By Mark Gutglueck
The city of San Bernardino played a somewhat regrettable role, ending up on what is now the wrong side of history, in the battle for desegregation.
Throughout much of its early history and lasting well into the 1940s, the Hispanic population of San Bernardino was subject to discriminatory practices that were accepted as par for the course by most of the region’s inhabitants. Children of Mexican descent attended segregated schools, and Latinos in San Bernardino were permitted to use public pools only on Sunday, the day before the pools were drained and cleaned.
On August 1, 1943, the Mexican American Defense Committee of
San Bernardino held a meeting at San Jose Hall on Fifth Street and Pico Avenue.to discuss what could be done about these practices.
The meeting had been coordinated and was hosted by Eugenio Nogueras, the editor of a local Spanish language newspaper, l Sol de San Bernardino. The attendees resolved to meet the issue head on and confront city officials about the policies they had put in place or were perpetuating which subjected the entire Hispanic population of the city and in particular those living in the Westside barrio, along Mount Vernon Avenue to second and third class citizenship.
On August 19, 1943, the Mexican American Defense Committee sent a letter to Mayor W.C. Seccombe and the city council demanding that “Mexicans” be allowed to use the municipal pool at Perris Hill Park. Tommy Richardson, the city of San Bernardino’s municipal recreation supervisor and the coordinator of baseball games held on Mount Vernon Avenue, voiced his support of the policy change. Nevertheless, the city council rejected the Mexican American Defense Committee’s demands. Nogueras found further support in the person of Ignacio Lopez, editor of El Espectador, yet another local Spanish language newspaper. The information campaign with regard to the demand escalated and ultimately, on September 17, 1943, Los Angeles-based attorney David C. Marcus representing the Mexican American Defense Committee and petitioners Ignacio Lopez, Eugenio Nogueras, Father Nuñez, Virginia Prado, and Rafael Muñoz filed a class action lawsuit against the mayor and the city council. Lopez vs. Seccombe made issue of the segregated swimming pools in San Bernardino.
Marcus asserted that as as taxpayers and United States citizens, the Mexican Americans of San Bernardino were entitled to use parks and recreational facilities within the city and that barring their admittance was unconstitutional under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The case was heard in District Court of the United States for the Southern District of California, Central Division (Los Angeles).
Seccombe and the city denied the allegations and stated that the city charter provided the mayor and the city council with the legislative and administrative “authority to acquire, own and maintain public libraries, common museums, gymnasiums, parks and baths,” and in so doing run them in any manner they deemed appropriate.
The district court’s presiding judge, Leon Yanckwich rejected the city’s assertion of overriding authority, ruling that the city had to abide by the Constitutional guarantees provided to all citizens, including San Bernardino’s Mexican American residents. Yanckwich declared, in a ruling handed down on February 5, 1944, “…respondents’ conduct is illegal and is in violation of petitioners’ rights and privileges as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States… as particularly provided under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. That petitioners are 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.” Lopez v. Seccombe was among the earliest successful desegregation court cases in United States history. The decision desegregating the city’s recreational facilities set a precedent for other local desegregation challenges, including the much more celebrated Mendez v. Westminster, a school desegregation decision in 1947 involving a school district in Orange County, and influenced the landmark Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
This narrative took as a primary source Mark Ocegueda’s tractate on the case Lopez v. Seccombe.