Rebecca Craft and the Woman’s Civic League
By Gail Madyun
Former Public Information Officer
San Diego Historical Society
WHEN World War II ended, revelers spilled onto Broadway in downtown San Diego to celebrate the victory. But the celebrations were just as joyous on Imperial Avenue, the center of San Diego’s African-American community.
The war had wrought many changes within the black population of San Diego. Its numbers had increased from 1,190 in 1920 to 4,413 in 1940.1Much of this increase was due to the military and war-related industry. Prior to 1942 there were less than a dozen blacks in the Navy, and the highest rank they could hold was steward. By 1945 the presence of black soldiers, sailors and members of the famous 10th Cavalry had become commonplace on Imperial Avenue.2
One individual who significantly altered the quality of life for African-Americans in San Diego in the first half of this century was Rebecca Craft. An examination of her life and work reveals much about the life of blacks in those years.
Rebecca Craft came to San Diego with her husband, John, from her birthplace, Versailles, Kentucky in 1910. In the thirty-five years that she lived here, she fought to break the walls of racial discrimination in the schools and the police force; she founded a women’s civic organization which still exists today more than fifty years since its founding; and she worked to better the lives of San Diego youth of all races.
When John and Rebecca Craft moved to the city they lived in Logan Heights in Southeast San Diego. John worked as a janitor at the courthouse and later had his own cleaning business, Crafty Cleaning Company. But when the Depression hit in the 1930s, the Crafts both worked for W. Murray and Virginia Smith in Lemon Grove.3 Later John went into the real estate business.
Rebecca was a retired teacher from an all-black school in Kentucky. She had been graduated from Kentucky State College and did post-graduate work in Chicago.4 But because of her race, she was not able to teach in San Diego. She, like the majority of African-Americans in San Diego before World War II, was employed in a service or labor job.
In those years, African-Americans were denied full participation in San Diego—economically, politically and socially. Public transportation was not segregated, but blacks were denied seating at many restaurants and could sit only upstairs in the balcony sections of theatres. There were no “White Only” or “No Colored” signs in San Diego as in the southern states, but it wasn’t until 1931 when Congressman Oscar DePriest of Chicago visited San Diego that the Grant Hotel would admit African-American guests.5 Blacks could not catch a cab, nor could the city’s black-owned cab company pick up a fare outside the Logan Heights area. But despite these exclusions, Rebecca Craft and others like her maintained an adamant sense of self-pride while working to better her community and bring about social change. Although Rebecca Craft had no children of her own, her sister, Esther Steppe, and her three young sons, Thomas, Andrew and Cecil, lived with the Crafts. The youngest son, Cecil, described his aunt’s household:
“At my house on a Saturday, we were required to do a lot of work. I remember those big, beautiful purplish velvet drapes and having to clean the Venetian blinds. We had to open up and air out the house and polish silver.
“We always had a sit-down dinner on Sunday with cloth napkins. And you had to come to the table dressed. It was a very cultured thing. We (the boys) just didn’t go into the living room unless there were guests, nor did we go through the front door.”6
The Craft home was located on Imperial Avenue, a well-cared for middle-class neighborhood of African-American and Americans of Mexican, Italian and Japanese descent. Mrs. Craft took great pride in her home. She named the walkway from the house to the street “Felicity Lane.” The lane was bordered by a shrub-lined yard. Lively conversations on politics and social topics filled the Craft home. Active in Democratic Party politics, Mrs. Craft could not ignore the larger world around her, and she was eager to gain greater participation in that world for her race. The Crafts hosted fund-raising gatherings in their home for Helen Gahagan Douglas and other politicians. She also pushed for more jobs and fair housing legislation.7
Jasper Davis was a dishwasher at the La Jolla Country Club in the late 1920s. When he came to San Diego from the Imperial Valley, he had wanted to become a dentist. Because of the expense, that career was beyond his reach, but he was also attracted to a career as a police officer. The San Diego Police Department had only one black officer, John Cloud, on the force at that time. Davis watched the ads in the newspaper and took the qualifying test. He placed twenty-fourth on the eligibility list, but he was repeatedly passed over when appointments were made. When Davis went to see Chief Arthur Hill about it, Hill discouraged him.8
At this time, Rebecca Craft, who was an active member and later president of the San Diego chapter of the National Association of Colored People, and Dennis Allen, president and founder of the San Diego Race Relations Society, became interested in increasing the number of city jobs for blacks, especially on the police force. Mrs. Craft, Allen and others went to the police chief numerous times to try to convince him to hire other blacks.
