It may have been fate that brought the Somerville Hotel into existence just in time to house attendees to the first West Coast convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1928. The hotel was completed in June of that year. The 19th annual convention was held that same month.
Named for Dr. John Somerville, a Jamaica-born dentist, and his wife Vada, also a dentist, it was reportedly the first hotel built by Blacks west of the Mississippi. Up to that point, all Black-owned hotels had been structures previously owned by Whites. It was not the first structure built by the enterprising Somerville. A year before, he had erected the La Vada Apartments, “the first modern apartment building to be occupied by Blacks in Los Angeles,” according to the 1973 edition of The Crisis, the NAACP journal.
The Somerville Hotel was not only a source of great pride for Black Angelenos, but its famous Club Alabam played host to the creme de la creme of Black entertainers–Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Bill “BoJangles” Robinson, Jimmie Lunceford, Billie Holiday, and a list of others that is too long to include.
Somerville was the first Black to graduate from the University of Southern California School of Dentistry, and he did so with “the highest honors,” reported The Crisis. (Vada was also a graduate of the school after him.) Somerville helped launch the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP and served as its first president.
Four years earlier, another dentist, Dr. H. Claude Hudson, had become president of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP, a position he held for 10 consecutive years. Already a Howard University-educated dentist and a civil rights activist when he arrived from Shreveport, La., Hudson would later combine two other interests–the study of law and banking–into an already frantic schedule. “It was during Hudson’s tenure that the branch hosted the 19th Annual NAACP Convention, the first to be held in Los Angeles,” says a historical note on the branch’s website.
The convention was hosted at Second Baptist Church, which made its own claim to history. Built in 1926, the structure was designed by architect Paul R. Williams (in collaboration with Norman Marsh) and could seat more than 2,000 persons. It was the largest meeting space owned by African Americans in Los Angeles at that time. The church, under the direction of Pastor Thomas L. Griffth, played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement. The church also provided critical assistance for the 1942 and 1949 conventions, and remained an important venue for such political and spiritual luminaries as Adam Clayton Powell, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
The major speakers at the convention in 1928 were W.E.B. Du Bois and poet and activist Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Du Bois, of course, was the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, a founder of the NAACP and the founder and editor of its journal, The Crisis.
In 1942, the convention returned to Los Angeles, and the war in Europe was very much on the nation’s mind. It was the organization’s 33rd annual convention, and it was held seven months after the United States entered World War II.
As the nation’s oldest and most powerful civil rights organization it began to put pressure on the film industry concerning its depiction of Blacks in the movies. Actually, this was not a new practice for the NAACP. In 1915, the fledgling organization had protested negative portrayals of Blacks in D.W. Griffith’s racist agitprop film, “Birth of a Nation.”
“NAACP Executive Director Walter White worked with politicians and studio executives to establish an ad hoc committee with the major studios to monitor the image and portrayals of African Americans on the screen,” according to the Hollywood branch website. Depictions of Blacks in the movies then began to change, although the change was slow.
Among those attending the 1949 convention, which was also held in Los Angeles, were W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson and Arthur Spingarn, considered one of the founders. The Spingarn Medal was presented to author Charles W. Chesnutt. The keynote speakers included Ralph Bunche, the United Nations statesman; Roy Wilkins, secretary of the NAACP; Paul Robeson, the great civil rights activist, writer, singer, and actor, and William H. Hastie, governor of the Virgin Islands.
About 500 delegates from more than 40 states were in attendance in post-World War II Los Angeles. It was the organization’s 40th annual convention. The closing session was held at the Hollywood Bowl.
Forty-one years passed before the convention returned to Los Angeles in 1990. Benjamin Hooks, then executive director, told the 81st convention of almost 6,000 delegates that “Blacks must stop offering ‘alibis’ and ‘help ourselves,’” according to the July 30 issue of Jet magazine. He charged Blacks that they “could no longer afford to wallow in self-pity and must take control of their own lives.
“‘It’s time today–July 8, 1990–to bring it out of the closet. No longer can we proffer polite, explicable reasons why Black America cannot do more for itself. I’m calling for a moratorium on excuses. I challenge Black America today–all of us–to set aside our alibis.’”
After White died in 1955, Roy Wilkins became executive secretary and held the position for 22 years, having been groomed for it for 24 years. An articulate speaker, accomplished writer, he filled numerous roles–editor of The Crisis, chairman of the National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization and several other positions. A political realist, Wilkins’ strategy was to appeal to reason and the intellect. He conferred with the politically powerful, testified before congressional committees, appeared on television and literally became the face of the NAACP.
