Archie Moore loved San Diego. The black, Mississippi-born boxer, who, to this day, holds the record for most career knockouts, went professional in 1938 and insisted on boxing all but one of his first 12 pro bouts in San Diego. By 1965, well into Moore's record-setting 145 knockouts, San Diego loved Moore, too—he was given a symbolic key to the city that year and became an important and active member in San Diego's African-American community until the day he died in a San Diego hospice on Dec. 9, 1998, just a few days shy of his 85th birthday.
“Archie Moore was a fine boxer,” said Karen Huff-Willis, seated at her new desk in the back of the San Diego Black Historical Society's new facility at 740 Market St. “You ever heard of him?
“Speaking of that,” she continued, grabbing a purple sticky note and scrawling Moore's name in big loopy handwriting, “oop, I almost forgot, I've got to put this on the wall.”
Wearing a red-and-white African-print blouse with a big “Obama '08” badge pinned over her heart, Huff-Willis leapt up from her desk and headed toward the lobby, which was being prepared to house the Museum of San Diego African American History's permanent exhibition. A little more than two weeks before the scheduled public opening on May 28, the displays were nothing more than roped-off sections of wall filled with dozens of Huff-Willis' sticky notes indicating what should go where.
“This will all be in by next week,” said Huff-Willis, unable to stop a smile from turning up the corners of her mouth. She motioned toward the beginning of the exhibition, “We're going to touch on when San Diego was a part of Mexico and New Spain. There were people here of African descent, and we have all their history. Then we get into Old Town. Look at this—we've got some slave documents here. And over here, we're going to touch on Palomar Mountain. We're going to get into Julian, where Fred Coleman was the first person to strike gold of any race, and we're going to have quite a collection on the Buffalo Soldiers and Camp Lockett—we have a bunch of artifacts for that already. And over here, we get into the history of blacks when they got into downtown San Diego—there'll be photographs and stuff here—and then we get into the Harlem of the West section, the jazz and the blues. And then, of course, we get into what we call the ‘redevelopment phase,' which was the end of black history Downtown, you know, with all the gentrification.”
Huff-Willis grabbed her keys and strolled across the new bamboo floor. “The Black Historical Society is green,” she said with a laugh, opening a door to a small room just off the exhibition space.
“The museum will also feature what we call the genealogy and research room,” she said. “This is where the history of African-Americans will sort of be served.”
She pulled back a plastic cover to show off two microfilm machines. “Everyone can get access to census records—we've got them all.”
Huff-Willis excitedly pulled out reprints of historical documents, including the Emancipation Proclamation.“Every African-American ought to have this on their wall,” she said.
The front entrance, Huff-Willis explained, is set to become the Mabel Rowe gift store. Rowe was one of the owners of the famed Hotel Douglas and Creole Palace, a hotel-and-restaurant combo on Second Avenue and Market Street that attracted big-name black entertainers like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole from the 1920s through the 1940s. Another 1,000-square-foot room in the back will serve as an exhibition space for traveling shows and a rental room when it's not being used.
“Let's see, did I tell you everything about this place?” she asked, surveying her surroundings. “I think I did. It's been about 10 years in the making to actually get to the point where we have a full-fledged museum, so, it's nice, you know, but it's been a long time coming.”Huff-Willis is the backbone of the Black Historical Society of San Diego. She started the organization in 1992, not long after she watched the Hotel Douglas and Creole Palace get demolished amid Downtown redevelopment. Since then, the society has saved at least one building, The Claremont Hotel at 501 Seventh Ave., by getting it designated the first African-American historic site in San Diego.
But more than saving buildings, Huff-Willis is in the business of bringing a black presence back to Downtown and reminding San Diego of its black history. According to 2006 census statistics, the black population of San Diego County is about 6 percent, a majority of whom reside in Southeast San Diego. Reports in the Journal of San Diego History say the move of the black population from Downtown to Southeast San Diego started as far back as the 1920s, thanks to restrictive covenants in property deeds, which made it difficult for blacks to purchase land. But before the move, Huff-Willis said—back when the white population referred to what we now call East Village as “Coon Town” and eventually the somewhat softened version, “Dark Town”—Downtown was a mecca for black-owned businesses and entertainment.
“They had all these wonderful clubs and businesses, and they were making a lot of money,” Huff-Willis explained, “and they were, like, we're not going to take this, you know. You're not going to be referring to our community as ‘Dark Town,' so they started calling themselves ‘San Diego's Harlem Community,' ‘The Harlem of the West.' But by the 1970s, it was all forgotten.”
A licensed lawyer who never ended up practicing law, Huff-Willis has made researching and writing about black history in San Diego her hobby since high school. After she graduated college and law school, the tall, sharp and sometimes stern businesswoman invented what she called “LaundryTea,” which she claims to have sold to Tide for millions. Using her own money, financing from her husband, who had to unload some money for tax reasons, and private donations from Black Historical Society members, Huff-Willis pieced together enough funds to start the center without relying on grants or loans. The society plans to maintain the space by charging admission to the museum and through funds raised by the annual San Diego Black Film Festival and a brand-new East Village Farmers Market, which runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday on Eighth Avenue between Market and G streets, just around the corner from the new museum.
“We decided to generate our own funds, to pay our bills, to build our museum and then take city funding if we want it along the way,” she said. “So that's it—that's the philosophy of Karen Huff-Willis. That's how we've done it, and I'm hoping that more nonprofits follow the Black Historical Society's business model—come in, work hard, do it yourself and ask the politicians for help later.” The San Diego African American Culture Center will be open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. starting May 28. A grand opening is planned for Saturday, June 1. Check www.blackhistoricalsociety.org for details.
Got something to say? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org