By Mark Gutglueck
Howard Lee Holcomb was a native son of San Bernardino, having been born there on February 5, 1898, a third generation of the pioneer Holcomb Family in the city. His parents were Frank I. And Leila (Covington) Holcomb. Howard attended local schools and graduated from San Bernardino High School in 1916.
Holcomb worked at the family dairy for almost four years, not including his after-school and weekend work from about 1911 to 1916.
Howard Holcomb and Miss Frances W. Crawford of Highland were married on August 31, 1918 in Downey. They had one daughter, Margaret Ellen, who was born in 1922.
In 1920, Howard Holcomb obtained employment with a local power company, which later was incorporated into the Southern California Edison Company. From about 1934 to 1950, Holcomb and Mr. O.C. McClintock operated an automotive service station at Highland Avenue and Sierra Way and from 1941 until 1957 they were the local distributors of petroleum products for the General Petroleum Corporation, with their office and yard at Mill and E streets. Holcomb, who resided with his wife Frances and his daughter Margaret at 1989 Sepulveda Avenue in San Bernardino, was elected to the San Bernardino City Council, representing the Fourth Ward. He served from May 8, 1933 until November 6, 1944.
As a member of the city council, Holcomb took a lead in pressing for the development of Perris Hill Park and the initiation of the city’s recreation programs. He was instrumental in making San Bernardino the first city in the area with two-way radio equipped police cars.
His accomplishments as a city councilman would be overshadowed by his presence on the council during a time when the city and its leaders were on the wrong side of history.
While serving on the council, Holcomb was named as a defendant in the case Lopez v. Secombe, et al, a lawsuit which challenged the City of San Bernardino’s practice of excluding people of Hispanic descent from using the city pool. Holcomb was mentioned in the plaintiff’s complaint, as were the other members of the city council in 1943, Leslie Case, Wm. H. Roberts, George Shafer, and Timothy Sheehan, along with police chief James Cole, city attorney H.R. Griffin and superintendent of parks Owen R. Bristow.
The plaintiffs included Ignacio Lopez, an American citizen of Mexican descent and extraction, a San Bernardino County taxpayer, a graduate of Chaffey Jr. College and Pomona College and the University of Southern California who had served as the head of the Spanish Department in the Office of Foreign Language, Division of Office of War Information and the Spanish-speaking director of the Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs at Los Angeles and the editor of El Espector, a newspaper in San Bernardino; the Reverend R. N. Nunez, an American citizen of Mexican descent, ordained Catholic priest and the pastor of the San Bernardino Guadalupe Church Parish; Eugenio Nogueroa, an American citizen of Latin descent, a graduate of Cayey High School, Puerto Rico, and of the University of Puerto Rico, a former member of the 76th Field Artillery Third Division, United States Army, and editor and publisher, and a resident and taxpayer of San Bernardino; Virginia Prado, a student, a citizen of the United States and a resident of the City of San Bernardino, who was of Mexican descent; and Rafael Munoz, a student of Mexican descent and a resident of the City of San Bernardino.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California on February 5, 1944 found that “all of the petitioners herein contribute to the financial support and maintenance of said park, playground, swimming pool, plunge, and facilities mentioned and each and all of the petitioners are citizens and contributors and are beneficially interested in the privileges, management, control, use and occupation of said facilities as heretofore stated, and as members of the public and citizens of the United States, are entitled to admission and the use and enjoyment of said playground, swimming pool, plunge, bathhouse and facilities.”
The decision went on to state that all of the “petitioners are of clean and moral habits not suffering any disability, infectious disease, nor have they any physical or mental defect, but in all other respects are persons proper and qualified to be admitted to and enjoy the use of said bathhouse, plunge, swimming pool, park, playground, and all facilities in connection therewith. That their admission to and the use of said bathhouse, pool, plunge and facilities within said park and playground is not inimical, harmful or detrimental to the health, welfare or safety of other users thereof. This Court finds as true that for several years last past all persons of Mexican or Latin descent or extraction, though citizens of the United States of America have on repeated occasions been excluded, barred and precluded from using, enjoying or entering upon that portion of said park and playground containing said swimming pool, plunge, bath house and facilities, by respondents, their servants, agents and employees.”
