William Seccombe: Respected SB Mayor, Civic Leader & Segregationist

William Carpenter Seccombe is a San Bernardino county historical figure whose personal and public accomplishments are intertwined with an issue that from an historical and social perspective now appears unfortunate and mars his legacy.
During his early years, the city of San Bernardino and its environs had become a center of the citrus industry and was growing and developing dynamically with various business concerns. Seccombe was among an alert class of men awash on this sea of opportunity who had not lost their strong sense of civic duty nor neglected the claims upon them of the unfortunate, rather having grown
in constructive citizenship and humanitarianism as they had in commercial importance.
Seccombe was born in Waverly, Nova Scotia, Canada, May 21, 1873, a son of Canadian parents who came to San Bernardino in 1883, and he was reared there. After completing his studies in the public schools of San Bernardino he became a student of the old Sturgess Academy, which until the establishment of the city’s public high schools gave San Bernardino’s youth the equivalent of high school training. None living today have any recollection of the academy, as after the public high schools opened more than a century ago, it was shuttered. The academy, nonetheless, was remembered by those of Mr. Seccombe’s generation with kindly affection.
After leaving the academy, Seccombe was purposed to become in general an entrepreneur and specifically a druggist. He accordingly sought training in the field by going to work for the drug store owned by Ernest E. McGibbon and later that of John A. Lamb.
From 1891 to 1904 he served as a member of the California National Guard, and from April 9 to December 2, 1898, was in the service during the Spanish-American war, holding the rank of first lieutenant of Company K, Seventh Infantry. In 1900 he received a commission as a major of the Seventh Regiment, California National Guard, and continued to serve as such for four years. The National Guard was re-organized after the return of its members, who had volunteered for service during the Spanish-American war.
Seccombe had remained employed with the drug store operations owned by McGibbon and Lamb for the ten years between 1885 and 1895. Having acquired a working knowledge of the pharmacy business in nearly all of its particulars, he joint ventured with F. N. Towne and M. D. Allison, establishing the firm of Towne, Seccombe & Allison, their first location being a drug store placed into an existing retail establishment Towne owned at 406 Second Street, which they remodeled.
On December 25, 1897, Seccombe married Miss Margaret Lee Perdew, a daughter of G. F. R. B. and Jeanette (Woodworth) Perdew. Mr. Perdew was a pioneer of California, coming here from Texas in 1862 by ox team and settling at San Bernardino. His death occurred in San Bernardino in November 1900. Mrs. Seccombe was born at San Bernardino, February 20, 1874. Mr. and Mrs. Seccombe had two sons. William Lyle Seccombe was born May 21, 1902, graduated from the San Bernardino High School and attended the Oregon Agricultural College at Corvallis, Oregon, studying civil and structural engineering. Gordon Herbert was born June 20, 1911 and attended public schools in San Bernardino.
The drug store Seccombe founded with Towne and Allison grew so rapidly that expansion became necessary, and the partners then established their second store, at 576 Third Street, in 1909. In 1912 the Dragon Pharmacy was acquired and added to the business of the other two flourishing stores. For twelve years Mr. Seccombe was secretary, treasurer and active manager, but retired from the concern in March 1919.
In 1907, Seccombe became a member of the San Bernardino Board of Education. From 1913 until 1919, he was board president, during which time the polytechnic high school campuses were built. When those schools were opened, he delivered the dedication address.
A Mason, Seccombe also belonged to the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, in which he held a life membership, and he was a charter member of the Rotary Club. His family attended the Congregational Church, in which Mrs. Seccombe was an active worker.
Having released himself from the confining responsibilities of an engrossing business, Seccombe in the middle and late 1920s and into the 1930s was free to give expression to some of his ideas relative to outside matters, and in a spirit of civic pride made a study of some of the problems of the day, suggesting possible solutions. Always a friend of the public schools, he was looked upon as an authority emeritus even though he was no longer on the board, and his advice was oftentimes sought by members of the board of educators. He engaged in a number of varied benevolences that were seldom made public.
Having spent all but ten years of his life in San Bernardino, his interests naturally centered there and he did everything within his power to aid in the further development of his adopted city. Throughout the 1930s his reputation grew, culminating in his election as mayor. He served in that capacity from May 12, 1941 to May 11,1947.
Unfortunately, it was during this tenure that the last throes of the traditional practice of ethnic segregation in Southern California were cast off and Seccombe’s name became permanently identified with the discredited former social order.
Throughout much of its early history and lasting well into the 1940s, the Hispanic population of Southern California, including 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, El 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 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. 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 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 in 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.
The case of Lopez v. Seccombe is not William Carpenter Seccombe’s only lasting legacy to San Bernardino.
Garner’s Swamp was a small forest of willow and cottonwood trees. Seccombe and his family enjoyed hunting duck in the area and after he became mayor, he found himself empowered to act on his inclination to turn Garner’s Swamp into a city fishing spot. In 1942, he convinced city officials to buy 12.5 acres of land north of 5th Street between Waterman and Lugo avenues that contained a marsh which resulted from the water table being so close to the surface.
The facility was opened in 1946. Surrounded by 45 acres of state parkland – surrounded by Fifth Street and Pioneer Memorial Cemetery, and Sierra Way and Waterman Avenue – it was known as Inland Lake for years. All of the parkland was taken over by the city from the state in 1991 and it is now known as Seccombe Lake.
William Seccombe was long-lived, living to the age of 99.

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