“If it’s left with me, there’ll never be a nigger on the police force in San Diego,” the chief said, according to Nancy Terry who was with Mrs. Craft on one of their visits. “After that we went wild,” Terry said. She said they drew up a petition, went to the churches, the city council, the mayor, and other leaders to pressure the police department.9 The campaign included daily telephone calls to the police chief. For a year, the pressure continued. Then a special meeting was held at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Front Street by Allen’s Race Relations Society. A Los Angeles attorney, Hugh McBeth, was the invited speaker, and the mayor and the chief of police were invited guests.
McBeth spoke about racial equality, and several days later Davis received a call from the civil service board at his job at the country club. Would he be able to take a position on the police force? On March 3, 1931, Davis was hired. Davis said Hill later told him that McBeth’s speech had inspired his change of heart.
When Davis joined the force, he encountered prejudice from his fellow officers. Some retired early rather than serve with him. Others wouldn’t ride with him on patrol, so Davis began by manning the police radio which he operated for two-and-a-half years. Despite the opposition, Davis stayed with the department and served for twenty-three years.
On Twenty-Ninth and Clay Streets in Southeast San Diego, there is a one-story, concrete meeting hall down the street from the large Bethel Baptist Church where Rebecca and John Craft were active members. The hall is the meeting place for the Women’s Civic League and bears an inscription outside to its founder and its first president, “Rebecca Craft (1934-1945).” Craft organized the Women’s Civic League in 1934 to serve Logan Heights and the larger San Diego community. She believed strongly in the importance of education. Calling a meeting in her home, she and sixteen other women formed the league. They wanted to help and encourage young people, so they began by raising scholarships.
An early league program listed the group’s stated purpose:
“The purpose of our league is to study, to work, and to act. Study the science of government, in our effort to overcome some of the cloudy viewpoints as they effect (sic) us in civic affairs. To work out some of our internal problems through a constructive programe (sic). And to act concertedly and intelligently upon facts.”
The regular meetings were held once a month, and membership was one dollar.
In the mid-1930s, before social service agencies and government assistance programs, the Women’s Civic League collected canned goods, bedding, clothes and household goods for needy families or those who had lost their homes in fires or other disasters. The League soon purchased a surplus war hut on Clay Street to store their provisions and hold meetings. When fire destroyed this building in the 1940s, the League bought a house and moved it onto the lot.10
Jeannette Branin, a San Diego Union reporter writing about the Women’s Civic League in 1975, described its members in these words: “Long before the statement ‘never underestimate the power of a woman’ became popular, it was well understood by the mayor, the city council, the board of education, and the police department of this city; they had learned it from a vocal and exceptionally persistent group of women from Southeast San Diego.”11
The list of league projects is lengthy. It has: worked to have signals and street lights installed in Southeast San Diego; furnished two bedrooms at the “Door of Hope,” a facility for unwed mothers; sponsored Little League teams; raised funds for sickle cell anemia research; and organized neighborhood clean-up campaigns in Logan Heights. In 1975 with $29,200 of its own funds matched by a $50,500 Model Cities federal grant, the Women’s Civic League built a new building on its Clay Street property (2972 Clay). The group holds its monthly meetings there and rents it to other organizations for meetings and social functions.12
At the most, the League has had about sixty members, with approximately twenty of them active at any given time. In its fifty-two years, it has had only seven presidents.
