by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As Los Angeles’ black community grew during the first decades of the 20th century, the major enclaves of the African-American population moved from downtown Los Angeles south along Central Avenue. The nexus of the community began from what is now Little Tokyo and then, as the city’s commercial and industrial core expanded, moved south to a section just above where Interstate 10 is now. The next locale was below Washington Boulevard and, by the era of the Roaring Twenties, to a section of South Los Angeles east of the University of Southern California and Exposition Park.
Several blocks south of where Santa Barbara Avenue, now Martin Luther King, Junior Boulevard, met Central, a core component of a blossoming area of black residential and commercial development included one of the more ambitions attempts to uplift the African-American community: the Hotel Somerville. This project was an initiative of its namesakes, John Alexander Somerville and Vada Jetmore Watson Somerville, a couple whose extraordinary lives deserve to be remembered even though their ownership of the hotel was short-lived and it was soon sold and became the famous Hotel Dunbar.
Somerville was born in Jamaica (often referred to as the “West Indies”) in 1881 and, a naturalization petition a quarter century later, identified as hometown as Smithfield, which is the Manchester Parish in the southern part of the island nation some fifty miles west of the capital, Kingston. His father, Thomas, was an Anglican minister and his mother, Frances Cowan, taught at the Anglican school where Thomas was the principal. An excellent student, Somerville expected to receive a university scholarship, but did not after taking an examination.
Rather than wait for the next exams the following year, he took a job as a bookkeeper with an export company and, hearing stories of travel while there, he decided, after two years of saving, that he would go to the United States and found passage by working on a Chilean vessel headed for San Francisco. He arrived in the City by the Bay early in 1901 as the 20th century dawned, but was astonished by a level of racism he did not experience in his home country, where it was the distinction of social and economic class that he knew.
While he had a plan to attend Howard University, a historic black college, and then return to practice dentistry in Jamaica, his bitter experiences in San Francisco led Somerville to travel south to, of all places, Redlands, the college town east of San Bernardino. He lived with a black family and worked in a bowling alley, whose owner’s brother-in-law taught at the University of Southern California dental school. After a year-and-a-half in Redlands, Somerville saved enough for tuition and headed to Los Angeles.
White students, however, at the dental school threatened to quit, but the dean held firm on his intention to allow Somerville the chance to earn his education. Not only did he do this, graduating in the class of 1906 as the first African-American to do so, but he had the best grades and, six months after he matriculated, he took the state dentistry exam and earned the highest score, after which he opened a practice at Broadway and 4th Street.
Meanwhile, Somerville met Vada Watson, who was attending USC on a Los Angeles Times scholarship and studying liberal arts. She was born in 1883 in Pomona to Welcome Watson and Dora Johnson, who were married in Lafayette, Arkansas, in the southwestern corner of that state, and who came to California just prior to Vada’s birth. After her father, who was some two decades older than her mother, died, the family moved to Chino, where Dora, who was briefly married to a man named McDonald, was a laundress as recorded in the 1900 federal census.
Within a decade, the family, with all of the children recorded with the surname of McDonald, was living in downtown just south of 9th Street (later renamed Olympic Boulevard for the summer games of 1932 held in the city) and in an area where the black community was growing during these first years of the century. In the 1910 census, the 23-year old Dora, who graduated from the city’s commercial high school, later called Los Angeles Polytechnic, was working, notably, as a hotel clerk.
Two years later, on 23 October 1912, Vada and John were married and remained so for almost exactly sixty years. Though they did not have children of their own, they had a foster daughter, Doris Howard. By the time the couple were married, conditions for the growing black population, including substandard housing, led John to contact W.E.B. DuBois, the towering African-American figure who helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) the prior year. Not only did DuBois come out to the Angel City and gave several speeches, including one for a large crowd at the Temple Auditorium across from Pershing Square, but he provided the inspiration for the formation of a local chapter of the NAACP, organized at the Somerville home with John as its first president, a position he held for a decade.
Several years later, when America entered the First World War and there was a concern that John might get drafted, Vada entered the U.S.C. dental school and became the first black woman to graduate, doing so so she could take over her husband’s practice if he was called up. That didn’t happen, but the couple worked together at their home at San Pedro and 18th streets, where the black community was moving as downtown headed further south.
Vada remained a practicing dentist for fifteen years, but she also developed interests in club work and political engagement for black women in Los Angeles. For example, she was president of the Phys-Art-Lit-Mo Club (the latter standing for “Moral Philosophy”), which was likely akin to the white women’s organizations, such as the Friday Morning Club. In May 1920, as a rare instance of black life being mentioned in the major white newspapers, the Los Angeles Express noted that the club, “being composed of colored women, many of well-known prominence in the affairs of their people locally, and highly cultured,” was discussing the question of “Is It Finance or Our Attitude Toward Conditions That Keeps Us Out of Business?” The paper noted other topics for club meetings, such as “What is Women’s Sphere?,” “Idealism,” and “Women’s Efficiency in Business.”
Two years later, as the gubernatorial election approached, Vada was part of “a committee of negro women, workers in civic, welfare and social activities” who, the Los Angeles Times reported, were less than impressed with the candidacy of former Los Angeles District Attorney Thomas Lee Woolwine “and were enthusiastically supporting the candidacy of Friend W. Richardson.” With the association comprising “some of the best-known women of Los Angeles’ negro population,” it decided that Woolwine’s focus “on dead issues [that] have failed to have the desired affect in the quarter where it was expected to do the most good for the Democratic nominee” was the reason for the promotion of the candidacy of Richardson, a conservative Republican who trounced Woolwine by nearly 25 points.
The growth of a small, but vibrant class of black professionals, including attorneys, realtors, doctors and dentists, and others, is reflected in these activities and the move into real estate by the Somervilles. In 1925, they purchased land at the northeast corner of San Pedro Street and Vernon Avenue and built “La Vada Apartments,” which was hailed both as an effort to alleviate housing problems for African-Americans and for promoting black business enterprise, even though the couple had to have rental commitments before securing a loan. Notably, a pamphlet for the complex, which still stands, indicated that Vada was the owner.
When it was learned a few years later that the NAACP would be holding its 19th annual national convention in the City of Angels in summer 1928, with most events taking place at the Second Baptist Church, founded in 1885 and with a beautiful edifice designed by the pioneer black architect Paul R. Williams and opened in early January 1926 at Griffith and 24th streets, the Somervilles joined forces with other prominent African-Americans to build the hotel for convention attendees.
In late March 1928, the Somerville Finance and Investment Company, with 2500 shares of stock with a par value of $100 each, was granted a permit by the state corporation commissioner. Joining John and Vada in the enterprise was her half-brother, Bert McDonald, who in 1923 was the first black graduate of the University of Southern California law school and first black attorney in the City Attorney’s office, where he rose to be the Chief Deputy City Attorney.
Other partners were Charlotta Bass, the prominent publisher of the California Eagle and a major civic figure in black Los Angeles; realtor H.A. Howard, who was later a banker; John W. Martin, the first resident bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church on the West Coast and who was in Los Angeles from 1924 to 1928; Walter T. Cleghorn, rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church at 28th Street and Stanford Avenue; and Fred and Zora Williams, the former being, despite his blindness, a real estate broker and a founder of the Pacific Defender newspaper in Los Angeles and the latter a owner of a well-known south Los Angeles appliance store.
It was a formidable association of prominent black Angelenos and the project was finished rapidly, with completion taking place on 23 June 1928 just as the NAACP convention was convening. An estimated 5,000 persons showed up to the hostelry’s grand opening and people marveled at the appointments of the 100-room enterprise, which included a dining room with an orchestra balcony and several stores, including a drug store, pharmacy, barber shop and other businesses in the ground floor commercial space.
Among the initial guests was DuBois, who raved about the Somerville, calling it “a jewel done with loving hands” and “a beautiful inn with a soul,” this latter a fitting word from the renowned author of The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois spoke of the hotel being “all full of sunshine and low voices and the sounds of human laughter and running water” as a kind of balm for a “people fed on ugliness—ugly schools, ugly churches, ugly streets, ugly insults. He reveled in the fact that the hotel was “so unexpected, so starling, so beautiful.”
While the building of the Hotel Somerville appears to have encouraged other capital investment in the neighborhood, which was starved for it as virtually all black communities were, the financial risk for such enterprises is always significant. Many sources suggest that the crash of the stock market in New York in late October 1929 doomed the hotel and its investors to failure.
When, however, Oscar DePriest, a pioneering African-American member of Congress from Chicago, came to Los Angeles a month prior to the crash and spoke at the Shrine Auditorium to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the California Eagle and talked about the black struggle for equality before the law, it was reported in the Times that he disembarked from a train at the Southern Pacific depot and a “large delegation of colored people . . . escorted him to the Dunbar Hotel.”
In any case, the Somerville was acquired by Lucius Lomax and renamed after the amazing black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906). It achieved great local renown, as well, for its connection to the famed Club Alabam and the many African-American celebrities, including musicians and actors, who patronized it over subsequent years. A decline ensued by the 1960s and the Dunbar closed in the mid-Seventies. Fortunately, it was saved and restored “as an economic and cultural anchor” for a neighborhood that is majority Latino in population and is also “the center of the Dunbar Village development” with affordable housing for seniors in the Somerville South and Somerville North complexes.
The highlighted real photo postcard from the museum’s holdings here is of the beautiful interior of the Hotel Somerville not long after it opened. The furnishings including crushed velvet sofas and the decor with tapestries, stencil work on walls and beams, cast-iron railings and chandeliers, and more is quite impressive.
There is a short general message, dated 26 September 1928 with the card postmarked two days later, of “I am enjoying my trip very much” from a woman identified only as Sallie writing to a white Irish recipient in North Conway, New Hampshire, so who knows whether “Sallie,” who presumably was white, visited the hotel. Otherwise, how else would she have gotten hold of the card?
In any case, another photo from the collection shows the exterior of the hotel from a cater-corner position so that the Central Avenue and the 42nd Street (now 41st Place) elevations are both shown in their entirety, as is the attractive commercial building to the north. The only sign is for the drug store and lunch counter that was the “anchor tenant” for the ground floor commercial space, while a pharmacy is on the 42nd Street side. There is some gold lettering on a window at the second floor corner, so it looks as if there was some commercial use above the first level, as well.
With the decorative street lamps and parked cars, the image evokes a prosperous business property that a viewer would not necessarily know was undertaken by an enterprising, if short-lived, association of black Angelenos aspiring to build that “beautiful inn with a soul” for the betterment of themselves and their community. The Somervilles continued to play a prominent role among African-Americans in the Angel City for years to come and died within months, with Vada passing away in late October 1972 and her husband following the next February. They remain among the most influential figures of 2th century black Los Angeles. For an excellent overview of John Somerville’s life, please see this article by Sarah Lifton. There is also a great summary of the couple from USC’s Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs.