A Talk with Bert Ritchey
April 1, 1996
William “Bert” Ritchey played an important role in the development of the black community in San Diego in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Born in San Diego in 1909, when his family was living at the southwest corner of Front and F Streets, Ritchey was an outstanding athlete and a star football player for San Diego High School in the 1920s.
Recruited as an athlete by several colleges, Ritchey chose the University of Southern California but was disappointed in his experiences with the football team there. He spent several years at USC but then struggled to find a decent job in Depression-era Southern California. He worked briefly for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and then joined the San Diego Police Department in 1935.
Ritchey enjoyed police work and continued in the department for 29 years, but in the 1950s he began studying law at night. He earned a law degree at California Western University in 1961 and passed the bar exam just after retiring from the police department in 1964. He joined Alpha M. Montgomery’s law office soon thereafter and practiced successfully for two decades, mainly in the black community.
Ritchey also made many contributions to the wider community, serving on the boards of Children’s Hospital, the YMCA, and the original San Diego Stadium Authority, among others. Bert Ritchey died in San Diego in 1995.
Leonard Knight conducted the following interview on April 4, 1985, for the Oral History Program of the San Diego History Center. With research help from SDHC Archivist Rick Crawford, I have added a few notes and have edited the interview for continuity, coherence, and readability. The original text of the interview is available in the Oral History Collection of the San Diego Historical Society.
… Robert Carlton
LEONARD KNIGHT: I have the pleasure this morning of conducting an interview with Attorney Bert Ritchey. The date of this interview is April 4, 1985. Mr. Ritchey, tell us a little bit about your childhood in San Diego.
BERT RITCHEY: Well, I’m what they term a prunepicker. That means I was born in the City of San Diego. I originated on May 18, 1908 in a house located right on the corner of Front and F Streets, In those days Front and F was what you would call a residential area within the downtown sector. My family consisted of, beside myself, five sisters and four brothers. One, my oldest sister, Matilda, died some years ago.
My first school in this city was Franklin Elementary School, located at Union and F Streets in San Diego, I started there in kindergarten and went to about the third grade. From there we moved out to about the 3300 block on Arizona Street and I went to another elementary school until about the third grade, and then the family moved to East San Diego and I attended Edison Elementary School, and from there the family moved back down to the downtown area at 848 Eighth Street, and on their return to that address I attended Lincoln Elementary School until about the fifth and sixth grades, and then I transferred back to Franklin Elementary School, where I completed the eighth grade. From there, about 1924, I went to Memorial Junior High School.
KNIGHT: Memorial at that time had …
RITCHEY: That was the first year of its being. They completed the building of it in 1924. [Memorial began operation in September 1922 — KNIGHT.] So I started there in September of 1924. And after a year at Memorial, after graduation, I entered San Diego High School about September 1925.
At San Diego High School, of course, I became interested in athletics, played football, was on the track team, and upon graduation in June of 1927 I sent a Letter of Intent to go to the University of Southern California on a football scholarship.
RITCHEY: Of course, arriving at USC about the fifteenth of September in 1927, which, by the way, was the first time that I had ever been away from home, I was received by the officials at USC and registered for classes and everything appeared to be what I expected it to be.
But, shortly thereafter, things turned out to be quite a bit different. I, at that time, was considered at least second string, but I wasn’t invited to eat at the training table after practice and during the season that year. Although I was regarded as number two, I was given very little playing time and it appeared that I wasn’t expected to make a letter in football, and of course I didn’t. Then, the following year, my junior year, I joined a campus organization of black students, (there were probably about 12 or 14 black students in the whole university), and the committee was formed to attempt to enforce our rights in the student activities.
At that time, black students at the University of Southern California could only go to class. They couldn’t partake in any campus activities or any other kind of extracurricular activities that the school maintained, such as the band, the glee club, the Trojan Club, the Amazon Club. They were not welcomed in any of those activities, and, of course, blacks were not [generally] given any athletic scholarships in any type of athletics, they weren’t given any scholarships.
Later in my junior year I had occasion to talk to the head coach, Howard Jones, in his office, and the subject got around to black players, black football players, and he said that he was not interested in black players, in recruiting black players, and, of course, then I asked him “Well, what am I doing here?” He said, “Well, since we got you here we know you can’t hurt us by going somewhere else.”
KNIGHT: So the intent of recruiting you as a football player at USC was to make sure you wouldn’t play against them.
RITCHEY: That’s right, that’s right. That’s what I interpreted it to mean, and I also asked him, “Well, what about a few years ago, when you were in Iowa, you had a famous football player, a black player, that was an All-American at tackle? And he says, “Well, that was different. That was different, but I don’t want any black players now.”
So, this committee that we had formed, we had conferences with von Kleinschmidt, the president of the university. I don’t recall exactly what the issue was that we were addressing when we talked with him, but we didn’t get any place with von Kleinschmidt. The situation never changed.
KNIGHT: Did you have a specific list of grievances or recommendations that you wanted to enforce?
RITCHEY: Well, yes. One thing was being admitted into some of these campus organizations. That was one of the things, and there were several other things that I just don’t recall.
KNIGHT: Life must have been pretty lonely for a young black student on a campus like USC at that time.
RITCHEY: Well, it could have been if USC had been someplace else like, oh, say, like Stanford is to Palo Alto, or Berkeley is to Oakland-San Francisco, but the Los Angeles campus was within the big city, so therefore students didn’t have any problem in finding social activities away from campus, because when you left the campus you were in the city and you didn’t have to go very far to meet friends and acquaintances.
KNIGHT: How did you and your fellow black students at USC fare academically during those times?
RITCHEY: Well, I can’t recall any of those fourteen or fifteen black students that didn’t finish their courses.
I had a little problem once, That was in my junior year and it was after football practice that particular day I looked on the bulletin board. The game the following week was with Notre Dame at South Bend. Usually the first of the week they posted the names of the traveling squad on the bulletin board in the locker room, and I noticed my name was not there, although I was considered Number 2 man at my position. And the next day I was called by Bill Hunter who was the athletic director and also assistant coach of the football team, and he told me that there had been some problem with one of my courses and that I was ineligible and that I would not, therefore, be able to make the trip.
All right now, the football team left, in those days they traveled by train, and I think they left for South Bend Wednesday or Thursday, and then I think they returned the following Tuesday. Now the following Tuesday Bill Hunter contacted me and told me, “The problem with your grades has been rectified and so you are now eligible.”
At one time, let’s see, I think it was my junior year, we went to Pullman, Washington, played Washington State, and I was included on the traveling squad that game. Friday night before the game the alumni at Washington State, the Trojan Alumni — excuse me, the Trojan Alumni members living in the area of Pullman, Washington — hosted a dinner-banquet for the team on a Friday night in one of the hotels.
The student manager for the football team came up to my room and told me, as he squirmed around, I imagine it was pretty hard for him to tell me this, apparently he had been designated the one to tell me, but it took some time for him to tell me — the fact that I wasn’t wanted at the banquet, that I should go see a movie or something. He offered me something like $20.00, or something like that, to go to a movie and have a good time. I didn’t take the money. I wasn’t in the mood to go to a movie.
So, of course, I didn’t go and I didn’t raise any objection because I just felt that if they didn’t want me there then I sure didn’t want to be there. So I didn’t go. But it was just an example of racial prejudice, in those days you couldn’t say it was probable. It was possible.
KNIGHT: You talk a little bit about your stay at USC. What about your previous education, your elementary education at Franklin, Memorial, and Lincoln? How were you treated in San Diego before you became collegiate?
RITCHEY: I never noticed personally, when I was going through school, from elementary school through high school, any prejudicial action on the part of any school authorities here. When I was going to high school, I used to go down to the downtown YMCA often. Now I was the only black boy who was permitted in the YMCA’s policy excluded blacks.
KNIGHT: Where was the “Y” located?
RITCHEY: At Eighth and C.
KNIGHT: Oh, right where it is now.
RITCHEY: Yeah, where it is now. And, of course, they had a nice basketball court, a swimming pool, a nice running track, gymnasium. The high schools used to use the YMCA quite frequently, and that’s how I started going down there.
KNIGHT: Why do you think you were allowed and other blacks were not allowed at the “Y” in those days?
RITCHEY: Well, that’s difficult to say except that at that time when I was in high school I was well-known athletically and they just seemed to accept me. I never had anything happen while I was at the YMCA that would indicate there was any segregation, but [generally] this was a no-no for blacks.
KNIGHT: You mentioned that you were well-known athletically. What are some of your accomplishments as an athlete in the San Diego area?
RITCHEY: Well, I don’t know. That’s kind of hard to discuss. I had several scoring records. In those days I paid little attention to records, compared to the way that they pay attention to them now, recording the number of yards that you gained, percentages, the times you carried the ball, the number of touchdowns you made, all those things that are recorded today. They weren’t recorded in those days, at least to such an extent.
KNIGHT: I feel that you are being modest. I’ve had a chance to read some of those accounts and I’ve read a couple articles about some of your classmates who remember you as being a very powerful and awesome athlete, one when you got the ball in your hand, very few people wanted to get in your way. I know it’s difficult for you to comment.
RITCHEY: Well, it was said they had such articles in the newspapers but, as I say, I paid little attention to records. In later years when I happened to read something about some record that I had up there, you know it didn’t mean much to me. I played for the love of the game. But I did get a lot of — naturally when you’re well known, I guess, you get a lot of special favors. I used to get a lot of special favors of different kinds from the authorities, school authorities at the high school, and I enjoyed myself, in other words. While I was there on the football team, I was the only black on the high school football team, the only black.
KNIGHT: What about your parents, as you remember? Were they well noted in the community, or very involved?
RITCHEY: Well, my father was well-known in the downtown area because he worked for, let me see, what was the name, Stall’s Crockery Store, located at Sixth and C Street.
KNIGHT: Stall’s….. ?
RITCHEY: Stall’s Crockery Store. He worked there for many years, probably thirty years, and he was well-known in the downtown area.
KNIGHT: What did he do for the store?
RITCHEY: He was a janitor.
RITCHEY: In those days, as you know, if a black is working downtown he’s got to be a janitor. He couldn’t be anything else. There was nothing else offered to a black, and my father came here way back about 1900 from Louisville, Kentucky. His origination is rather sketchy because, when he was very young, he was put in a Catholic Charity Home in Louisville, and when he got out of there I think the name Ritchey came from a name he picked up from somebody that he was working for.
He started as a valet and then he was working for some army colonel who was retired and moved to California.
My mother, in the meantime, she came from, her father had a farm in Illinois, I don’t remember the county now, but somewhere in Illinois, the state of Illinois, he was a farmer. So he moved out to California, brought my mother with him, my mother and four children. My grandfather settled in La Jolla and, well, he had several acres around the area where the Bishop’s School for Girls is located.
KNIGHT: This was your grandfather on your mother’s side?
RITCHEY: Yes, grandfather, and the land on which the Bishop’s School is now sitting, he sold to the Bishop’s School.
KNIGHT: Is that right? That’s very interesting,
RITCHEY: And his land that he kept was just south of the Bishop’s School.
KNIGHT: Do you remember playing on your grandfather’s acreage?
RITCHEY: Oh, yeah, we used to go out there. We lived in the city, of course. We used to go out there at least every month. In those days we would go by train, catch the train at Fourth and Broadway, it was about a two-hour ride to La Jolla, and then sometimes my father would rent a horse and buggy, pack all the kids in it and with a lunch, and head for La Jolla. It would take five or six hours to drive out there.
KNIGHT: What kind of passage or throughway was there from the downtown area to the La Jolla area?
RITCHEY: There was a regular road.
It has changed a little bit from the road that’s presently between the rivers and freeways and things. Of course, it wasn’t in that kind of condition, but there was, you know, just an ordinary two- car lane going out to La Jolla, and we would go out there, as I say, once a month.
My grandmother died before he [grandfather] came out here and he remarried, so this was a stepgrandmother that he had here.
KNIGHT: I see.
RITCHEY: So he died about, I would say he died about 1908, and…
KNIGHT: Just about the time you were born?
RITCHEY: Yes, and he had an agreement with his wife that his property would be divided up amongst his children and [in] later years, [had] gotten all of her stepchildren to sign a waiver releasing their interest in the property. So her daughter came out here and the estate was administered and everything went to the daughter.
KNIGHT: That one daughter?
RITCHEY: Yeah, but, of course, now this information came to me thirty years later, longer than that, forty, fifty years later. These children didn’t know anything about their rights, what they were doing, so, they got nothing, and I understand this daughter sold this property. You can imagine that the property was worth quite a bit of money.
KNIGHT: So she in essence would have been the daughter that sold the property to the Bishop’s School for Girls?
RITCHEY: No, no, my grandfather did that.
KNIGHT: Do you remember your mother and father being active in the San Diego community?
RITCHEY: My mother was. Way back in about 1925 or something like that, she was one of those that started the Young People’s Community Center out at the 2800 block on Imperial Avenue. It was a community organization for the benefit of the young people in the Logan Heights community.
Because at that time there was a need for a place where youngsters could meet to have meetings and there was no such place in the area, in the community or in the city available for the black youths to have a place where they go to have parties, to have meetings of different organizations. So my mother was instrumental along with a lady by the name of Mrs. Dodge and several other ladies whom I can’t recall their names at the moment, but they formed this young people’s community association and it endured throughout the years. Now that was way back in 1924 that they formed a nonprofit, charitable corporation. I just dissolved that corporation here last year, in 1984, because there’s no need for it now. There’s a lot of places today where young people, the blacks in the community, hold meetings and have social affairs and so forth.
KNIGHT: With that type of organization in the community, what was the atmosphere in the black community in those years? What was Southeast San Diego like in those days?
RITCHEY: Well, I’ll tell you one thing. There wasn’t a congested neighborhood any place in those days as there is now. In those days blacks lived throughout the city. They lived downtown, say from Sixteenth to Twelfth Street — the only concentrated area was in the Logan Heights district from Thirtieth to Thirty-second, from Ocean View to Logan Avenue, a small area. I would say twenty-five or thirty families lived there and that was the most concentrated district, but there were blacks living all over, East San Diego, North Park. They lived all over, and your problem today of course stems from the fact that it’s a lot of people now in one area of blacks. You didn’t have that way back forty, fifty years ago.
KNIGHT: So there was a sprinkling of blacks throughout the city?
RITCHEY: Yeah, a sprinkling throughout the city.
KNIGHT: Can we take a leap forward in your life span a little bit, what encouraged you to become a San Diego police officer?
RITCHEY: Well, when I got out of school in 1932, USC, the depression had hit California and jobs were almost impossible. I didn’t do anything for probably six or eight months, got out of school and didn’t do a thing, and then I finally took a job driving about four hours a day for a retired businessman [in Los Angeles] by the name of Henry Frieber. I always remember, I didn’t work for him long but I always remember. And I got paid twelve bucks a week and I came down to San Diego one weekend to visit my folks and I happened to, while downtown I happened to run into the sheriff. It was Cooper, Henry Cooper, I think.
Cooper, he was a man that I had known for several years while I was in school here and he was the sheriff at that time, and he asked me what I was doing. I wasn’t doing anything. He said, “Well, if you want a job with the sheriff’s office, come down and see me.”
So I went back to Los Angeles and I didn’t have much thinking to do about the matter because anything was better than what I was doing, so I came down here the next week, talked to him, and he took me on as a deputy sheriff and started me in the jail. I said that I was just going to work for a period of a few months’ until I saved some money, then I was going back to L.A.
Well, after I was in the sheriff’s office about a year, the election came up and Cooper went out of office. That meant that just about everybody that worked for Cooper was displaced, so I was one of those that was displaced. In the meantime, about three months before I left the sheriff’s office, I had, just to accommodate a friend of mine, gone with him to file an application for the police department, because the Fair was starting up in 1935. May 1935 was the opening of the Fair here, and they were expanding the police department. I had no intention of being a policeman but I just went down there with this man and while I was there I filled out an application and then we got a call to take a test and I went down to take the test. Shortly after I left the sheriff’s office I went to work for the social welfare department as a case aid. I worked there for about four or five months and I got the call from the police department, so I took it because it paid more money than the welfare department.
But then after six months was up, probably in 1936, I decided I enjoyed what I was doing and I said, “Well, I’ll stay here for another few months. I’ll have that much more money saved.” Heh, heh, I kept saying that. After my time would be up I kept saying it, repeating, “Well, I’ll stay another few months,” and I worked at different jobs and I liked everything that I was assigned to. I liked what I was doing.
KNIGHT: What type of things did you do while you were on the police department? What type of work?
RITCHEY: Well, when I first went on I walked a beat for a few months but then, walking the beat in the area of downtown, I got in a little problem.
One night I was standing in front of the Ferris and Ferris Drug Store at Fifth and Market. A colored, a black feller ran out of the store and ran up to me and said, “The guy in the store is about to beat me up.” So I went in the store and he pointed to the man behind the counter of the soda fountain. They had a soda fountain in the drugstore at that time. This guy, a white feller, was standing behind the counter and the colored feller, the black boy, went up and said, “That’s him.” And the guy says (and I’m in uniform), the guy says, “We don’t serve no blacks in here and I mean what I said before,” he said, “I’ll walk up there and kick you right in the ___, kick you out of here.” He was talking to both me and the…
KNIGHT: Both of you?
RITCHEY: Oh, yeah, and so this fella came around from the back of the counter and approached me and he was cussing and swearing about you black so-and-sos (meaning both me and the guy). So I grabbed the guy and shook him. I told him that, “I’m a police officer and this man has got some right, and if there is any other problem I’m going to have to put you in jail.” So the guy didn’t say any more and I advised the black fellow that “the man was in his rights; he don’t have to serve anybody that he doesn’t want to serve. The best thing for you to do is see your lawyer and file suit against him.
The next day when I went to work I got a call from the chief’s office and there was George Sears. I went up to his office, of course; he didn’t even ask me what had happened. He just started beating me out for threatening this white fellow at the store — the store employee — so then, that moment, he shifted me from a beat to working on the jail side.
KNIGHT: Was that perceived, could that have been perceived as a demotion?
RITCHEY: Oh, no, same salary, not a demotion, no, just hazed down. I assume he must have felt that, “Well, I’ll put the guy inside the jail where he can’t get into any more trouble.” I didn’t think I was in any trouble in the first place, but, and as I say, he never asked me what had happened or got my version of what the situation was.
KNIGHT: You must have been eminently qualified — over-qualified, if you will — for the police department.
RITCHEY: Well, I think I was. I had a lot of experience in laboratory work while I was there. Then, after I worked in the jail for about two years or so, they shifted me to the Identification Bureau. That’s where they have the Record Bureau and the Identification Bureau, and they are concerned with fingerprints.
I got to the point where the homicide investigators always called on me when they wanted some fingerprint work, why, I don’t know, but they used to always specifically ask for me.
And it was the same with photographs. Ed Dieckmann used to always ask for me to be sent out on the matter to photograph the crime scene and check for any latent prints and things like that,
In 1943, then, I got promoted — no, before that, while I was in the Records Identification Bureau — I knew a black woman that was a maid for the Bridges family here. In other words, she had been with the Bridges family all her life. Her mother was with the Bridges most of her life. She was born in the Bridges’ home.
KNIGHT: The Bridges were a prominent family here in San Diego?
RITCHEY: A prominent white family here in San Diego. The Bridges had a chauffeur, a white man, who was a laboratory hobbyist, and he had quite an extensive laboratory out there in the garages where he had his quarters in the Bridges’ home. A lot of modern equipment.
Anyway, this maid, who was a close friend of mine, told me that he was retiring, giving up his hobby, and wanting to know what he was going to do with his equipment and stuff, so I made a pitch through her to give it to the police department, and they did, and now we got some equipment for laboratory tests so I figured that I was the only one who was qualified to do any of that type of work.
Then they were going to send a man to the FBI school back in Washington to take some courses in that. In the meantime, before that, for some months I had been anticipating this possibility. I was donating my time up at the zoo hospital, in the lab there, had a friend that worked there, and I used to go up there in the evening, donate three or four hours, oh, about twice a week for some months, trying to brush up on my lab techniques, in anticipation of this. So, anyway, when it came time for the chief of police to appoint someone, everybody thought it undoubtedly would be me, because I was the one that was pushing for the lab in the police department, and the police department maintained, “We don’t need a lab here, we don’t need a lab here.” And I was the one who was pushing for it, and so everybody thought I was the only one that was qualified, it certainly had to be me. They named somebody else.
KNIGHT: Is that right?
RITCHEY: Yeah. And then when this guy came back they put him in charge of the lab.
KNIGHT: And what happened to you? Did you get involved at that point in the lab?
RITCHEY: No, I was in there, but then shortly thereafter I got promoted to sergeant. As soon as I was promoted to sergeant I was assigned to the homicide detail. KNIGHT: Ah, I see.
RITCHEY: I assumed it was through Ed Dieckmann, who was in charge of the homicide detail, and he’s the one that always insisted that I be the one to take the photographs and to take the latent fingerprints at crime scenes.
KNIGHT: There’s something that I neglected to ask you. Were you the first black policeman, one of the first black policemen in San Diego?
RITCHEY: No, no. There was a man by the name of John Cloud who was on the department at that time, and a man by the name of Jasper Davis, who were in the department before me.
KNIGHT: So there were only two before you?
RITCHEY: Yeah, yeah. Then there was one, way back about 1915 or something like that by the name of Reggie Townsend.
KNIGHT: Hm. You know, when there is discussion of the police department, very rarely do I hear those, at least the name of Reggie Townsend.
RITCHEY: Yeah, well, he was way back, way back. Back I’d say about 1915, 1916, something like that.
KNIGHT: You were a sergeant now. Was that a fairly high rank for black policemen?
RITCHEY: Well, yes, yes. Cloud was a sergeant, but he had to put some pressure on the city council to make him a sergeant, through friends. But, as I say, I was a sergeant, and the only one of the black officers, after Cloud quit.
KNIGHT: I see, so you remained the only officer?
RITCHEY: Yeah, yeah, but, and then I went, as I say, I went into the Detective Bureau on a homicide detail. I stayed there until I quit on the 29th of May in 1964.
KNIGHT: So those six months that you originally anticipated being a police officer, turned into some twenty-eight years?
RITCHEY: Twenty-eight years, yeah. But, as I say, I liked what I was doing, in every job I had, I liked what I was doing.
KNIGHT: Well, how did your work as a policeman take you into becoming an attorney? How did you manage that?
RITCHEY: Well, I went to night school at California Western University and got my degree in 1961, started in 1956, got my degree in 1961. I was too young to retire when I left the Police Department, so I figured that I should do something that I wanted to do, prepare myself for something that I wanted to before that time comes.
In other words, I didn’t like the thought of, like most policemen, they get a job as security patrol or something like that with some private company. But when I left the Police Department I didn’t want a law enforcement job of any kind. I wanted to get into a new field, so that’s where I landed.
The first time I went up, I mean I missed the bar in 1963, so the next bar coming up was in March 1964. As soon as I had come back from taking the bar, well, I resumed studying again, not knowing whether I had made it or didn’t make it.
KNIGHT: You just wanted to be ready?
RITCHEY: Yeah. And if I didn’t make it, then I wanted to be ready, so I continued studying. So I was sitting in my office one day and said, “Well, I was thinking that I’m working and studying for the bar.” I said “I could retire, and why shouldn’t I retire and spend all my time studying instead of working and studying?” So I called the Civil Service Office; you were supposed to give them thirty days notice for retirement. And they said they could get me retired in two weeks, so I said “Let’s go.” So I figured I’d just retire and spend my full time studying with nothing else on my mind.
So the 29th of May, that was on a Friday, they had a party for me over in my detail in the police department, the chief of police, and when I left the office that day, Friday the 29th, I was retired officially. So, Monday morning was the first day of June 1964 and that was the day that we expected the notices would be out in the mail, whether we passed or didn’t pass, so I’m down the stairs, usually, that morning I was downstairs in my office, the place where I study underneath, kind of a semi-floor, oh, you might say in the basement where I studied. And I was, of course, down there at 7:00 o’clock in the morning as I am every morning — that is, when I wasn’t working, I mean Saturday and Sunday, I was down there at 7:00 o’clock every morning. So I’m down there studying. Then I look at my watch and it’s getting up around 10:00 o’clock when I know the mailman comes, So I came out and came upstairs and waited for the mailman. When the mailman came I could see it was the right envelope I was looking for. I opened the Goddamn thing and it said “You’ve passed.”
KNIGHT: That was the happiest day.
RITCHEY: The funniest thing. Most of the police department all seemed to believe that I had some inside information that Friday when I quit, that I had already passed.
KNIGHT: (Laughter) Well, you actually never really skipped a beat, did you? You went from one retirement right into being an attorney the next week.
KNIGHT: You’re a week out of retirement and I imagine in the process of looking for a law firm where you can hang your shingle?
RITCHEY: Yes, two weeks after I had been notified that I passed the bar, I went to Los Angeles and was sworn in the State Court, and a couple of weeks later I went in and was sworn in in the Federal Court, in the State Appellate Court.
Then I had a client already, who had been waiting a couple of months, a client whom I had helped when I was on the police department not too long before I passed the bar. This lady had some trouble with her husband where he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon against her and I investigated the case. I had quite a bit of contact with her for several weeks there at that time, so some months later she said that she was going to get a divorce from him. She had heard that I was studying law, and said she was going to wait until I got by the bar and could do her divorce.
She was waiting for me. And, anyway, I had to decide what kind of a practice I would want and whether I would open up by myself or go with somebody else. I didn’t want to take a job in some attorney’s office. I got two, three offers to work for some other attorney and so I decided I would go
So I had rented a place, put a deposit on a place, a building at 25th and Imperial, and got a call from Judge Montgomery (Al), who was in private practice at that time. I went to talk to him and he wanted me to come in with him. And so I wanted time to think about it. A few days later I called him to say that I think I will stick by my original decision and go it alone. A few days later he called me back and said he was making a new offer to me to come into his office as a full partner — he said he was offering a full partnership. So, after considering that, I thought that was the best deal, so I went into practice with him — Montgomery.
Al Montgomery went to school at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He graduated from law school and then he came out to California and he practiced in Los Angeles about a year or so before he decided to come down to San Diego. While I was still with the police department I just happened to run into him on Imperial A.venue, walking, and stopped and had a conversation with him and met him at that time.
KNIGHT: How many black attorneys were there in San Diego in those years?
RITCHEY: Well, there was Bob Ward and Montgomery, and he had a partner then, I can’t recall his name, who left San Diego and went up to Los Angeles and became a Superior Court judge. And that was all.
KNIGHT: And yourself.
RITCHEY: And myself, yes.
KNIGHT: Any notable cases that you have been involved with in San Diego?
RITCHEY: No, I have never been involved with any case that got publicity. I had a criminal law practice going for the first ten years or so of my practice. I had a lot of trials, a lot of felony cases, but none of any consequence or stature.
KNIGHT: You mentioned early on that you also served on a number of boards and commissions in San Diego. Would you briefly talk about that?
RITCHEY: Well, as I say, I served several years on Kearns’ civil, human rights commission, that’s what they call it, and way back in the early 1940s I was one of those that formed the Southeast YMCA.
KNIGHT: Jackie Robinson’s?
RITCHEY: No, that was before Jackie Robinson’s name came into it. You see we had a need for it at that time because the blacks still couldn’t go downtown. So we formed a YMCA committee and I was on the YMCA board, that is, the main board, for several years. We also at that time established a golf club, the Paramount Golf Club, for blacks, who at that time were not admitted in the golf clubs that were existing on city owned land such as the Municipal Golf Course. That was the reason the Paramount Golf Club was formed, to promote black youngsters in the game of golf.
KNIGHT: Do you think that activity is still thriving here in the community?
RITCHEY: Yes, still thriving. And then I was a member of the Children’s Hospital Board of Directors. Of course, I was a member of the Stadium Authority,
KNIGHT: About what year was that stadium put up?
RITCHEY: I believe it opened in 1967.
KNIGHT: So you were on the original board for the stadium. Do you remember who you were appointed by? Which councilperson, or mayor? I guess it was Mayor Curran then.
RITCHEY: No, it wasn’t by the mayor. I was appointed by, let’s see, appointed by O’Connor. At no time was I appointed by Williams. I believe it was O’Connor all three times.
KNIGHT: All three times. And as you look around San Diego, as you read in the paper today, what are your thoughts? What’s the future of this city? Has it come a long way? Are you pleased with its progress as you look out your window here and see some of the downtown development?
RITCHEY: Oh, yes, I’m pleased with the way the city’s come along. I’m pleased overall. Everything is growing; the city is growing and I think the development for the downtown area is good. The only bad part of it is the fact that we have these problems in the downtown area as far as transients are concerned. And we have the outside community, especially the Logan Heights area where the disgruntled youth problem is quite a problem to the city.
I think the police are somewhat responsible for the reactions of a lot of these young people in the black area. There’s a lot of good officers and there’s some that are not good. And I think, generally speaking, one of the things that officers are guilty of is that they don’t have the respect for the people in the black areas that they do for the same status of people in a white area. It’s a feeling that they’re superior to the black people they are talking with because they are white and the people they are talking to are black. It’s a different thing altogether.
KNIGHT: Is this something you experienced time and time again when you were in the department?
RITCHEY: Yes, yes, I remember, just to show you how people feel, I remember one time I was working in the Detective Bureau on the 4:00 to 12:00 shift with a white patrolman, a white detective. We got a call, I believe it was in regard to a burglary or something, out in La Jolla, and it was in Muirlands, one of these big fine homes, beautiful homes, expensive. So we pulled in, the other officer was driving. So we pulled in the driveway and they had a driveway that goes right up to the front entrance and then another part of the driveway goes straight back to the garages toward the back of the house. Well, this officer driving pulled, instead of pulling in, stopping in front of the front door, as we usually do, we go to the front door, ring the bell or cord. He went to the back of the house and stopped near the rear entrance, kitchen entrance, and stopped the car, “What are you stopping here for?” He says, “Well, I thought we’d better come round to the back.” So, naturally I’m the sergeant, so I’m in charge. So we got out of the car, while I told him to come on. We walked around front and rang the bell. The lady who was complaining answered the door very cordial and we came in and we talked to her. I have forgotten what her problem was, but we talked to her for a few minutes and we left. The point is to show you that this officer, you know, if he had been in a black neighborhood it wouldn’t have occurred to him to go around to the back door because he had never done that before.
