Madden, who grew up in the Santa Ana neighborhood and still comes here from Anaheim on Sundays to worship at the Gospel Light Church of God in Christ, one of nearly 10 black churches in the city. “There was a closeness of people. It was like a family. You did things together. And if anything happened, the word would get out fast and everybody would support you. It was a community and we all came together.”

In those days, Jim Huff, the owner of the Ghetto Record store, could keep his shop open until 2 a.m when he would have to shoo out the young customers. Ninety-two-year old Leginia Gardner’s entire world revolved around Johnson’s Chapel, which now has a congregation dominated by commuter members from outside Santa Ana. J.J. King couldn’t walk down the broad sidewalks without greeting somebody he knew.

“My fondest memories are of when we were all working together on a political campaign,” said King, who left Santa Ana for Irvine. “We were trying to elect a school board member and the whole community was together. We sold food. We did a lot of letter writing. We rented equipment and had billboards. We were Democrats in a strong Republican bastion and we had to do it for survival.”

But his nostalgia for the past is balanced by realism. The community’s intimacy was imposed. With the borders closed, there was no where else to go.

When King returned from a stint in Vietnam with the Marines, he came to Orange County in the 1960s in search of a home to buy. “I was trying to find a place for my family and I wanted my daughter to go to a good school. I wanted to be part of the community. And when I went out to look for houses with a real estate agent, they would always come back to Santa Ana. We all knew what was going on. It was a gentleman’s agreement among the agents.”

It was just one of many informal social codes that everyone knew without reading a rule book. The Bristol Garden Club didn’t serve cocktails to black customers in the lounge, but they could buy beer at a take-out window. Expect delays on certain well-traveled Orange County roads where a black man would be stopped by police officers who asked certain basic “traffic” questions: What are you doing? Where are you going?

Barber Billy Kirby said the humiliations he has suffered through the years still makes his stomach ulcer ache. He said he remembers when police escorted him off the property of his newly purchased house in Santa Ana after white neighbors called to protest that he was lurking around the property. Kirby said the police told him to return when he had the documents proving the sale had happened.

Two weeks ago, Kirby said he felt the fury of his stomach ulcer. He said he was driving through Orange when he noticed a police officer trailing him. For 17 miles, he said he was followed until the officer stopped him and asked a pointed question: “Where are you going?”

“By coming from the South,” said Kirby, “I knew how to act. You just had to be humble. I was raised to cope with prejudice. It didn’t bother me too much because when you’re programmed or brainwashed or scared, you just take it all like an average person. Lot of people go to mental institutions, but black people have been wronged so long until you accept it. You don’t like it, but you accept it.”

By the early 1970s, the Orange County Fair Housing Council and other local institutions had started to move to battle red-lining and illegal attempts to exclude black residents from other neighborhoods. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 made housing discrimination a federal offense.

Even then, some of the leaders in the movement to open up housing to black home buyers knew it might mean the demise of their cohesive community. Back then, J.J. King was a member of the NAACP and a participant in the Fair Housing Council.

“We lost our power base,” King said. “A lot of our people could afford to move to better houses. The doctors, the lawyers, the administrators, the teachers--they were able to move. And once they got away from the fight, they took off their packs and started enjoying life like everyone else.”

“What would have happened if it hadn’t changed?” King asked. “We would still be down in that area. The change is for the better. It’s up to us to make things happen in the city that we live in. I worked very hard to get out of there.”

Dwindling Black Population

In 1970, two of every three blacks in the county lived in Santa Ana. Ten years later, that proportion was down to one in three and it now stands at about one in five.

* In Santa Ana

Percentage of county’s blacks living in Santa Ana:

1960: 56%

1970: 66

1980: 33

1990: 18

* In the Schools

The percentage of students in the Santa Ana Unified School District who are black has declined from a high near 10% to less than 2% today:

1969-70: 7.6%

1974-75: 9.5

1979-80: 6.8

1993-94: 1.5

Source: U.S. Census