Mrs. Craft’s interest in local affairs, and her efforts plus the work of other League members on the Jasper Davis issue brought the League into the struggle for equal opportunities in its early years. In 1937 the League began work on its most politically important accomplishment—the campaign to have the first African-American teacher hired in the San Diego City Schools.
Several African-American students were educated at San Diego State College in preparation for teaching careers. Henrietta Goodwin was graduated from the school in the early 1920s when it was known as the Normal College. However, she like those who came after her, was hired only as a substitute teacher in the San Diego City Schools.13
Lorraine Van Lowe graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from San Diego State College in 1933 and was hired as a teacher and forum leader in the Emergency Education Program Writers’ Project and as an adult-education teacher for the San Diego City Schools. She left San Diego in 1939 with a loan and scholarship from the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority to study for her master’s degree in personnel and guidance at Columbia University.14
When she returned to San Diego in 1941, the Women’s Civic League, directed by Mrs. Craft, was in the midst of a campaign to have a black teacher hired. For four years the League lobbied the board of education and sent down qualified black candidates: Thelma Gorham Thompson and Louise Robinson were both San Diego State College graduates; Henrietta Freeman (Lorraine Van Lowe’s aunt) had taught in Texas, the Imperial Valley and in the San Diego Adult Education Program; and Octavia Payne Coleman had also taught in the Imperial Valley.15
By the early 1940s San Diego City Schools were facing an influx of students because of the war industries and military located here. In 1941 alone, 7,000 new students entered schools in San Diego, an 18.9 percent increase over the previous year.16 At the same time, some teachers had been called away to military service. This teacher shortage, coupled with the persistent effort of Mrs. Craft and the Women’s Civic League, forced the board of education and Will C. Crawford, superintendent, to review school hiring practices. On July 21, 1942, Lorraine Van Lowe was hired on probationary status as an English and social studies teacher at Memorial Junior High.17
There was little publicity when she began working, primarily to avoid angering parents. The staff and principal, William J. Oakes, accepted Van Lowe without much difficulty, and many of her fellow teachers remembered her as a student there and at Franklin Elementary School. She attributed her smooth adjustment to Oakes’ support. He shielded her from the few parents who voiced opposition to her being hired. But her greatest praise was reserved for Rebecca Craft:
“I shall never forget Mrs. Rebecca Craft who has meant so much in my life, and I shall always be grateful to the valiant ladies of the Women’s Civic League for their persistent and effective efforts.”18
Mrs. Craft’s concern for education did not end with the hiring of Van Lowe. She continued to be active in the Parent Teachers Association, and she worked for a better school curriculum and the removal of racially offensive literature from the school libraries and textbooks. An active supporter of youth programs at her church, Bethel Baptist, she believed her work in the church was an important part of her life.
When World War II began, Mrs. Craft became a dedicated volunteer in the war effort. She started a victory garden to grow vegetables which were then in short supply because of the internment of the Japanese-American farmers who had grown one-third of California’s produce.19
Mrs. Craft also served as a sector warden in her neighborhood. Wearing a tin helmet and an armband, she checked that all lights were out during black-out drills. She volunteered at the Travelers’ Aid station at the Santa Fe Depot.20 And she started a “Big Sisters to Servicemen” group at her church.
The minister, Rev. Charles Hampton, called upon church members to invite servicemen to their homes for meals, especially on Sundays. There were numerous cavalrymen from Camp Lockett, sailors and Marines in town on leave. Mrs. Craft joined the USO committee to work for more recreational activities for these military men. She met and worked with William B. Payne, director of the San Diego Negro USO. Mrs. Craft counseled soldiers, read to them, made ice cream sodas and planned dances and parties.21
In 1942 she worked as a parachute packer for the Pacific Parachute Company on Market Street. The company was owned by pilot and parachute tester Howard “Skippy” Smith, and it was financed by Eddie Anderson, the Hollywood actor who created the “Rochester” character for the Jack Benny Show. Smith’s venture was one of the most ambitious entrepreneurial endeavors by an African-American in San Diego up to that time.22
After Lorraine Van Lowe was hired, other African-Americans were given positions in San Diego schools. William B. Payne, who left his job at the Negro USO, was offered a contract to teach at Pacific Beach Junior High School in 1945. But unlike the relatively quiet acceptance of Van Lowe, Payne’s hiring drew a much-publicized confrontation between the district’s administration and parents. A small group wanted Payne to resign immediately. But Superintendent Crawford defended the newly-hired Payne: “In choosing teachers neither race nor religion is ever considered. We teach democracy in our schools and try to practice democracy in our employment policies.”23
The dissenting parents sent a wire of protest to the state board of education, arguing that there were only five to six Negro students at the school. But the San Diego school board upheld Crawford’s decision. It said no San Diego school had a Negro enrollment which exceeded the enrollment of other races. School board vice-president, Mary L. Fay, said, “The whole problem started years ago and is just catching up with us, and we’re going to have to meet it sooner or later and it had better be sooner.”24
Payne’s credentials were impressive. A native of Virginia, he was a graduate of the Sorbonne University in Paris, and he taught French and Spanish literature at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama where his students included writer Ralph Ellison.
Payne taught at the Pacific Beach Junior High, later transferred to San Diego High where he taught for twenty-three years, and joined the administration at San Diego City College and San Diego State University.
In the fall of 1945, Mrs. Craft invited Dr. Crawford to a special Sunday afternoon service at Bethel Baptist Church to acknowledge and thank him for his support of Payne.25 This service was one of her last efforts. She was in poor health, and after her long battles against racial injustice, she was losing a physical battle against cancer. She died quietly in a San Diego hospital on December 6, 1945 at age fifty-eight.
(Composed by League member, Maude Hicks)
Be ye not afraid of dying,
Life is made sweet by rightly striving
Courage to face and challenge wrong.
“In the midst of things” it’s our
Women’s Civic League
In the midst of things
Join with us to make life worth living,
It makes for power when all are giving.
Courage to face and challenge wrong,
“In the midst of things,” it’s our
Women’s Civic League
In the midst of things
1. United States Census, 1940
2. Interview by author with Logan Heights pioneer Fonzie Thomas, March, 1982
3. Interview by author with San Diego pioneer Virginia Smith, March, 1983
4. San Diego Union, June 9, 1975, column by Jeannette Branin
5. Fonzie Thomas, Interview
6. Interview by author with Cecil Steppe, May, 1982
8. Interview by author with Jasper Davis, March, 1983
9. Interview by author with Nancy Terry, February, 1983
10. Interview by author with League member, Maggie Wilson, February, 1983
11. Branin, San Diego Union
12. San Diego Union, February 23, 1975, 17:3-4
13. “Black Pioneers in San Diego, 1880-1920” by Larry Malone and Gail Madyun, The Journal of San Diego History, Spring 1981
14. Letter to author by Lorraine Van Lowe, May, 1981
16. San Diego Union, September 3, 1941
17. “Blacks in Education in San Diego,” unpublished manuscript by Robert L. Matthews, San Diego History Center
18. Van Lowe, Letter
19. San Diego Union, April 3, 1983, “During WWII, The Will To Win Even Filled Local Gardens” by Arthur Ribbel
20. Cecil Steppe, Interview
21. Interview by author with William Payne, April, 1983
22. Graphic Magazine, September, 1942, article by Harold Keen
23. San Diego Union, September 7, 1945, “Hiring of Negro Teacher Defended” 11:4-5
24. San Diego Union, October 17, 1945, “1900 Beach Dwellers Insist on Negro Teacher’s Removal” 5:5-6
25. William Payne, Interview
THE PHOTOGRAPH on page 31 is from the San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection.