Photo exhibit honors local black history
In honor of Black History Month, UCSD’s Geisel Library is presenting “Remembering Black La Jolla: Hidden Faces and Forgotten History.”
The exhibit, sponsored by UCSD African & African-American Studies Research Project and UCSD Arts Library, features 26 black-and-white portraits of the city’s black residents (1989-1990) by photographer Molly Low and historical commentary by curator Cristin McVey.
Yearbooks and news articles from the La Jolla Historical Society and the La Jolla Riford Library are also included.
According to McVey, whose doctoral sociology dissertation focused on early African-American settlements in San Diego, black residents were present in La Jolla since its founding in the late 1890s. In the 1920s, many black people moved from the South to the West Coast in search of employment. Along the way, many of them stopped in La Jolla, where they found work as cooks, maids, chauffeurs and gardeners.
“The wealthy residents needed the manicured lawns and the domestics to be their support system,” McVey said.
At that time, La Jolla cottages were too small for employers to house their servants, so some land was set aside to house the black workers. As La Jolla expanded from the 1920s to 1950s, wealthy residents building larger homes moved their 400-square-foot cottages to Draper, Cuvier and Silver streets for the black residents.
“Often there were up to four cottages on one lot,” McVey said. “At least one half of the black community owned their own homes or they rented from black homeowners.”
According to McVey, by the 1930s, there were about 50 black people living in La Jolla and, by 1945, hundreds had moved here. The black population reached its peak in the years leading up to and just following WWII.
Black residents operated everything from hauling businesses to their own barber shops and restaurants, as well as two black churches. Unlike the strict segregation in the South, La Jolla offered a far more open society for black residents to participate in.
“Blacks could own property and they used the same beaches, schools and libraries as everyone else did,” McVey said.
However, black residents didn’t shop or dine in the same businesses as their employers.
“They shopped in downtown San Diego and other black neighborhoods, and would do potlucks and socializing through their churches,” McVey said.
Fascinated with photographing people living on the fringes of society, Low met and befriended many black La Jolla residents in the late 1980s. Some were related to the original settlers and others were more recent residents. They invited Low into their homes where she photographed them between 1989 and 1990.
After photographing her subjects, Low asked each of them to share their experiences in a short paragraph below each portrait. Their candid handwritten comments reveal not only their heritage, but the joys and pains of being part of an invisible minority group.
‘Remembering Black La Jolla: Hidden Faces and Forgotten History’
Through Feb. 28
UCSD Arts Library
9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla