Jovanka Beckles: The Gary Family of Richmond: Fighting for Equality and Standing for Their Rights, Part 1

blogimage.jpgThe Gary family has seen Richmond at its worst -- and at its best. The African American family was one of the first to move into a white neighborhood after WWII. Confronted by racism, they endured a flaming cross in their yard. Then they were embraced by a mobilized community standing up for them. In celebration of Black History Month, here is the story of the Gary family as recounted by Councilmember Jovanka Beckles.

The Gary Family of Richmond: Fighting for Equality and Standing for Their Rights

MOVING IN—Members of the Wilbur Gary family, pictured above, expect to complete moving into their newly purchased home in Rollingwood.  Pictured above they are shown around a white cross which was stuck in the front yard.  They are, front: Thomas, 7, left and Constance, 9.  Left to right: Barbara, 5, Wilbur, 17, Mrs. Gary, Raphael, 19 months, 1952


WWII in Richmond

During World War II (1939-1945), Richmond, California was one of the most important industrial sites of the homefront war effort. With large numbers of employable white men overseas, blacks, along with women and Mexicans, played a critical role as home front workers in this industry. The population of Richmond dramatically grew from 30,000 in the 1930’s to 100,000 by the end of the war.

In order to accommodate the large influx of workers and their families, the largest war-housing program was developed here. By the end of the war, more than half of all Richmond residents lived in war housing, including close to 80% of all black residents. The Richmond Housing Authority maintained a 4 to 1 ratio between white and black residents, and segregated black residents by building projects. The Canal and Terrace Housing Projects were largely black. The Harbor Gate, Atchison Village, Nystrom Village and Triangle Court War Housing Projects were primarily white. (1) 

The housing demolition policies enacted by the Richmond city leaders (all white) at the end of the war suggested that they thought that there were too many blacks in Richmond. This speculation was partially based on the particular scheduling of the demolition of predominantly black-inhabited war housing. In 1952, residents of the Canal and Terrace War Housing Projects received eviction notices that stated, “We regret the necessity of asking you to move.” Seven hundred black families from Canal and Terrace were forced out. (2)

The Rev. W. Lee La Beaux, a black pastor at the Canal Project’s Providence Baptist Church, and Father John Garcia led the displaced black tenants in protests to City Hall, demanding priority in other public housing projects. In response, a relocation center was created. Little private housing was available to blacks. Most were moved to other rundown apartments also on the demolition schedule. (3)

(1), (2), (3) “To Place Our Deeds” by Shirley Ann Wilson Moore. 

Boomtown Blues. Housing Removal in Richmond. Pp 222-228.

National Housing Policies

In other parts of the country, racist housing policies were being challenged. In the mid-1940s, NAACP and ACLU lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall and Loren Miller, represented many plaintiffs seeking to invalidate housing covenants that prevented blacks from purchasing or renting housing in certain areas. Racial covenants became the fashion, almost a passion, in conveyances, and were demanded by banks and lending institutions in all real estate developments. In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Shelley v Kraemer that racial covenants cannot be enforced by the courts. Many racist individuals responded with terrorist attacks and fire bombing of the houses of blacks and Mexicans in several parts of the country, including Florida and Los Angeles.

On July 11 1951, a mob of 4,000 white people in Cicero, Illinois attacked a young Negro Air Force veteran, Harvey Clark, his wife Johnnetta and two small children, ransacking the apartment they intended to move into. They burned his marriage license and honorable discharge papers and the family’s clothing and furniture, while Cicero police officers did nothing. The Cicero grand jury investigation that followed indicted the white landlady who had rented to the Clarks for “conspiring to destroy property” by causing depreciation in the market selling price.

