Coming of Age as a Black Man in Santa Barbara
I started at UC Santa Barbara in 1976, almost on a whim. I thought I would attend UC San Diego, but my high school girlfriend had her heart set on UC Santa Barbara, and though she was a junior, my romantic ass decided to head north and wait for her. When she finally arrived at UCSB a year later, we broke up almost immediately.
Unmoored, I flitted about campus and the surreal weirdness and college decadence of Isla Vista. But inevitably, as I developed into a man of blossoming, if questionable taste, I decided that I was tired of drunken frat boys and sorority girls and crummy apartments with too many roommates. Once I graduated with a degree in literature, I got the hell out of Isla Vista and moved with a couple of friends to a duplex on Milpas and Canon Perdido streets. Rick was a talented painter and a Latino from Ventura, Ed an African American artist from D.C., who didn’t do much art but seemed to think about it often. They were good guys and we had a great time together getting to know the lay of the land, and life was sweet, at least for me. It was harder for Ed, because he would only date African American women, and there weren’t many African American ladies in these parts for him to pursue.
Life as a graduate student with a free ride was sweet as far as that goes, but I had yet to experience Santa Barbara in the way that I sensed I needed to. After a number of years, I hadn’t met African Americans who weren’t associated with the university. Then, one afternoon when I was on campus waiting to talk to my former professor and mentor Mr. Mudrick, an attractive, young Black woman stopped to speak to me. She said she had read stories of mine about growing up in Black Los Angeles that had been published in Alumnus magazine and had liked them. Of course, I was flattered and not long after, we started dating. That dating was action packed, with unexpected rivals and insane jealousy I never knew I possessed and eventually it led to marriage.
Gina was surprised, maybe a little disappointed, that her parents were planning a return to Santa Barbara from Westport, Connecticut after an absence of a decade, Her mom was a devout Christian who probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable about our relationship until we were married. Her mother, Louversia Harris, a beautiful, browned-skinned woman with long gray hair, and her father Eugene, a handsome, reserved man, were friendly with me from the start. Though I did call Gina’s dad Mr. Harris, right up until the day he died, just as I called her mom Mrs. Harris.
I knew them initially as my girlfriend’s affluent parents, the Black folks who lived well in Santa Barbara in a ranch-style home on San Antonio Creek Road near the 154 with a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean and the twinkling Christmas lights of the oil platforms, who were an integral part of the broader African American community. Raised Catholic, I tried to stay out of churches, but St. Paul, AME Church on Olive called to me. Or, at least, Gina had suggested we go for Easter Breakfast and that there would be good food. It was good! I still remember the quality of the grits flavored with chicken stock. Black Los Angeles seemed like a world unto itself, but in Santa Barbara I was really a minority belonging to a community that represented just one percent of the population and I liked and needed that sense of belonging.
Over time, I came to know who Gina’s parents were in the community, their status and achievement, what they meant to racial progress in Santa Barbara and Montecito. Eugene Harris was born in Mount Sterling, Kentucky in 1924, and enlisted in the U.S. Army during WWII. He was a decorated war hero having received a Purple Heart in Italy. He met Louversa Thibeaux at UCLA in 1949, where they both attended, along with Jackie Robinson. She had transferred from Dillard, in New Orleans. They married, and after a short stay San Bernardino working for General Electric as an engineer, he transferred to Santa Barbara in 1961.
Three years later they moved to Montecito, and as far as anyone knows, integrated it long before Oprah got there. They paid the $64,000 the owner asked for a ranch style home in Montecito, that I heard now is a mini mansion. The owner seemed pleased with helping integrate Montecito by taking a fair-market offer for the property, restrictive racial covenants be damned. As far as he was concerned, money was green and a deal was a deal.
Harris was elected president of the NAACP’s Santa Barbara chapter in 1968, and while he was president, the NAACP sued to force Bank of America on State Street to hire its first African American bank teller. After he was elected to the City of Santa Barbara’s Board of Education, vicious, racist phone calls started to come on a regular basis and the family had to take them seriously. Gina attended Montecito Union School, where she has great memories of the school and her teachers, but that it wasn’t unusual, she said, for Sheriffs to regularly check their backyard property for intruders. It didn’t bother Gina much, but it did unnerve her brother who took the threats more seriously. Mr. Harris, may have provoked the racists in the city with statements such as this one, published in the Santa Barbara Gazette in 1968: As evidence to how much time may have passed and how little has changed is the excerpt below that makes clear what Mr. Harris was up against and how coldly determined he was to bring racial change to Santa Barbara.
“There’s much interest in the Santa Barbara community as to whether the local [Bank of America] branch will be in direct action to achieve the goals,” he said. “This is misplacing the emphasis. We have the obligation of achieving first-class citizenship, of correcting certain inequities. We have a solemn resolve to correct them. We will use whatever measures are required.”
He also called on Don MacGillivray, the mayor at the time, to set up a Human Relations Commission to protect the 1,500 “Negroes” of Santa Barbara in 1968. Interestingly, the current African-American population is just about what it was then.
The Harris family’s housekeeper was Pecola Taylor, a woman who came to Santa Barbara in the 1940s from Pensacola, Florida. Everyone called her Pepsi. She didn’t have much education, but she made amazing sweet potato pies that were a huge hit at the NAACP booth at the Fiesta. Her cooking was popular and lucrative enough for her to purchase a home, just outside of Montecito. Gina told me a story about Pepsi’s shock at finding that the young folks from UCSB who were at her family’s house for a Black Student Union meeting, and to whom she just served sandwiches and tea, and who were dressed in the garb of militant fashion – leather jackets, berets, and afros – were “smoking the pots.” Smoking the pots!
Mrs. Harris often offered the house for this kind of thing when Mr. Harris was away on business, but not for smoking the pots. Pepsi quickly shooed the militants out of the house and restored order. But my favorite memory is that of Pepsi, in sensible flats, and the beautiful Mrs. Harris, in high heels, leading the way for a diverse, celebratory, candle-holding crowd on a nighttime march in 1984 from First AME Church to State Street to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday.
Mr. and Mrs. Harris are buried now in the beautiful Santa Barbara Cemetery. Our daughters know that they are deeply connected to Montecito and Santa Barbara, that their grandparents helped make it a better place, a place that enabled me to feel a whole human being, who could live happily in a place of his choosing and feel enough acceptance to call it home.