“She Stands Out as an Example of American Womanhood”: The Remarkable Life of Dr. Vada Watson Somerville, 1883-1972, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

If you happen to be free tomorrow evening at 7 p.m., a presentation for the Chino Hills Historical Society at the city’s community center at 14250 Peyton Drive, across from Ayala High School, will be presented on Vada Watson Somerville (1883-1972,) an African-American woman of considerable distinction and achievement who spent part of her childhood in the Chino Valley before going on to be a community leader in Los Angeles over a half-century or so.

The daughter of former slaves Welcome Watson and Dora Johnson, Vada came with her widowed mother and siblings to greater Los Angeles in the early 1890s, While they were residing in Pomona, Dora married Peter B. McDonald, a resident of Chino, though the marriage was short-lived, producing a son Bert. They remained a few years in Chino, where Dora did laundry work, but, as the 20th century dawned, they relocated to Los Angeles.

A the bottom of this detail of a 1900 census sheet of Chino is the McDonald/Watson family, including 16-year-old Vada.

The Black community grew dramatically at the end of the 19th century and this continued into the new one and the McDonald/Watson family resided in an area of the Angel City just east of Central Avenue and south of the 9th Street (now Olympic Boulevard) that is industrial, but at the time was part of the growing African-American section of town. Vada attended the Los Angeles Commercial High School and, after she completed her studies, she entered a Los Angeles Times contest, which required considerable work in canvassing for votes for candidates, for a college scholarship.

The only Black young adult participating in that year’s contest, Vada highly impressed the paper, which featured her several times in coverage of the progress of the enterprise, which took several months. The 25 June 1903 edition of the paper, after calling her “a very bright girl” who “if given the opportunity may distinguish herself,” quoted Vada as saying,

My father died eight years ago, and my mother has had a family of seven children to bring up. She has worked hard to keep me in school, as I have always had an ambition to get a good education. I think I am old enough now to help myself and my mother, too, who has been very good to me. I hope to be assisted in this contest by all the worthy colored people in Los Angeles and vicinity, as well as by many white friends.

When she surged into a position that earned her the coveted funds to attend the University of Southern California, the Times remarked that “one of the most distinctive victories won in the contest” was that of Vada, who was among just a few persons of color to emerge with a scholarship.

Los Angeles Times, 5 September 1903.

The paper continued that her achievement “reflects credit on her race” while noting that “in point of intelligence she ranks with the best and brightest of the contests,” so that her capturing a spot on the scholarship roster was truly “a reward of merit.” While it was observed that she had the unswerving support of African-Americans, it was also stated that “many white people also assisted the ambitious colored girl.” Moreover, this was the first instance of a young Black woman winning a scholarship in the Times contest.

There were, however, the constant reminders of racism confronted by Vada as she pursued her education. During the contest, it was reported that an unknown person ran her down as she rode on a borrowed bicycle to canvass for contest votes and, while it may have been an accident, one wonders given that all indications were that she was riding clearly in the street when she was hit.

Pomona Review, 5 November 1903.

Not long after she secured the scholarship and entered college, Vada and her mother were at a corner waiting for a streetcar when H.A. Williams, a Whittier newspaper employee, verbally abused the two of them and tripped Vada as she tried to walk away. While he was arrested and it was stated that friends tried to bribe a Times reporter from covering the story, Williams was discharged after a hearing before a city judge. Dora McDonald, however, angered by the result berated the magistrate for what she considered a miscarriage of justice.

Then, once Vada was enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts at USC, a furor arose when she was suggested for membership in the Athena Literary Society. Called by the Times, once more, “a very bright colored girl,” Vada was the subject of a vote denying her admission reportedly based only on her skin color, rather than her attainments. The paper added that

Her cleverness in the classroom and her lady-like manners attracted the young people to her and she soon was surrounded by many friends. During the second week of school the Athena society gave an elegant reception to the young ladies of the school. Miss Watson attended and was treated with the utmost consideration by everyone.

While not acknowledging that she was a former resident of the city, the Pomona Review editorialized about the controversy, asserting that Vada “is a bright, active, ambitious young lady of color who has worked earnestly to qualify her mind and manners for membership.” Noting that all she sought was the opportunity “to assume life’s duties and responsibilities as [well as] any of her white sisters,” the paper avowed that “her heroic course has won for her numerous friends and admission to society circles as well as admirers of her many personal qualities.”

The 1910 census listing her as “Vada J. McDonald” and with her occupation as “hotel clerk.”

It was reported that supporters of Vada’s application were concerned that denial of her membership only because of her race was unbecoming to a university still officially affiliated (though not for long) with the Methodist Church. President George F. Bovard, still relatively new to the job, told the press he and the faculty wished to stay out of the matter and let the members of the society handle the problem themselves, but one wonders what went on behind the scenes, as a second vote was held and Vada was finally allowed to join.

While some sources suggest that Vada completed her studies at USC, she actually left school after a couple of years, likely for financial reasons, and she went to work to support her family, including stints as a hotel clerk, bookkeeper and telephone operator. The 1910 census shows her in the former occupation while living at home with her mother, three brothers and one sister. The sister, Leola, later became a renowned soprano singer in the local African-American community, while a half-brother Peter, known as Bert, went on to graduate from the USC law school, practiced privately briefly, and then became the first Black member of the district attorney’s office, rising to be an assistant district attorney.

Dr. Somerville’s registration with the state’s Board of Dental Examiners, 20 July 1918.

It has been suggested that it was during her first stint at USC that she met John A. Somerville (1882-1973), a native of Jamaica who, after a discouraging short stay at San Francisco where racism drove him to leave, wound up in Los Angeles and entered the dental school at USC the semester Vada began there. Similarly, John faced the wrath of other students who threatened to quit if he was allowed to study, but he was allowed to continue study and, in 1907, became the first African-American to earn a dental degree at the school. He then opened a practice at Broadway and 4th Street, became a citizen, joined the city’s powerful chamber of commerce and bought a home and office on San Pedro Street and 18th Street where the 10 Freeway is now.

With their marriage, the Somervilles almost instantly became a prominent couple in the Black community, including hosting a 1913 meeting at their residence that led to the formation of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). John served as its founding president and Vada was later a director and head of its junior chapter for younger members. Also in 1913, Vada formed the Phys-Art-Lit-Mor [Physical Culture, Art, Literature and Morals) Club and remained with it for over a half-century. There was much more to come from her with respect to deep involvement in educational, fraternal, social, political and business circles in coming years.

Dr. Somerville listed as a member of the executive board of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, California Eagle, 4 April 1924.

Purportedly, with the onset of the First World War and the possibility that John might get drafted to serve in the American Expeditionary Force that turned the tide of the dreadful conflict in 1917-1918, it was decided by the couple that Vada should get her dental degree from USC. She, however, earned her degree in spring 1918 and the program was certainly longer than a year or two and she was not only the only African-American in the program, but also the only woman. In July, she became the first Black woman dentist admitted to practice in California and joined her husband, who was not drafted, in his business, remaining with it for fifteen years until she retired at age 50 in 1933.

During the Roaring Twenties, as the African-American community in Los Angeles continued to grow dramatically, Dr. Somerville considerable expanded her involvement in local affairs. This included her commitment to the NAACP; longstanding work with the California League of Women Voters; a role with the state committee for the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs; the Married Ladies’ Art, Literature and Social Club; Republican Party politics at the local and state level; the Urban League and much else. Some of her work was with broader organizations outside the Black community, as well.

Dr. Somerville identified as the 1st Vice-President of the California League of Women Voters with President Charlotta Bass also being the publisher of the Eagle, from which this article was published on 26 March 1926.

A notable event in summer 1925 was when there were two nights at the Hollywood Bowl during which a historical pageant, “Star of Ethiopia,” written by the renowned W.E.B. DuBois, was presented. Told over six episodes, the story covered the development of African civilizations, connections to ancient Egypt, the story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the degradation of Africa through the slave trade, but with resistance to oppression, and, finally, the gradual recent development of Blacks towards a vision of self-improvement and success amid rampant and pervasive racism.

The pageant, which required some 350 cast members and a great deal of capital investment, was performed only four times, starting in 1913 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Emancipation Proclamation, and, lastly, at the Bowl a dozen years later. As was the case with the other mountings of the “Star of Ethiopia,” the Los Angeles production lost money, but it was still an important landmark for the local African-American community. The Somervilles were at the forefront of local planning and were given credit by DuBois for their intense efforts on the project.

Dr. Somerville was shown as an assistant in the holding of a summer camp held by the Urban League, Eagle, 19 August 1927.

The couple’s community building efforts were catalyzed by a pair of projects that were launched towards the end of the Roaring Twenties, including the La Vada Apartments building and their Hotel Somerville. Both of these were advertised, especially the latter, as crucial components to the lifting up and the building up of the local Black community and definitely placed the Somervilles at the apex of the leadership of African-American Los Angeles.

With this, we’ll bring this first part of the two-part post to a close and finish this summary of the the amazing life story of Vada Watson Somerville tomorrow evening after the Chino Hills talk is concluded. Join us either for the talk or for the second part as Black History Month 2023 comes to a close.

2 thoughts

  1. Amazing grit to overcome all this prejudice and senseless rejection. As my wife’s closest older friend remarked, “why do they hate us so much?” That, unfortunately, is still a relevant question.

  2. Thank you, Patrick, for your comment. Vada Somerville, along with her husband John, was a remarkable figure and was among many, including women, who sought to uplift the African-American community in Los Angeles, but whose names and achievements are under-recognized. Hopefully, that will change.

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