Thurgood Marshall never headed the NAACP, but he “is a towering presence in the history of the United States and civil rights,” says “Black Heroes of the 20th Century.”
“As a young attorney working for the NAACP, he spent most of his career forcing the courts and Americans to look at the U.S. Constitution and realize which rights did not extend to African Americans. His pursuit of this goal led to the ground-breaking Brown v. Board of Education decision that declare separate but equal educational facilities unconstitutional.”
The venerable organization was founded on February 12, 1909, by a diverse group of both White and Black Americans who were concerned about racial conditions in the nation. Although usually thought of as a historically Black organization, at its inception it was primarily White and “heavily Jewish.” In fact, Du Bois was the only African American on its executive board. Many of its members had come from the Niagara Movement, which had a more radical agenda, but soon disbanded.
A year earlier had seen riots break out in Springfield, Ill. William English Walling, a White Kentuckian who had gone to Springfield to investigate the conditions, became so alarmed by the violence that he penned an article for The Independent expressing an urgent need for concerned citizens to come together “to combat the evil.” He suspected that the violence had its genesis in the South and was spreading to the North. The nation may not have realized it then, but it was desperately in need of an effective civil rights organization. All the components were about to come together for the launching of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Among those who laid the groundwork for the organization were Du Bois, a historian, sociologist, civil rights activist and Pan-Africanist, among other things; Ida B. Wells, journalist, speaker and activist in the cause of both Blacks and women; Walling, a labor reformer, socialist and writer; Henry Moskowitz, a civil rights activist and doctor of philosophy; Mary White Ovington, a suffragette, socialist, Unitarian and journalist; Florence Kelley, a political and social reformer, suffragette; Oswald Garrison Villard, a journalist and grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and Archibald Henry Grimke, a lawyer, intellectual, journalist, diplomat and community leader.
The first several executive secretaries of the NAACP were White, but in 1920, James Weldon Johnson became the first non-White head of the organization. Although he might be best remembered as an author and the songwriter who penned “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the so-called Negro national anthem, his role with the NAACP expanded its membership and molded it into an effective organization. “Moreover, he expanded the NAACP’s stance on lynching into a crusade…” reports the book, “The Civil Rights Movement.” Johnson was also an educator, a diplomat, a poet, an anthologist and a lawyer.
In 1916 after Walter White and a group of Atlantans had come together to form a local branch of the NAACP. Johnson was invited to address its first public mass meeting. But when White was called to deliver an unplanned speech, his talk was so dynamic and impressive that Johnson later invited White to join the NAACP in New York as assistant secretary. “White hesitated,” according to the book “Black Heroes of the 20th Century.” The position meant leaving home and a reduction in salary, but White’s father urged him to go. White took up his duties in the organization in January 1918.
Among White’s earliest duties was investigating the lynchings that were occurring all over the South. Since White could easily pass for White, it meant he could investigate conditions without as much notice as a darker man.
Says “Black Heroes of the 20th Century”: “In the 10 years following 1918, he made personal inquiries into 41 lynching and eight race riots. In Tulsa in 1921 he was even drafted as a temporary deputy sheriff on the basis of his appearance. White worked assiduously in publicizing his findings. Under the tutelage of James Weldon Johnson, he developed great skills as a lobbyist. There was always much travel and many speaking engagements. White covered 26,000 miles and spoke 86 times in February 1927. White spoke 17 times and had several conferences in a 12-day span.”
Benjamin Todd Jealous is the NAACP’s current president and chief executive officer. He walks in the shoes of literal civil rights giants such as James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, W.E.B Bois, Clarence Mitchell, Benajmin Hooks and many others. He is the youngest person to ever hold the position, and like White, Du Bois, Wilkins, and Ida B. Wells (one of the founders) he’s a former journalist.
As delegates roll into town for the 102nd NAACP convention, the fifth in Los Angeles, it is important to recognize that it is an exceptional organization with a stellar history in the cause of cause of civil rights. It blazed the trail, and no other organization has been at in longer or achieved more.
Among the events planned for the conference to be held at the L.A. Convention Center are a health panel on July 23 at 9:30 a.m., featuring the present and two former U.S. surgeon generals. On July 27, a special plenary session begginning at 9:30 a.m. will explore protecting African American voting rights and the 2012 presidential election.
For more details on the convention, visit the website www.naacp.org