The Palm Avenue Improvement Club - white terror in San Mateo, CA, 1935
by hank chapot
San Mateo California is a nice town. When Mrs. Julia Parker and her daughter Jennie Sisson moved to a small bungalow on Gum Street, life must have seemed good. But on the evening of August 8, 1935, they would have understood instantly what was happening when seventeen white men from the Palm Avenue Improvement Club came calling.
Consider Mrs. Parker’s fear, alone at the house, and Jennie's outrage when she arrived home in the midst of the mob action. The leader carried a blackjack. They manhandled the women, cut the wires to the home and moved the furniture to a vacant lot, telling the ladies to move to the negro side of town.
Rummaging through the papers of California Attorney General U. S. Webb on my way to another story, this one fell out. I’ve pondered it for years. I knew it was important but didn’t have a context. In September 2010, Isabel Wilkerson shared her epic story of the great migration in The Warmth of Other Suns and two other recent books, J. Loewen's Sundown Towns and Buried in the Bitter Waters by Elliot Jaspin describe towns both north and south where African-Americans were driven out or never allowed in. For me, an amateur historian, the context was set. The great migration included a sometimes violent reception.
The story is about the organized response by early civil rights leaders in California.
Days after the forced eviction, Oakland Attorney Harry Leonard Richardson received a call from Jennie Sisson. In a letter to Attorney General Webb, Leonard explains;
“She said she had been unable to secure any assistance from the police department of the city of San Mateo, and that he would (soon) accompany her to the District Attorney’s office.”
Richardson was an established attorney in Oakland, Mrs. Parker his client. As a Boalt graduate, he was a colleague of east bay NAACP president Walter A. Gordon, fellow lawyer, UC athlete and later, esteemed statesmen.
Judge O'Farrell summoned Jennie quickly, telling her not to bring her attorney. Handing her a sheet of court stationary, he had her enumerate her losses in dollars so as to pay her off and dismiss the case. When asked about it later, she said she made the offer to dismiss on the insistence of the judge. The DA, the judge and the lawyer for the defendants would later insist she was trying to extort the defendants.
A letter to the San Mateo DA from the lawyer for the Palm Avenue defendants assured the judge his clients are, "without exception, prominent citizens of San Mateo" adding, "I am informed that the criminal complaint was filed at the instigation of some negro organizations from the East Bay, and consequently there might be some trouble from them if the complaint is dismissed.”
Four days after the crime, With help of an activist east bay NAACP, the women made another call on the San Mateo DA. Jennie, Mrs. Parker, Richardson and a delegation of four or five colored people (the DAs words) arrived at the office to seek a complaint against four of the men; Arthur Johnson, Chris Naas, John Wessa and Hugo Hultberg. The DA settled on two misdemeanors, disturbing the peace and trespassing. The complaint was given to Mrs. Sisson and filed before Judge O'Farrell.
One man is arrested but the ringleader Russell, (alias Johnson) cannot be found. The police do little to pursue the case and the sheriff refuses to return the warrants. Thirty days pass.
Attorney Hoffman says his clients fear that even if they pay damages, the complaint will not be dismissed. Two defendants obtain a writ and charges are dropped due to the delay, or, according to Richardson, official neglect. The sheriff never returns the warrants.
On the next visit with the judge, Mrs. Parker and her lawyer say they are not interested in collecting damages and the idea of compensation did not originate with her. They are only interested in obtaining justice.
A half dozen NAACP chapters wrote the DA and Attorney General and sent delegations to the DAs office. Within days, the executive board of the Alameda County NAACP under Walter Gordon wrote the attorney general asking that another warrant be issued for Mr. Russell, who admitted that he gathered the men and directed them to the house on Gum Street. Gordon asks the AG to take up the case, arguing, "(the case)...vitally affects the rights not only of Negro citizens, but all citizens as well. Any group of citizens could take the law into their own hands and remove people from the premises whom they disliked if this case is allowed to go un-prosecuted.”
Webb was then contacted by the president of the Los Angeles NAACP, Thomas Griffith jr, who asks that everything possible be done to assist the women and arguing, in a hint at the militancy of the mid -1930s NAACP, "if there is going to be a deprivation of the civil rights of the Negro, then there is nothing for him to do but to protect himself.”
Attorney General Ullysses Sigel Webb is famous for prosecuting land transfers made by California land owners ineligible for citizenship to avoid the Alien Land Law of 1913. In the 1930's he pressured Fish and Game to arrest aliens with commercial fishing licenses and prevent offloading of fish at San Diego. Though Webb repeatedly appealed, this action was eventually ruled a violation of equal protection. The longest serving AG in California history, Webb was three years from retirement.
Gordon also wrote on the theme of self-defense, concluding one letter, "If the enforcement agencies do not protect the Negro citizens, no other alternative is left to the Negro than to protect himself by use of force.” He finishes, “We, as law abiding citizens, do not want such a condition to prevail, because we feel confident that the majority of people in the city of San Mateo and state of California do not condone such mob conduct, nor do they glorify in having such inefficient and apathetic public officials," he thanked the AG for his immediate attention to the case.
After first refusing to prosecute, the San Mateo County DA, for some reason as yet unknown, appointed lawyer Richardson Special Prosecutor. Richardson duly wrote the judge September 18, informing him of his new role.
What made the San Mateo DA appoint a black lawyer to prosecute a volatile case against a group of white thugs? Richardson at one point asked, "Why was it necessary that I be appointed Special Prosecutor, to perform work which should have been done by the District Attorney's office...? Why indeed. He took on the job against the ringleaders of the mob, in a town he did not reside in. Its a marvelous mystery. I hope he thought he could win it.
The DA washed his hands of the case, expecting Richardson to make arrangements. And he does, diligently writing the judge and sheriff asking subpoenas be reissued in time. No subpoena's are issued for the November trial date, and he is forced to search the county for any witnesses at all. The judge and DA will blame him for negligence.
Richardson requested in open court that there be a jury trial for the remaining defendants, but on the date of November 6, the docket shows neither a jury requested nor waived.
That same day Judge O'Farrell is killed in an automobile accident leaving no record for a court trial. Nass sought a dismissal because thirty days has expired, he is denied and the case is again set for trial. Russell is identified as ringleader in court by Mrs. Parker but the sheriff won’t arrest him; the warrant is for his alias, Johnson.
A few defendants go to trial, Richardson for the prosecution. The new judge Mullin forbids Mrs. Parker from using the word "mob", refuses to allow her to say Russell menaced her with a blackjack or that she was manhandled, and forbids Special Prosecutor Richardson from eliciting such testimony.
In an utter travesty, the un-arrested mob leader Russell is called as a witness for the defense. He states that upon the night in question, he and the members of the Palm Avenue Improvement Club met at a service station for the purpose of going over to Mrs. Parker's home to help her move to the Negro district and that she agreed to do so as soon as was possible, that they suggested they move her belongings and pay the expense thereof, and, if agreeable, they would move her that evening, loading her furniture onto a truck, store it overnight and then deliver it to another house when she found one, that they had promised to give her and her daughter lodging in a hotel, and that Miss Parker had assisted in moving numerous objects and that everything was peaceful until Mrs. Jennie Sisson arrived and commenced considerable agitation, strenuously objecting to the move.
Questioning Russell, Richardson asked what right he had to do this? The judge ordered Mr. Richardson to desist using the word "mob" in court, accuses Richardson of introducing information previously ruled inadmissible, says he made disparaging remarks upon the court in the presence of the jury by stating in substance, that the court was not a court of justice. Richardson later will deny this. The judge admonished Mr. Richardson three times and, blaming his "contemptible and contemptuous conduct," declared a mistrial. The remaining defendants walk.
The DA promptly dismissed Richardson as special prosecutor, claiming he was unfit to represent the people.
