By Carlos Avalos
Fading further and further into historical obscurity is the horrific experience of the Short Family in December 1945.
Even before Fontana burnished its image in the 1970s and 1980s as the stomping ground of KKK Grand Dragon George Pepper, Fontana had a reputation for engaging in a particularly heavy-handed form of segregation.
Early in the 20th Century, after Azariel Blanchard Miller in association with E.D. Roberts, H.D. Harris and E.J. Eisenmayer purchased 8,000 of the 19,000 acres of land near Rialto from San Francisco Savings, Miller formed the Fontana Land and Water Company and he relocated the grading apparatus he had been using in Imperial County to Fontana. Using that equipment – con-
sisting of some 200 head of horses and mules together with plows and scrapers along with mess and sleeping tents – he and his partners knocked the the brush down just south of what is now the heart of modern day Fontana, what was then called Rosena on the Santa Fe Line. Over the next several years, the partnership leased, purchased or obtained options on another 10,000 acres and Miller planted 3,000 acres of barley, and set about planting what would eventually become 500 miles of Eucalyptus trees planted in rows east and west 3,330 feet apart in the grove district and 660 feet apart over the rest of the 18,000-acre tract.
In 1909, Miller bought out Roberts, Harris, and Eisenmayer, and redoubled his efforts in the Fontana Land and Water Company, this time in partnership with F.H. Adams, E.J. Marshall and J. T. Torrance. Their first major undertaking was to construct an extensive irrigation system in the Fontana area. The group intensified the development of the irrigation system, marketing some of the property, and established literal plantations of citrus. On June 7, 1913, the townsite of Fontana was opened and lots were sold. Very early on negroes who came to live in Fontana were restricted to the area well north of the original townsite near Arrow Highway and Sierra in a district located within Beech to the east, Highland south, Baseline north and Oleander west.
During World War II Fontana was greatly transformed when Henry J. Kaiser built one of only two steel mills west of the Mississippi River in Fontana. Kaiser Steel was a large producer of metal and steel framing for Liberty Ships during the war.
In defiance of the tradition of residential segregation in Fontana, O’Day H. Short, an African American, seeking refuge from the housing shortage that was gripping California in the aftermath of the Second World War, in 1945 departed from Los Angeles and purchased a lot on Randall Street in central Fontana where he was purposed to construct a home into which he intended to live with his wife and two children.
When Short started building his home, he was approached by two San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies, Tex Cornelison and and Joe Glines, who told him that “he was out of bounds and to avoid problems he should move his family to a northern part of the city where the rest of the colored people lived.” There was no legal basis for the deputies meeting with O’Day Short and telling him this. Perhaps this was simply an effort to give him a friendly warning about a situation that was beyond the deputies’ control. Perhaps it was more sinister. This visit and the warnings of these two sheriff’s deputies are recorded in the sheriff’s office in San Bernardino.
Short reported the threats to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and also told his story to the Los Angeles Sentinel, an African American Newspaper, on December 6, 1945. Ten days later on December 16, the newly constructed home, with the Short Family inside, burned to the ground. Short’s wife and children succumbed at once to their burns; O’Day Short held onto life for a few weeks before he died.
On December 18, the incident was reported in the Fontana Herald-News as an accidental fire. O’Day Short’s sister-in-law, Carrie Morrison, asked for an inquest into the death of the family; she was met with resistance from the county coroner. The coroner maintained that the fire was clearly an accident. Only after constant pressure was an inquest into the fire granted. Many African American newspapers, bringing light to the incident, called on then-California Attorney Robert Kenny to get involved. Because of this, then-San Bernardino County District Attorney Jerome B. Kavanaugh permitted the inquest, which took place on April 3, 1946.
District Attorney Kavanaugh interviewed Short personally about the incident while Short was in the hospital. Short told the district attorney that he was in no condition to answer any questions concerning what happened until he was competent to do so and with the help of his attorney. Kavanaugh wanted to know if the fire in Short’s mind was accidental or a criminal act. Documents show that Short was pressured into admitting that this incident could have been an accident. That was all the district attorney wanted to hear. Later, when O’Day Short was in better condition, he conveyed to representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that the fire was an “incendiarist act of vigilantes.”
A key piece of physical evidence that was involved in this case was a lantern that supposedly malfunctioned and caused the fire at O’Day Short’s home. But the lantern had been recovered completely intact, and neighbors reported that as members of the Short family, with clothes ablaze, ran from the home, there were “blobs” of fire on the ground all around them. That information was disregarded by the sheriff’s department and not looked upon as having any significance.
Many times during the hearing, Short’s family and friends spoke up and wanted to talk about the threats made to O’Day Short and his family that were well documented, but the sheriff’s department deemed that information irrelevant and did not allow anyone to talk about it. Very quickly the verdict was given and the inquest was closed. The only survivor was O’Day Short, and instead of waiting for him to recover and give a competent statement, a statement taken from him by Kavanaugh when he was in a distressed physical condition was used. An arson investigation was conducted on behalf of the N.A.A.C.P, separate from that carried out by the authorities. Paul T. Wolfe had over 25 years of arson experience with the Los Angeles Arson Bureau. He conducted an extensive analysis of the burnt remains of the Shorts’ house, as well as a chemical analysis. His report concluded that there was coal oil, a highly flammable substance, found at the Shorts’ house other than kerosene, which was claimed to have accounted for the lamp’s explosion. Mr. Wolfe stated that in his experience to that point conducting arson analysis, he had never seen an incident where kerosene caused such a huge explosion. The explosion at the Shorts’ house caused the walls of the home to blow out.
The record shows O’Day Short and his family were threatened by members in the community. They were also “warned” or somewhat threatened by local law enforcement to move because their mere presence would create a problem by affronting Fontana’s at-that-time predominantly white residential population. The district attorney in this case did a less than thorough pursuit of truth and justice. Important evidence was mishandled and proper investigative skills were not brought to bear. Expert testimony was ignored. Where incompetence left off, corruption and racism began. Among some Fontana residents, the implication of the incident, 72 years in the past, lingers. Although this type of blatant racism is not happening in Fontana as of 2017, it is happening in more covert ways.
More than a generation after the Short Family’s experience, Fontana had not lived down its overtly racist past. On July 1, 1980, Pacific Bell lineman Dovard Howard, while working on an elevated line in Fontana, was shot with a shotgun, which left him paralyzed. Howard’s son reported that at this point he could remember crosses being burnt on lawns in Fontana. In Fontana decades ago, this was real life. At that time and earlier there was an unwritten rule in Fontana. African Americans were not welcome south of Baseline Street in the northern part of the city. The northern part of Fontana was agricultural. It had vineyards and citrus groves, as well as hog farms. Larry West Deane was arrested for this incident. It was later discovered that Deane was part of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, not the KKK. Was this an aberration? It might have been. In the heyday of the Fontana KKK, when it was led by the infamous George Pepper, a Rapid Transit District bus driver who was a grand dragon in that organization and who ran unsuccessfully for Fontana Mayor in 1982, it was a contingent of the Hells Angels who kept the peace at Fontana City Council meetings by seating themselves between members of the KKK and the city’s black residents in attendance. Fontana Police Sergeant at the time Mickey Carns stated that Fontana “in fact does not have a race problem. We have a good ethnic mixture of diversity.”
Cross burnings, segregated neighborhoods, KKK rallies and marches on City Hall were all a part of the dark history of Fontana. At one time, at least, the KKK and other white supremacist groups felt comfortable establishing their organizations in the City of Fontana.