2002 - Volume 33, Issue 1
Redevelopment & Black Historic Preservation
By Karen L. Huff
Black history in San Diego can be traced as far back as the Mexican period when blacks were found in all levels of society. In fact, Pio Pico, the last governor of California under Mexican rule was of African descent. Pioneering black Americans like John Brown and Allen Light also settled in Mexican San Diego.
Soon after San Diego became a part of the United States, California entered the union a free state, and the black population grew and prospered. This is evident as Henry H. Brown, a black man, was living and operating a business at 5th and K Street during the 1870's. Other businesses soon opened and by the 1880's there were black owned restaurants, laundries, and rooming houses signaling the development of a black neighborhood. A community of ill repute was right around the corner complete with crap houses and "resorts." The San Diego Police Department eventually branded it "Dark Town."
By the mid-1920's, jazz was ripening, and San Diego‚s downtown black community had redefined itself. Respectable establishments like the Douglas Hotel and Creole Palace were playing host to leading jazz performers. If you visited during that time you might have seen Joe Louis' vehicle parked on Market Street as he indulged in the community now known as Harlem of the West.
The Douglas Hotel and Creole Palace were demolished in 1985, removing the heart of the historic community. By 1990, redevelopment had wiped out most of the sites associated with African Americans in the downtown area.
Segregation necessitated the development of a downtown black community. The Clermont Hotel is one such example; it personifies the era. Touted as a "Hotel for Colored People," it was also slated for the wrecking ball. But in 1999, the descendants of Harlem of the West fought back with a vengeance. In 2001, a battle was won with the designation of the hotel as a historic landmark. The struggle to preserve what remains of the community continues with no end in sight. The Gaslamp Black Historical Society will continue to defend what's left. Hopefully, preservation will once again prevail.
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