A Pioneer of Black Los Angeles
One unforeseen consequence of Los Angeles’ current preoccupation with its new multiculturalism is a tendency to forget just how prominent people of color were among the city’s social and economic pioneers.
At the turn of the century, for example, John Alexander Somerville became not only the first black to graduate from USC’s School of Dentistry, but also one of Los Angeles’ leading property developers and civic activists.
In 1902, after failing an exam for a university scholarship in his native Jamaica, the 20-year-old Somerville sailed to San Francisco. The Bay Area’s physical beauty thrilled him, but the man who grew up in one of the Caribbean’s most integrated cultures was unprepared for the harsh realities of American race relations.
Stunned after being denied food, shelter and employment because of his skin color, Somerville began looking for alternatives. He decided he had discovered one when he came across advertising photographs of Southern California’s orange groves arrayed against the majestic backdrop of snowcapped mountains.
Within months, the young immigrant had resettled in Southern California. After nearly two years of work in a bowling alley, Somerville saved $250 and enrolled in USC’s dental school. On his first day, his classmates threatened to resign unless he was dismissed. But the school stuck by him and eventually the controversy faded.
Somerville graduated first in his class in 1907, and subsequently passed the state dental board exam with the highest score recorded up to that time. He established a practice at 4th Street and Broadway, then the center of Los Angeles’ black business district.
Within a few years, he became a U.S. citizen, and shortly afterward bought his first home, at 1800 San Pedro St. By that time, he also had become the Chamber of Commerce’s first black member.
In 1912, Somerville married Vada Watson, who had also attended USC. Within a few years, she became the second black to graduate from USC’s dental school, and the first African American woman certified to practice dentistry in California.
In the first decade of this century, Los Angeles’ black population more than tripled, from 2,131 to 7,599. Although the 1910 census showed that 36.1% of black Angelenos owned their own homes, compared with 2.4% in New York City, discrimination and restrictive covenants were becoming increasingly common because of the influx of white workers from the South.
As more blacks moved into Los Angeles, steps were taken to confine them. Concerned about the overcrowding that resulted, the Somervilles founded the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in their living room in 1913.
After World War I, Los Angeles experienced a new influx of African Americans, and by 1920--when the city’s black population topped 18,000--the area’s housing shortage became acute.
To help meet the demand, Somerville built a 26-unit apartment house he called La Vada. It opened in 1925, the same year the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co.--then America’s largest black-owned business--opened at 14th Street and Central Avenue.
Because Los Angeles’ fashionable hotels were off-limits to blacks, Somerville followed his successful apartment venture by buying a site at 41st Street and Central Avenue and building the Hotel Somerville.
In June 1928, more than 5,000 people attended the hotel’s opening gala. Later that year it was the site of the NAACP’s first national convention on the West Coast. Musicians Duke Ellington and Count Basie, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, comedian Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and writers Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois were among the hotel’s frequent guests.
Within a few months, the property next door was purchased, and the legendary Club Alabam was built.
Somerville suffered badly in the stock market crash of 1929, and was forced to sell his hotel, which the new owners renamed the Dunbar after poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Under that name it remained the center of Los Angeles’ blues and jazz scene for more than two decades.
Somerville managed to recover his financial position and, within a few years, threw himself into political and civic activities. In 1936, he became California’s first black delegate to a Democratic national convention.
Thirteen years later, he not only published an autobiography--"Man of Color"--but also became the first black appointed to the Police Commission. In 1954, England’s Queen Elizabeth II declared him an officer of the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to Anglo-American relations.
In 1972, shortly after the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary, Vada Somerville died. John Somerville, by then 91, died a few months later.
An inscription emblazoned across a watercolor rendering of a sailing vessel that hung first in his office and later in his home exemplified his attitude toward life: “Do not wait for your ship to come in. Row out and meet it.”