The Gary Family of Richmond

Former Navy man Wilbur Gary and his wife Borece were residents of the Harbor Gate War Housing Project at the end of the war. In 1952 the Garys heard the rumors that the Harbor Gate War Housing Project, where they resided, would likely be next on the demolition list, even though it housed mostly skilled white workers. The southside geographic area was coveted by the Safeway supermarket chain for a warehouse. The Richmond Chamber of Commerce exerted enormous pressure for a year and successfully helped to deliver the evictions. The demolition was conducted by early 1953, over the objections of the NAACP and others. 

The Gary family was familiar with the disastrous fate of thousands of blacks from the Canal and Terrace Housing Projects. They needed more room for their seven children and were saving their money.

Early in 1952, as word was getting out about the likely demolition of Harbor Gate, the Garys, like their white neighbors, started searching for options.

After years of hard work, with their savings and the help of the GI bill, the Garys were ready to purchase a home of their own, if they could find one. This is where the Gary family’s story of courage and determination begins. 


The Garys find a house…

A fellow Navy man, Lt. Commander Sidney T. Hogan, was selling his house and moving to San Francisco. Mrs. Neitha Williams, a black real estate businesswoman with offices on 347 Sixth Street, would handle the transaction. The house was in Rollingwood, an all-white defense worker subdivision built during the war with racial covenants, recently declared unenforceable by the courts…but they also find bigotry and racism.


Monday, March 3, 1952

“A glaring white cross, standing about 3 feet high, was planted in the front yard of a Rollingwood home some time last night apparently in protest to the occupancy of the residence by a Negro family. …………Gary said: ‘We purchased the home and have no intentions of relinquishing it unless some physical force is exerted’. Sale of the home was handled through a real estate firm in Richmond operated by Naitha Williams, also a Negro. It sold for $8,700. While no organization of Rollingwood residents would comment on the placing of the white cross, opposition to the occupancy of the home was voiced by neighbors, many of whom were irate and said so.” (Richmond Independent, Tuesday March 4, 1952 p 1)

Tuesday, March 4

“The board of directors of the Rollingwood Improvement Association urged all residents to restrain from any acts of violence and reported, in leaflets distributed throughout the 800-home district, that they had retained legal assistance in seeking to negotiate the purchase of the home from Gary.” (Richmond Independent, March 6, 1952, p. 1)


Rollingwood Improvement Association: The Garys are not welcome....but they also find bigotry and racism

GARYSTORY-3BB.jpg “Despite the presence of a wooden white cross, Mr. and Mrs. Wilbur D. Gary plan on moving into their new Rollingwood residence sometime tomorrow. Here Gary holds one of their seven children, Raphaelle, 19 months. (Richmond Independent, Tuesday, March 4, 1952)

“During the last week there have been numerous rumors, speculation and miss-information [sic] circulating, and the purpose of this message is to give you the facts: Within the past few days one of our fellow residents, for reasons best known to himself, has entered into a valid contract to sell his home to a Negro family. We are told that this family plans to move in the very near future. Since that time feeling has been running very high in many quarters and there has already occurred one regrettable instance which only serves to heighten the friction and strong feeling that already exists. Nothing can or will be served by such demonstrations, and we ask each of you to do what you can to discourage such further display. Without attempting to debate the morals of the situation, or to justify one side or another, we feel that the best interests of Rollingwood would be accomplished by approaching this problem in a calm and restrained manner. With that in mind, we have secured legal advice and thoroughly explored the situation. We are at present negotiating for the purchase of this property from the Negro family, giving them a reasonable profit. Such action is being taken, believing that it is the fair way to solve our present difficulty and restore harmony to our community” The leaflet was signed by T.C. Houston, president, and Ernest Hill, Bill Carpenter, Ed Powell, Mrs. Dorothy Miller, Walt Weyman, Stan Anderson, Roy Tibets, Mrs. Rose Scott and Mrs. Ada Goodbar (Richmond Independent, March 5, 1952, pp 1-3)


Real Estate Office Becomes Target of Violence

Change was in the air. 

Many white residents at the time were afraid of the unknown. Most had never lived side-by-side with black families. Others could not move beyond the prejudice of their Neitha Williams’ real estate office was made a target of vandalism when a brick was thrown through the front window, presumably trying to intimidate her to cancel the deal.

