A lot may have changed outwardly in 100 years regarding civil rights for African-Americans and other minorities across the United States, but the NAACP Pasadena Branch is perhaps more acutely aware than anyone of the old adage “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Celebrating its centennial this year, the branch set out to make a renewed push to remind all Pasadenans that a lot of work still needs to be done to achieve meaningful change in the underlying fundamentals “to eliminate race-based discrimination and ensure the health and well-being of all persons,” part of the organization’s historic mission.
The branch’s new president, Allen Edson, came on board in January to help increase advocacy, grow membership and increase visibility in the community.
“It’s never a dull day. I always arrive to see what kinds of fires are out there,” Edson said, sitting down to discuss the chapter’s history and new goals at its Lincoln Avenue headquarters. “One of our biggest jobs here is legal redress. … We take complaints from the community on all types of different issues, but one of the biggest ones is racial discrimination in the workplace. It’s hard to know why, but it’s going up. Sometimes, people just need to vent, but if it’s a case with merit we’ll help them take it to an attorney. We’re kind of the first stop on that path.”
Part of the reason behind increasing discrimination may be what is referred to as the political kickback effect. Following the two terms of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, many minorities have reported more blatant discriminatory vitriol and practices.
But this just highlights the continued need for NAACP Pasadena, Edson said, along with stronger civic engagement among blacks and other minorities in the community.
“It’s important for our voices to be heard. The voice of the African-Americans in Pasadena has really been muffled, at best, for too long. I need people to step up and show up: They always say, ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease,’ so if we’re making enough noise about legitimate concerns then people will listen,” he said.
As one of only three locations in Southern California with an office, the NAACP Pasadena Branch was founded by John R. Wright Sr., and was the national organization’s 16th branch, chartered in September 1919.
Wright, said Edson, “saw something in the NAACP that could fulfill his vision. And ever since, we’ve been at the forefront of all these civil rights struggles here in Pasadena.”Some of those struggles have been more public than others, but all have been equally important, Edson noted. The Pasadena branch led the fight to ensure equal opportunity through the courts that the recreational facilities and the swimming pool at Brookside Park, now the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center, could be used by all citizens. (Back in the 1930s, blacks, Hispanics and Asians were allowed to use the pool only one day per week, the day before it was scheduled to be drained and refilled with clean water.)
Over the years, the NAACP branch also actively negotiated and held open dialogue with the city of Pasadena to develop more representation and fairer employment practices throughout municipal departments. The branch’s officers frequently engaged in discussions with the Tournament of Roses, leading to blacks and other minorities being represented on Rose Parade floats and the tournament board.
The branch also was instrumental in eliminating segregation in public schools in Pasadena and bringing more equal educational opportunities and quality education to all in the Pasadena Unified School District. Negotiations with restaurants were held to make certain they complied with laws related to equal employment opportunities, and paved the way for African-American doctors to practice medicine at Huntington Hospital and other area hospitals.
The struggles may have changed over the years, but the mission remains the same, and Edson said the chapter is now focusing on civic engagement and encouraging new membership, as well as increasing voter registration by combining grass-roots efforts with the Interdenominational Ministry Alliance.
“We have strength in numbers, and we’ll get more return on everybody’s investment if we’re doing it together,” he noted. “I’m highly energized about working on local issues … of course, the national election will garner most attention and scrutiny, but I think the local election is more important and it’s where we can make the most difference.”
Another issue at hand continues to be that of public education for blacks and other minorities: the recent school closures in some of the poorest Pasadena neighborhoods hit hard, he noted. Also of concern are the higher numbers of suspensions and expulsions among minority students, lagging test scores and lower college enrollment and perceived opportunities, he added, saying: “The voice of the parents is a really big ingredient that’s missing in this conversation. … Parent advocacy makes the difference.”
As part of that advocacy, the branch has sponsored enrichment programs including the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, designed to recruit and encourage academic and cultural achievement among high school students in 24 categories of competition. Local ACT-SO winners go on to compete at the national level for prestigious scholarship awards and medals. Separately, the Pasadena Branch awards more than $10,000 annually in scholarships to high school graduates.
At the city level, the branch is actively working on economic empowerment for minorities, and trying to maintain a presence in the local startup community and the job development there.
For Edson, an entrepreneur who for years lived in the Bay Area as president and CEO of an environmental/construction contractor, inspiring students to participate in the local innovation sector has become a personal priority: “We’ve been leading them to take part in the annual STEM crawl of Old Town Pasadena, so kids can see that their STEM education can lead to great things and the different ways you can apply it.” STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. “Pasadena is a place that can send people to the moon; let’s have some representation there.”
Another daunting task: housing. The NAACP branch is actively researching soaring housing costs and how blacks and other minorities might be able to more easily attain home ownership within the district. Part of that focus is holding financial literacy forums at chapter headquarters or in the community, but the branch is also working directly with low-cost housing nonprofit organization Heritage Housing Partners and with the city itself. The historical impact of “red-lining” — in which financial lenders would draw a line around minority neighborhoods and deny those residents loans — has often come into the conversation as one reason fewer minority Pasadenans own homes after decades of living locally.
“People might advocate for rent control or other measures … those arguments add to the voice. People want to live here, have families and grow here. Is that just a pipe dream now in Pasadena?” Edson said. “Pasadena was once coined as the ‘noblest city’ in the nation. Well, I want our city to live up to that. That is the standard we have to live up to. So we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Meanwhile, NAACP Pasadena Branch Executive Committee member Juanita West Tillman also nodded to the amount of work the branch has undertaken over the years. Currently, there are about 12 active branch committees that focus on law enforcement, public education, jobs, health care, housing and civic engagement, to name a few.
“We’ve evolved over the years into a leading organization and dynamic force to improve the quality of life of all its members and the general community,” said West Tillman, who’s been involved at the local branch for about 20 years and currently volunteers as branch secretary.
Tillman came to Pasadena as a teenager and attended public schools in the 1950s. “I’ve been around for a long time, and I think we’ve made incredible strides in improving job opportunities in the city and acquiring more fair employment for African-Americans and for all minority citizens. We’ve achieved getting access to facilities and worked to become comfortable in those facilities. Now … well, there is a feeling like we’re going a little bit backwards again, but we’ll continue to do the work to improve.”
Edson, meanwhile, said he plans to stick around for a while. Edson grew up in Pasadena, and his grandfather was a notable community activist, with the W.D. Edson Neighborhood Improvement Association being named after him.
“In a lot of ways I feel like I was raised to be in this chair right now — this has been a very happy experience for me,” he said. “We do have a huge mission, but we’re in it for the long haul. Frustration does exist, but we have so much more to be positive about. Let’s focus on what’s happening that’s good. There’s a lot of good happening out there.”