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Published June 30, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

My hometown’s dirty little secret

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

Bear with me.

Just this once, I am writing about my hometown in California. Ordinarily, this is not something I would bore Brazoria County readers with.

But, in this time of tense race relations, my hometown offers a striking example of historic and systemic racism in an area of the country that many people, including myself, thought was more progressive than most.

I always thought Culver City in the 1950s and 60s was an ideal place to grow up.

Nestled within Greater Los Angeles, it was a beautiful city with nice neighborhoods, good schools and beaches a bike-ride away.

It was also home to major movie studios. I didn’t even mind that in the middle of the night you would hear what sounded like real artillery when the TV series “Combat” was being filmed on the studio lot behind our house.

My parents settled in Culver City in 1954 when they bought a house for $14,000, a price that wouldn’t even be close to a down payment today. I lived there until I left for the University of Missouri in 1965. I only returned for visits.

I bragged about my hometown while going to school in Missouri and while living for the past 50 years in the Houston area.

It turns out, however, that Culver City wasn’t ideal for everyone. An ugly truth has emerged: My hometown had a hidden past of racism that few of us knew about.

The truth unfolded when current Culver City resident John Kent, an Annapolis graduate and ex-Navy officer, was tipped off about a book called Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.

The book reveals a nation filled with segregated all-white towns, some of which posted signs at city limits telling blacks not to let the sun go down on you. Only the signs didn’t say blacks.

I had heard about such signs while visiting the small-town Missouri home of my college roommate.
I was appalled and remember thinking that could never happen in Culver City.

But on page 112 of the book, Culver City was listed as a sundown town.

Kent began researching and, while he found no mention of sundown signs, he found a city that was founded on racist policies that lasted a century.

It all started in 1913 with the city’s founder, Harry Culver, who produced ads inviting people to come “see this model little white city.”

Guy Rush, an associate of Culver, was even less subtle with Christmas ads promising a present and a box of candy to every child who brought an adult with them to look at property. According to the ad, however, “lots and presents restricted to Caucasian race.”

By 1927, Culver was president of the Los Angeles Realty Board and recommended that Realtors “should not sell property to other than Caucasians in territories occupied by them.” Minorities began referring to Culver City as “Little Mississippi.”

During World War II, the city had air raid wardens who canvassed neighborhoods making sure families keep their lights off or installed blackout curtains. The wardens also were instructed to circulate documents in which homeowners promised not to sell their homes to African-Americans.

The Ku Klux Klan had a presence in Culver City and was active in the police department. In the 1940s, the chief of police was accused of misconduct for openly recruiting for the Klan. There was a cross burning as late as 1976.

During the 1950s, William Bailey, a black World War II vet, and his wife barely escaped injury when their house was bombed shortly after moving in to a white Culver City neighborhood.

In 1994, Chief of Police Ted Cooke hired Tim Wind. Remember him?

Wind was considered “one of the most unemployable cops in the country” since millions of Americans had seen footage of him kicking and beating Rodney King – an act that led to his termination from the Los Angeles Police Department. Wind served as a Culver City community service officer.

Under Cooke, Culver City police continued to hog-tie suspects’ feet to their hands behind their back, even after it was banned in other departments. Cooke served 27 years, and when he retired, the Los Angeles Times noted that he was the only chief in Los Angeles County to deny the district attorney access to departmental investigations of officer-involved shootings.

All these revelations about my hometown make me wonder how so many residents, from generation to generation, were unaware of the racism. Or did we simply tolerate it?

Before Kent’s revelations, friends and family in Culver City would often mock my adopted state of Texas because of its conservative ways.

I don’t think they will be doing that anymore.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)