Throwback Thursday | Revisiting Our Racist Past


PHOTO: Pasadena Museum of History | | The celebration at Brookside Tavern and Municipal Plunge in Pasadena after it reopened. People of color had unrestricted access to the pool for the first time in 30 years (1947)

There was a time in our not-so-distant past when racism prevented or restricted American citizens of color from employment opportunities, property ownership, access to public and privately-owned facilities, etc. Furthermore, during a four-year period from February 19, 1942, to March 20, 1946, Americans of Japanese ancestry were forced to leave their homes and relocate to armed camps at remote locations. Sixty-two percent of the internees at the camps were United States citizens.

Employment Discrimination

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, orange groves and fruit orchards filled the Arroyo Seco, South Pasadena, and the region at large. The fruit industry produced hundreds of jobs for San Gabriel Valley residents. For some, however, employment was denied based on their race.

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PHOTO: Pasadena Museum of History | Local area orange packing operation (1886)

In the photo above, notice the sign which reads: “No Chinese Employed.” Another sign on the back wall reads: “Visitors are requested not to take any oranges.” This business owner is fearful on many counts.

Denied Access to Public Facilities

A Municipal Plunge opened in Pasadena on July 4, 1914, at Brookside Park allowing access for white citizens only, except on Wednesdays – the last day before the city cleaned the pool. People of color could access the plunge on Wednesday only during the afternoon and evening.

When a black taxpayers group challenged the practice, the City of Pasadena promptly prohibited all nonwhites from the pool. In 1929, nonwhites were once again allowed access of the plunge but only on Tuesdays between 2 and 5 pm. The city’s concession was declared “International Day.”

PHOTO: Pasadena Museum of History | | White people only every day (including weekends) except on Tuesday afternoons at the Municipal Plunge, Pasadena (1934)
PHOTO: Pasadena Museum of History | | Once a week on “International Day” people of color were allowed use of the pool (1931)

Sammy Lee, the son of Korean immigrants, first learned how to dive at the Brookside plunge. Since he was allowed the use of the pool only one day a week, on his own, he constructed a diving board and a sand pit to train. Lee was the first Asian American to win an Olympic medal and the first to win gold medals at two different Olympics for his diving event. Lee said he was inspired to perform in the face of racist policies at the time. “I was angered,” he said, “but I was going to prove that in America I could do anything.”

In 1945 following a successful lawsuit against the city, people of color were allowed unrestricted use of the swimming facilities. However, the city promptly closed the plunge, citing that it was no longer financially viable to keep open.

Note: The year that Pasadena’s Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, the NAACP obtained an injunction which forced the reopening of the plunge on July 7, 1947, without restrictions based on race or gender. Robinson commented on the treatment of blacks in Pasadena, “We saw movies from segregated balconies, swam in a municipal pool only on Tuesdays and were permitted in the YMCA one night a week.”


Forced Relocation based on Ancestry

During the spring of 1942, about 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were rounded up by local authorities and incarcerated or sent to internment camps, some losing their businesses and homes forever.

The criteria that determined Japanese ancestry: “as little as 1/16 Japanese, orphaned infants, or even one drop of Japanese blood.”

PHOTO: National Archives | | Guards watch as Japanese American men, women, and children wait to board a train to one of 10 relocation camps (1942)

South Pasadena resident William Sato shared his experience of the train ride to the relocation camp: “I thought, what’s going to happen to us? And as we went over Cajon Pass into the desert, I said ‘Oh Jesus Christ, they’re going to put us in the desert, and they’re going to line us up and kill every God damn one of us’ I really thought that.”

PHOTO: South Pasadena Public Library | | Otake and Nambu families at the Otake home on Bank Street, South Pasadena (1935)

American citizens of Japanese descent were a sizable population in South Pasadena in the 1920s and 1930s. The Meridian Iron Works History Museum was a Japanese American Center used as a school before World War II.

PHOTO: Pasadena Museum of History | | Graduates of a homemaking class given by the American Red Cross at the Japanese American Center, South Pasadena (1931)
PHOTO: Japanese American National Museum | | The train rests on the tracks following Japanese Americans departure at their isolated destination (1942)

The San Francisco Examiner’s front page headline reads: “Ouster of All Japs in California Near!” Meanwhile, the trains arrive carrying thousands of our neighbors. They gathered before walking the final few hundred feet to the internment camp. Their home for the next four years.

Author Rick Thomas is the former museum curator and vice-chair of education for the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation. He served on the South Pasadena Natural Resources Commission, helping to maintain a strict policy protecting the city’s great old-growth trees. Using touchstone photographs from his own collection—one of the San Gabriel Valley’s largest accumulations of historical images and artifacts—as well as national, state, and local historical archives, Thomas provides a window to his city’s past and an understanding of why its preservation is so important.