In 1939, Billie Holiday made famous a song entitled Strange Fruit that was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx in New York. He wrote this as a poem after seeing a picture of Black men swinging (lynched) from a tree in the south in the thirties. It was a common occurrence back then for Whites to use this as a way to keep Blacks from progressing in any way by promoting fear and intimidation.
Well in San Bernardino, they do not lynch you from a tree but wait for us to invest our time, talent, and money into viable projects then they put barriers in your way so the fruit of your efforts will spoil and you loseyour investment. I have witnessed this several times in the short time I have been in San Bernardino since 1960. I bring this up because the latest trick they are trying to do is with the school that bears my name, located in the Carousel Mall in downtown. Mind you the mall is almost empty now and it has struggled ever since a white haired man named Warner Hodgdon developed it with our taxpayers money. Warner got the Black community to buy into his analogy of building a wheel you must first make the hub, downtown and then go outward to the rim meaning the 6th ward. We bought into that and we are still waiting for the wheel to be finished. As a matter of fact, the hub is still trying to be finished.
The city had wanted to have a hotel downtown to attract conventions into the city. No one came forth until Herman English, a Black man, came forth and said I can build you a first rate hotel. The city agreed because the thinking of the city’s fathers was it cannot be done but as it got closer to opening day, the city started its racial political game of strange fruit. They said he needed to make some minor changes plus English needed more cash after investing over $22 million of his own money into the project. The city would not advance the additional monies unless English secured a letter of credit to insure the loan. He got the letter but the city did not keep its commitment so English lost the hotel and his investment of $22 million dollars.
The interesting thing about the hotel is the late Sister Margaret James, mother of Pastor Jim James in San Bernardino and Sam James of Riverside, led a group of us in prayer one Sunday afternoon in front of the hotel when the city was playing all of these racist political games with English.
She said to us at the time, her vision from God was that if the city did not allow English to finish the project the success of the hotel would never happen. It had been empty for years, given to a Japanese group, taken back under new ownership that would not allow Blacks to frequent the club there, and now it’s closed.
Another instance was Francis Grice and Operation Second Chance. Grice and her organization brought millions of federal dollars into the city and then she decided to build the brick building located on Highland and Western Ave. After it was completed some could not stand seeing such a nice place on the westside of San Bernardino. So the game of strange fruit started and she eventually lost the building and the city took it over. Later the city was forced to sell it to New Hope Baptist Church.
Another instance was when one of the local banks located on E Street was going under, so John Dukes, a local Black businessman, put together a group of investors that would save the bank and it would be under the ownership of African Americans. It was kept quiet until he had the reception atthe bank for all the community to see. Shortly after the reception, the strange fruit started to smell and the bank was not transferred to Dukes.
Now we have a school to educate young children that have traditionally had low test scores. Our children are the first to drop out of school, first to be sent to prison, lowest achieving when it comes to academics and yet when we say we are going to teach them ourselves, people like Warner Hodgdon are trying to prevent that from happening. I remember it was in 1972 that the local NAACP had to file a lawsuit to force integration so Black children could enjoy the comforts of a nice school campus here in the city. Wehad to fight to get parks for our children. We had to fight toget the city and other agencies to hire our children, so I guess we might as well fight now so they can get a quality education. To me his interest in the school smells like the strange fruit of San Bernardino politics and racism.
What brought this up is last week I read an email from the founder of the school that a white haired man had come to the school taking pictures of the kids without the parent’s permission. He also interrogated some of the staff memberson the school’s five year lease agreement with the owner and that he was the developer of the mall back in the late sixties and early seventies. He implied that something was wrong with the agreement for the school to be there and they might have to move. Mind you this fast talking white haired ex-felon of a man has filed bankruptcy from bad dealings throughout the county including Riverside Raceway. When he got out of prison back in the seventies he donated $50 thousand to the local United Way in a gesture to buy his way back into the good graces of the community. He later ran his wife for public office but the public said no way can we have Warner represent us plus they were not sure what he would do.
Now he, and I’m sure others, do not want us to have a place to educate our children. Well I am here to tell you that we are going to educate our children with or without your cooperation. These are our children and our taxes help build this mall plus the taxes that help keep it afloat today. To the founder and staff, I want you to remain focused on delivering a good education to those students. To the parents, keep your commitment to your children by participating in their education. To the community, keep on praying and supporting our efforts as you have done in the past. Also pray that the strange fruit smell of racial politics will soon remove itself from the air in San Bernardino.