Certainly, the brick was intended to send a message.


Violence Against the Black Realtor

Tuesday, March 4

“Tuesday night while Gary was in the office of Neitha Williams, 347 Sixth Street, the Richmond real estate operator who handled the sale of the home, a large brick was tossed through the plate glass window. Gary said that two men were in the automobile, which disappeared north on Sixth Street. No one was injured

(Richmond Independent, March 6, 1952, p 1)


The Garys Ready to Make Their Stand

Tuesday March 4

Attorney Russell King offers to buy out the Garys on behalf of the Rollingwood Association

“In his written offer to Gary, King says: “I am authorized and prepared to buy the described property from you for the total sum of $9,900 which would represent a clear profit to you of $1,000. Such an offer would contemplate assuming any obligation or items now existing on the house, either recorded or otherwise, and pay the difference between that and the $9,900 in cash.

In spite of intimidation tactics and buy-out offers, the Garys stood firm. They would not be bought out. They would not be run out.


“I’m not afraid and I will not be forced out…We’ve got to whip this thing sometime, and it might as well be now.

Wilbur D. Gary March 6, 1952


Attempts to Scare the Garys Shape for a Riot As Richmond Gary family moves in, mob gathers outside… 

(Richmond Independent, March 6, 1952, p 2)

“The Richmond Negroes spent the first night in their recently purchased home there (Rollingwood)… The Garys are the first Negro family in the 800 home suburb north of San Pablo. The crowd began gathering about 6 P.M. (about 200 persons, many of them youths).

Gary sent five of his seven children to stay at their old apartment on South 25th Street He remained there with his two oldest children and a White neighbor. At one point during the evening the neighbor, George Eldredge, went out on the porch in an attempt to quiet the crowd.”


“My property would go down $2,500 if the n----rs moved in”.

“My contract reads this is an all-White neighborhood,” shouted a housewife, referring to a restrictive clause in all sales contracts for the tract.

A woman yelled to Long: ‘I talked with my banker today and he said my property would go down $2,500 if the n----rs moved in’. Long replied: “I'm not here to argue with you have a constitutional right to gather here; you are not violating any law nor disturbing the peace, but I ask you again in the name of common sense and as good American citizens to go home” He was ignored. (Daily People's World (DPW), Friday, March 7, 1952, p. 8) 


“You have thrown your rocks. The Garys know how you feel. Now disperse and go on your way.” (Sheriff Long)


Long then read her a part of the U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing such racial covenants … “And that is the law’ he said, “I'm here to enforce it and to give this family the protection I would wan  my family to have. You have thrown your rocks. The Garys know how you feel. Now disperse and go on your way.” 

Someone answered: “You go live with the n----rs if you want to, but we have a restrictive covenant here and we are not going to let the n----rs break it.” Long explained that the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed such covenants. (Richmond Independent, March 6, 1952, p. 2) 


“Get out n-----r or we'll burn your house down.”


Meanwhile, inside the house the Negro family met the attack calmly. At one point, when Mrs. Gary went out on her front porch, a bigot shouted, ‘Get out n-----r or we'll burn your house down.’ Mrs. Gary walked across the street facing the mob and declared: ‘If you do, then as soon as the ashes cool, my family and I will come back and live on the empty lot.” Friends persuaded her to come back in the house.”

(DPW, Friday, March 7, 1952, p. 8)

 “Some of the crowd threw stones at the home while others yelled, ‘Go back where you came from’ and ‘get yourself a paint brush and paint yourself white’” (Richmond Independent March 6, 1952, p 2)

And Death threats:

One mobster walked by the house as Gary stood in the front yard and bawled out: “Where I come from, we shoot the SOBs when they act like you.” (DPW, March10, 1952, p. 8)

This just part one of the in the Gary Story. Stay tuned next week for the second installation!

You can see Jovanka Beckles' original story here.

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