by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Dr. Vada J. Watson Somerville, the daughter of former slaves who was born in Arkansas and spent part of her childhood in Pomona and Chino before settling in Los Angeles as the 20th century dawned, made history as the first African-American woman graduate of the University of Southern California dental school, the first Black woman registered with the state board as she joined the practice of her husband, Dr. John A. Somerville, hosted with him the first local chapter meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and much else by the World War I era.
A postwar boom included economic growth for much of the region as well as an expansion of the local Black population with the community’s core moving further south along the Central Avenue corridor from downtown into South and South-Central Los Angeles. With the dental practice a success and their community work expanding significantly during the Roaring Twenties, the Somervilles then turned towards other areas of development within African-American Los Angeles with a pair of real estate development projects.
The first was the La Vada Apartments, which was credited to John, although, when an architectural rendering of the three-story structure appeared in the California Eagle of 26 March 1928, a caption noted that information about it should be sought from Vada. An image from the Miriam Matthews Photo Collection at the University of California, Los Angeles Library’s Special Collections sections has a caption that referred to her as the owner, while adding that the complex “is a modern monument, which, too, serves the useful purpose of living quarters in an atmosphere of quiet and comfort.”
The 26-unit building offered “Doubles, Singles and Bachelor Apartments, furnished or unfurnished” and was considered to be the first modern apartment building constructed by Black developers with African-American contractors and laborers and for tenants of that race. Located on Vernon Avenue just west of San Pedro Street, the structure still stands today. The Eagle of 24 January reported on an impromptu tour given by Vada of the building and noted,
We heard something about an apartment [building] being erected by the Somervilles, but we had not even dared to dream of something so completely beautiful as this apartment [complex] which is not surpassed by the most up to date Hollywood apartments in modernity and finish.
“La Vada” in equipment, convenience and artistic value, will please the most fastidious taste and yet, in price, will accommodate the most conservative.
About a mile away, the Somervilles soon took on their biggest venture with the development of the Hotel Somerville. The 6 April 1928 edition of the Eagle ran an ad from the Somerville Finance and Investment Company, created to build the edifice and which had an authorized stock issue of a quarter million dollars.
The firm was led by John with prominent realtor H.A. Howard and Eagle owner and editor Charlotta Bass as vice-presidents, Vada’s half-brother Bert McDonald (working in the county district attorney’s office—being the first African-American lawyer to do so) as secretary and counsel, and Bishop J.W. Martin of the Zion A.M.E. Church as treasurer. There were four directors, including Fred Williams, owner and publisher of the Pacific Defender newspaper, the Rev. W.T. Cleghorn of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, business woman Zora Williams, and Vada, identified as a dentist and welfare worker.
The ad reported that the structure was half-finished and that leases were executed for the ground level store spaces and an income and deductions schedule proposed a net annual income of above $33,000. Touted was that “this company has already given work to many Colored mechanics and laborers in building the hotel” and that this “warrants the support of our people as this company will do much toward bettering living conditions” among Black residents of the area.
The grand opening was the weekend of 23-24 June with the hotel opened for inspection and special dinners “served in the exquisite dining room” at $1.00 per plate. There were reports that some 5,000 persons appeared for the event, which seemed to bode well for the future of the establishment. Unfortunately, the real estate boom that erupted in greater Los Angeles earlier in the decade peaked by 1923 and there was a gradual decline afterwards.
In August, an ad taken out by the Somerville Finance and Investment Company urged readers to invest in what was touted as “by far the most outstanding achievement among Colored people in Los Angeles” with the intention for the company “to keep the ownership, financing and management within the race for all times.” A dozen reasons were stipulated for stock ownership, including the claim that investors would realize 8% annually on investment; that stock could be purchased in cash or on installments; that the assets of the firm were backed “by the finest piece of improved Real Estate owned and operated by Colored people in the United States;” that 35 African-Americans were employed and six Black-owned business operated there; and that it was “a monument to the effort of the Colored people” and was “a race institution of which you can become part owner.”
With a great deal of expended capital put forward and loans assumed, the rentals of the retail spaces and booking of the 100 or so hotel rooms was not enough to keep the hotel’s owning company solvent. John Somerville and a variety of sources stated that the crash of the stock market in late October 1929 and the resulting Great Depression is what caused the crisis, but thee 22 March issue of the Eagle included a report that the Lincoln Hotel Company of America took control of the enterprise. The article announced that a complete renovation and refurnishing was to be effected and Lincoln stated that “colored people only will be employed.”
By late May, the name of the hotel was changed to the Dunbar, named for the brilliant late 19th and early 20th centuries Black poet and author, Paul Laurence Dunbar. An ad in the Eagle from the 24th called it “America’s Finest Colored Hotel” as well as “The Hotel That Makes You Feel at Home.” It added that the Dunbar was ten minutes from the railroad station, that there were shops for men and women in it and that “food you can’t forget [is] served in the Dining Room.” While the Depression hit within six months, the hotel survived and the building is still with us as it approaches its centennial with 83 apartments, half of which are affordable units.
Despite the financial failures experienced by the Somervilles, Vada’s activism in the African-American community and Los Angeles broadly only expanded, including after her retirement from dentistry in 1933. She continued her work in local Republican politics, though the worsening depression led her, along with many other Black voters, to switch to the Democratic Party by the 1936 elections. She expanded her work with such organizations as the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Moreover, she and Zora Williams, who was involved in the hotel project, became local agents for General Electric appliances in 1935.
During the Forties, Dr. Somerville became noted as a host of prominent visitors as well as local personages and events at the home she and John resided in near Western and Adams and close to the First African Methodist-Episcopal Church. When the famed contralto Marian Anderson visited in March 1941, Somerville welcomed her fellow Alpha Gamma Omega sister to the Angel City. The following year, she became president of the Sojourner Truth Club and its residential home, one of the versions of which is still standing, though greatly altered.
In the political realm, Dr. Somerville, just prior to America’s entry into World War II, joined some 500 other women to advocate that African-Americans be included in the National Defense Program. She was also among several Black figures who lobbied the Los Angeles City Council to pass an ordinance based on a state Fair Employment Practices Committee that was left unrealized after it was defeated as a proposition, but the council voted against it.
Later in the decade, she was involved in efforts to develop pre-college conference for young Black women looking to pursue higher education. When the preeminent educator Dr. Mary McLeod Berthune celebrated her 71st birthday in the Angel City, the Metropolitan Branch of the National Council of Negro Women held a part for her at the Somerville residence—among those in attendance was a still relatively-unknown dancer and actor, Lena Horne.
A broader community effort was the development of Family Service of Los Angeles and Dr. Somerville became secretary in 1945 for the organization which worked to help families needing counseling, better health care, housing, employment and other crucial components. When L. Paul Grant established the Valparaiso Recreation Center at the Los Serranos Country Club property in what is now Chino Hills, she got involved by chairing a committee that organized a November 1949 bridge tournament for the organization, which, however, was forced to close shortly afterward because of financial problems and muddled ownership issues.
In her seventies, Dr. Somerville continued her widespread involvement in organizations, including Democratic politics. When James Roosevelt, a Los Angeles resident, ran for Congress in 1950, his mother, Eleanor, who championed improved race relations from the time her late husband, Franklin, was president, stumped for him and the two were feted at a reception at the Somerville home. Eight years later, Dr. Somerville was a signatory in ads that supported the gubernatorial candidacy of Edmund Brown, who served two terms as the chief executive of California.
Deeply involved in religious organizations, she was part of a committee for the United Church Women of Southern California, which included Catholic, Jewish and Protestant representatives from clubs as well as Dr. Somerville’s alma mater, USC. This broader intra-ethnic effort was complemented by her long-standing service on the Los Angeles County Committee on Human Relations, the mission of which included “to seek out the causes of racial tensions and to attempt to eliminate these causes.” In 1958, the Somervilles were honored with an Independent Church Lenten Award for their decades of community service and an Eagle photo showed them with a group that included operatic baritone Robert McFerrin, son of 10-time Grammy awardee Bobby McFerrin.
By the time she reached her eighties, Dr. Somerville’s activities understandably slowed, though, in 1963, she celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Phys-Art-Lit-Mor Club, which she founded. The following year, she was part of a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Democratic Women’s Forum, at which former Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was notorious labeled as the “Pink Lady” by fellow member of Congress, Richard M. Nixon, in a bitter 1950 campaign for the United States Senate.
After so many years of incredible energy and activism on so many fronts, Dr. Somerville’s death in October 1972 did not somehow warrant an obituary by the Los Angeles Times, though a paid notice was published that mentioned that she was the first African-American woman dentist in the Angel City and listed ten of the many organizations, including the Los Angeles chapter of LINKS, which still is in operation today, with which she was involved.
When John followed a few months later, there was an obituary issued by the Times and, subsequently, most attention has been paid to him, with Vada generally being given short shrift in comparison. It is clear, however, that, while the couple accomplished a great deal together, she is deserving of recognition in her own right for her many achievements over decades of business enterprise and community activism.
It was truly a pleasure and an honor to be able to share some of her story with the Chino Hills Historical Society on this cool, rainy evening and to close this year’s Black History Month with a summary of some aspects of the remarkable life of Dr. Vada Somerville.