The City of Santa Barbara is taking steps to recognize its rich history of African-American and black contributions to the community.
The 142-page document was prepared by Healing Justice Santa Barbara and Page & Turnbull, a Los Angeles-based historic preservation architecture, planning and conservation company. City historian Nicole Hernandez helped coordinate the project.
“This is a terrific piece of work,” commissioner Keith Butler said.
Santa Barbara has a rich history that has included people of African descent since the earliest days of Spanish contact, the document states. That heritage is highlighted as part of the call to preserve and designate sites with such historical significance.
The document explains how the African-American and black community, although a small percentage of Santa Barbara’s overall population, grew noticeably in the early 20th century and after World War II.
According to the document, these periods coincided with Santa Barbara’s own expansion, as well as with the First and Second Great Migrations when African-American and black individuals and families moved from the South to the Northeast and West for greater opportunities.
“In Santa Barbara, they settled in homes and apartments, found jobs and started businesses, attended schools and churches, and socialized and supported each other through clubs and organizations,” the document states.
“They persevered in the face of direct and indirect discrimination that over the 20th century concentrated the African-American and black community in Santa Barbara’s Eastside neighborhood, along with other marginalized racial and ethnic groups.”
The African-American and black community flourished in the area around East Haley Street, and was anchored by two churches, St. Paul’s A.M.E. Church and Second Baptist Church.
“Working on this statement was really enlightening, but also really empowering for us as black folks,” said Simone Akila, one of the original members of Healing Justice Santa Barbara. “To be able to share that with black community members has been wonderful.”
She said Santa Barbara’s work has been recognized by black activists and organizers from throughout California looking to learn from local efforts.
Akila also noted that documenting the contributions of African-American and black people is especially important because many of the areas where there were thriving black businesses “have been, or are currently being gentrified.”
Hernandez led the commission through a slideshow of photos showing African-American and black contributions to the community. One of the historic photos was of Dr. Frances Ford, an African-American woman, practicing medicine in the San Marcos Building downtown in 1923.
One of the slides presented by Hernandez was a 1923 photo of a cross and the letters “KKK” written on a hill on the Riviera.
Hernandez then showed a slide illustrating the black community’s response to racism and discrimination, including a newspaper photo of a 1940 Juneteenth celebration, long before it was declared a federal holiday. The photo showed more than 500 people at a rally in Oak Park.
The document also included a photo of reporter Bill Downey, the first African-American journalist in Santa Barbara.
Among the themes that the document focused on were places of religion and spirituality; clubs and organizations; residential settlement and housing patterns; and business and commercial development.
The Alano Club of Santa Barbara building at 235 E. Cota St. was moved there in 1926 by the African-American congregation called the People’s Independent Church. It housed several black fraternal organizations in the 1930s.
Across the street, 236 E. Cota St. was built in 1920 as a Spiritualist Success Church and became the Church of God in Christ in 1942. Hernandez showed a photo of African-American deaconesses in front of the building.
At 202 E. Gutierrez St. is the Lewis Chapel, which was constructed in 1955 as the home of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, now called Lewis Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. It was founded by King David Simms and Beatrice Simms.
The document — which was paid for by a grant from the National Park Service and the Interior Department through the California Office of Historic Preservation — is considered a living document and more stories will be added, including the contributions of the LGBTQIA+ community, those with disabilities, as well as areas of sports and music.
“I want to be mindful that we are looking at the breadth of black life,” Akila said.