Should you walk through downtown San Diego’s East Village in the vicinity of 14th and J Streets, you might be attracted to several large yellow panels along the sidewalk. This proud display of public art at Lillian Place was raised to commemorate how African-Americans have played an important role in building our diverse and beautiful city.
The artwork is titled “A San Diego African-American Legacy” and represents African-American contributions to San Diego’s development and rich history.
Here’s a large portion of the text contained on the panels:
People of African decent were present in San Diego as early as the establishment of Presidio de San Diego in 1769, and played a role in settling the area now known as Old Town.
In the later decades of the 1800s, African-Americans began emigrating to Horton New Town, San Diego’s present-day downtown, relocating primarily from the southern US.
Religious institutions were, and continue to be a cornerstone of the African-American community. In 1887, the African Methodist Episcopal Church became the first organized African-American congregation in downtown San Diego, followed soon after by Calvary Baptist and Bethel AME. At the same time, African-American social and civic groups like the Violet Club, Acme Social Club and Fidelity Lodge #10 of the Prince Hall Masons became important organizations in the community.
San Diego was once the center of a thriving jazz, blues, and gospel music scene. The Creole Palace at the Douglas Hotel and the Crossroads Jazz Club were just two of the spots that hosted local and national talent playing to mixed audiences.
African-Americans have always played a major role in amateur and professional sports in San Diego. Local favorite Archie Moore fought at the city Coliseum as did other champions. San Diegan John Ritchey became the first black player in the Pacific Coast League when he was signed as a catcher to the then minor league padres in 1948.
The entrepreneurial spirit of the African-American community flourished through the 20th century with doctor’s offices, hotels and clubs, barbers and beauty parlors, cafes and restaurants, ice cream parlors, laundries, jewelers and pool halls that served the African American community as well as other San Diegans.
During World War II, African-American stunt pilot and businessman Howard Skippy Smith owned the Pacific parachute Company factory on 8th Avenue. Named the Top Black Owned Business in the United States in 1943, Mr. Smith operated an integrated work place that reflected the ethnic and racial diversity of wartime San Diego.
On this block of J Street, African-American Lillian Grant owned multiple buildings, offering rooms to an ethnically mixed clientele during the time of segregation. Next door at the corner of 14th and J Streets sat the Vine/Carter Hotels. Known as the colored hotels, it was owned and operated by African-Americans Alonzo and Katie Carter from the 1930s to the 1950s.