The court found that exclusion was “based solely upon the fact that petitioners are of Mexican or Latin descent” and that Secombe and Holcomb, along with Case, Roberts, Shafer, Sheehan, Cole, Griffin and Bristow, their servants, agents, and employees, “denied petitioners the right to enter and use said privileges based solely upon the fact that petitioners were of Mexican and Latin descent or extraction at various times too numerous to mention and particularly on or about the first day of September, 1943” when the petitioners “have sought admission to the facilities of said park as mentioned, during hours when same were open to the public at large.”
Holcomb’s conduct, and that of Secombe, Case, Roberts, Shafer, Sheehan, Cole, Griffin and Bristow was, the court said “illegal and is in violation of petitioners’ rights and privileges, as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America, and as secured and guaranteed to them as citizens of the United States, by the Constitution of the United States of America, as particularly provided under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.” The petitioners and the some 8,000 other persons of Mexican and Latin descent were, the court ruled, “entitled to such equal accommodations, advantages and privileges and to equal rights and treatment with other persons as citizens of the United States, in the use and enjoyment of the facilities of said park and playground and to equal treatment with other persons and to the equal protection of the laws.”
History does not record whether Holcomb actually felt himself personally chastened by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California’s ruling, which proved a landmark one moving California toward de facto segregation. Whatever the case, Holcomb did not seek reelection to the city council that year. Instead, he ran for the post of Fifth District San Bernardino County, defeating the incumbent, Jess Stout, in the November 1944 election.
Holcomb represented the Fifth District for two terms, serving from December 4, 1944 until December 1, 1952.
Aside from his status as an elected official, Holcomb was notable for his other activities as a leading citizen of San Bernardino and San Bernardino County. He was president of the 44th National Orange Show in 1959 and served on its board of directosrs for many years. He was the chairman of the board of directors of the Sierra Savings and Loan Association from January 1959 until December 1969, vice president of the Security Title Insurance Company from August 15, 1958 until December 31, 1965 and president fo the Holcomb and McClintock Petroelum Distribution Firm from 1945 to 1957.
On October 1, 1953, the Metropolitan Automotive Accessories Warehouse was established. It was jointly founded by Mssers, H.L. Holcomb, O.C. McClintock, C.H. Spencer, L. W. Sackerson and H.C. Sherrel. Mr Sackerson was the first president and Mr. Holcomb was a vice-president. Holcomb served as president of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District from February 25, 1954 until January 1, 1957. He also served on the city’s recreation, police fire and parks commissions and was on the board of directors of the chamber of commerce, community hospital, Red Cross and the Community Chest.
In the mid-1960s, Holcomb advocated for having San Bernardino join the Metropolitan Water District, saying it needed to do so to become “a thriving metropolis” or slip into being a “a depression-ridden, growth-stunted little town if we don’t. I shudder to think of what will happen if water is rationed in San Bernardino,” he was quoted as saying by the San Bernardino Sun in April 1964. “I’d hate to be one of those responsible for it if it ever comes to pass.”
Holcomb decried the then-ongoing efforts of the city to use eminent domain to commandeer local water companies and districts and wells owned by individuals. He said it would be less expensive for the city to join Metropolitan Water District than to “continue these fantastic schemes and these cannibalistic attempts to grab the water of our own farmers.” He said the district was unlikely to win its condemnation suits and “lets hope they don’t. If they should win the Gage Canal Co. suit it would cost $35 to $40 million.” He said the city was spinning its wheels by carrying 40 per cent of the district’s tax burden for “no results at all.” He said the city had neglected positioning itself advantageously with regard to water and was acting at the last minute after the circumstance had worsened. He called the water condemnation efforts “last minute fantasies in the way of water. Are they valid? They may sound good. If they can be done now, why weren’t they done years ago? If the water is there now, why hasn’t it been found until this last minute? As a long-time public worker I believe we should do what the rest of Southern California has dones: join Metropolitan and grow!”
Despite Holcomb’s importuning, San Bernardino did not join the Metropolitan Water District.
Holcomb was a member of the San Bernardino Masonic Lodge #348, the Elks Club, the Shriners Club, the United Commercial Travelers and the Rotary Club. He served as a trustee and elder of the First Presbyterian Exchange Club.
His wife died on June 3, 1969 and Holcomb died on June 7, 1971. He was survived by his daughter Margaret ( Mrs. Robert J. Schwarz), three grandsons and two grand daughters. He was a cousin of San Bernardino’s mayor W.R. Holcomb.
By Mark Gutglueck