KNIGHT: On any other calls he did?
RITCHEY: No, not on other calls we had, but here this beautiful four- or five-hundred-thousand dollar home, mansion, he goes to the back. It shows you he fears money and prestige, they make a difference with him. That’s the same way they feel when they go around black homes.
KNIGHT: Brutality? On the part of any officers?
RITCHEY: Well, I have never seen any brutality during my experiences on the police department. The only thing that I remember, one time when I had a discussion with a white officer, was one time when there was a black feller arrested on a charge of rape and the report came into my office. Incidentally, I was on the homicide detail but they gave me any kind of a case; it could be homicide, rape, robbery, confidence games, if it involved a black. They sent it and I got it. It was good for me because it was [a more] varied experience than just working homicides. We had robberies, rapes, a lot of confidence-game workers, anything that involved blacks they would give to me. Anyway, I got the report for this man who was arrested on a charge of raping a girl. All right, I went out to investigate the thing and talked to witnesses and came to find out this guy isn’t the guy. He was the wrong guy. So when I come back to the station then I go in to talk to this feller. So I went in to the jailer, a white feller. Well, he was in the tank where this guy was sitting, and he was roughing him up and cussin’ him. “What are you doing?” I said. “I’m taking this man up to the office to talk to him,” I said. “Now, when he comes back here if he has any more problems, if you lay a hand on him,” I said, “I’m going straight to the chief of police.” And, well, I of course told him a lot of other things too, that probably wouldn’t be credible. So about an hour or two later, after I talked to the guy and brought him back, I released him; he was the wrong man.
KNIGHT: The wrong man.
RITCHEY: Yeah, and he was in there just because of the charge of raping a white girl, and this officer was roughing him around.
KNIGHT: I want to thank you, Mr. Ritchey, for the time that you’ve spent for this interview and for the valuable contributions that you’ve made to the citizens of San Diego. Are there any comments you might like to make, any final comments.
RITCHEY: Well, I don’t know whether or not there is anything that you should thank me for, whether there is anything in there that has been said that you could use, although it has been my pleasure to talk with you and I don’t know what else I could add to this, unless it’s some specific question that you want to ask me.
KNIGHT: Maybe some advice to the young black community in San Diego and about opportunities as you see it.
RITCHEY: Well, I don’t know whether I could say the majority, but a good many of the black youngsters are not taking advantage of the opportunities that are offered today. They’ve got to prepare themselves for the future society, and I don’t think that many of them are doing it. Whether it’s because they don’t have proper motivation, I don’t know. When I say motivation, I mean that’s from the home, and from the school officials that you would get motivation. Apparently somebody’s lying down on the job and you know, of course, that there’s many parents that are lying down on the job, but that’s what it takes.
Years ago, when I was a teenager you couldn’t find many black parents who had had college educations. Today you find a great number of black parents with teenage children that have had a college education, and you have to assume that they motivated their children to get an education. Of course, sometimes that doesn’t work because I know I can think of one or two families here, where both the mother and the father are school teachers and they have children that have gone wrong. But I don’t think that’s the average. The fact that there are so many blacks now with fathers and mothers with college educations is a good sign that these kids can be motivated and kept in line. Forty, fifty years ago you didn’t find one black in many that had a college education, and that makes a lot of difference. So I think we’re gaining there but there’s apparently a breakdown someplace because we’ve got too many children that have no ambition, have no desire to achieve anything.
KNIGHT: Thank you very much, again, Mr. Ritchey.
1. Ed F. Cooper was San Diego County Sheriff from 1928 to 1934.
2. San Diego’s California Pacific International Exposition opened in Balboa Park on May 29, 1935.
3. John Cloud joined the police force in 1918 and retired as a sergeant in 1938, the first black officer to make a career of police work in San Diego. Jasper Davis was a San Diego police officer from 1931 to the early 1950s. See Pliny Castanien Collection, Research Archives, San Diego History Center.
4. Reginald S. Townsend was appointed on January 1, 1915, as San Diego’s first, full-time black police officer. Castanien Collection, San Diego Historical Society.
Robert Carlton, a local writer and community-college instructor, is a student of the development of San Diego in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His 1977 master’s thesis in history at San Diego State University focused on the development of the black community at the turn of the last century.