The judge decided the case had been fully presented and there was insufficient evidence to support a conviction because, in what Richardson describes as a deliberate and malicious distortion of the woman's testimony, Mrs. Parker had stated under cross-examination that she had assisted the defendant in moving some of her belongings, (a dubious claim; a woman who had no place to go agreeing at to evict herself, surrounded by seventeen men threatening violence), but these statements are repeated by the San Mateo DA's office in a six page letter to Webb, which Webb cites when responding to the various chapters of the NAACP. The list of damages extracted from Mrs. Sisson and Richardson's inability to get a trial date are the final excuses for dropping the charges.
The DA wrote on January 8, 1936 to secretary J. Stanton of the San Mateo branch of the NAACP that there was insufficient evidence in the case for the county to expend the time and money in the performance of "an idle act.” then he wrote AG Webb that evidence was not sufficient to warrant a conviction and another trial would be a "useless ceremony."
In early 1936, East Bay NAACP president Gordon again came to the cause. Writing Attorney General Webb that the police department of San Mateo had manifested no interest and the DA was seemingly afraid to prosecute. Gordon writes, “...the facts surrounding the case clearly indicate that the law enforcement agencies in San Mateo County have either broken down or they refuse to enforce the law and protect negro citizens. In either event, we (the NAACP) feel the case is one that your office should take in hand and prosecute under the authority given you by the State Law of California.”
AG Webb was very solicitous replying to Gordon in a letter six months after the crime. Webb heartily agreed with Gordon's condemnation of the persons involved, “Your statement shows such action to be nothing short of mob violence, absolutely unlawful, and a clear invasion of the rights of the persons against whom the action was taken. The fact that it was colored people who were removed from their home in no manner places the violators of the law in a better position, but possibly indicates that the action of the offenders was the more cowardly,” but Webb goes no further, deferring to the county.
In February 1936 the Northern California NAACP passed a resolution addressed to the AG protesting that normal channels afforded all citizens for redress of wrongs and protection of their fundamental rights had been closed to members of a particular minority group because of their color. Members of branches in Monterey, Stockton, San Jose, San Mateo, Vallejo and Sacramento join Alameda County's effort to respectfully request Webb, "use his good offices to the end that justice will prevail in this state.”
Signed; George M. Johnson President Northern California Council of NAACP branches.
In his next letter to Gordon, Webb refuses to take up the prosecution, blaming Richardson's conduct for the mistrial. He writes to other complaining chapters stating the facts upon which their communications were based were incomplete and he forwards the San Mateo DAs six page report blaming Mrs. Parker and Richardson for the failure of the prosecution.
The attorney general’s files fall silent about this case after March, 1936. There is a last letter from Gordon including letters Mr. Richardson sent to the judge, sheriff and DA, refuting claims reported as fact, showing that he made every deadline and responded every time a pertinent letter crossed his desk. Any further documents did not make it into this particular archives.
In the last letter from Richardson, sent to the NAACP chapters that had become involved, his anger is palpable. He wrote, "According to (the San Mate DA)..he would have you believe the she (Mrs Parker), voluntarily undertook to remove from the property and was apparently glad to do so, and that the presence of seventeen or eighteen men and their threats of violence had nothing to do with her removal.
Such a statement would be an insult to the intelligence of a child of fourteen years of age, much less the intelligence of even a semi-human being". He continues, "It was apparent from the letter from…(the DA's office to Webb) that they were looking for any loophole to avoid prosecuting the individuals for this dastardly and cowardly act upon two defenseless women; and that it is the reason for the clever attempt to use the solicitation of judge O'Farrell to Mrs. Sisson, as an excuse not to prosecute. What about Mrs. Parker's cause of action? She didn't sign any request for damages, yet, she is punished right along with Mrs. Sisson.”
This story needs further research. I have found no newspaper accounts and the San Mateo DAs office has no archives. The act was dastardly, but the organized response by the African-American community in the Bay area was direct, sustained and documented. Did this case change anything? The record is (so far) silent. I assume supporters of Mrs. Julia Parker and her daughter Jessie Sisson had strong feelings about this injustice. They put up a good fight.
Posted by Hank Chapot