Mendo Discrimination, 1942
by David Severn
Ask most any Indian who was alive at the time in the area and they will remember the racial discrimination that existed in the county of Mendocino prior to May 8, 1942. Signs stating "No Dogs or Indians" were common. Indian people could not get haircuts in the barbershops or their hair done in beauty parlors. They couldn't try on clothes before buying and only one restaurant in Ukiah, owned by a Chinese man, would serve them. The local movie theater would not allow Indian people to stand in the lobby or sit on the main floor. But as a result of a legal challenge to this last issue, all of this did start to change.
On Saturday, May 2nd, 1942, eleven year old Marceline Allen, a Pomo resident of Yokayo Rancheria, and her grandfather, Steven Knight, went to the State Theater on State Street in Ukiah to watch a movie. Grandfather Knight, wanting to smoke, went to the balcony to sit while little Marcy took a seat on the main floor. It was not long before she was upstairs standing beside her grandfather crying. Because she was Indian she had been asked to remove herself to a segregated section of the balcony. Steven tried several times that evening and the next day to contact George Mann, the theater manager, to register his complaint but Mann never seemed to be in.
The apparent avoidance only made Steven madder and by Monday morning he was ready to fight. No stranger to controversy or to standing up for what's right, Steven, in 1923, had taken the local Carroll School District to court to win his daughter, Verginia, the right to go to school. (Anyone interested can find an article on this case in a back issue of News From Native California written by Victoria Patterson and published by Malcom Margolin in Berkeley.) Back then Indian people were not allowed in public school. Steven won that battle and was determined to win this new one as well. He contacted a lawyer named Charles Kasch and told him he wanted to sue for discrimination because of race. Kasch took the case.
On Friday, May 8th, Marceline's mother, Verginia Allen, as legal guardian, filed a petition with the Superior court of Mendocino County against George M. Mann and the Trinity Theaters group asking for $1000 in damages for discrimination against her daughter "solely because of race."
A front page story in the Ukiah paper, the Redwood Journal, dated May 11, had a picture of Marceline and her mother and declared that the suit against Mann and the State Theater brought them "...face to face with the American Indian in a test case on discrimination on account of race." Considering the attitudes of the times it was a surprisingly favorable article, acknowledging the good characters of Steven Knight and his daughter Verginia Allen and pointing out that many young Indian men were "valiant fighters" in a World War which championed "the equality of race" as one of the issues.
Regardless of the paper's attitude, the White community in general apparently got quite excited. One of the White women's clubs sent a representative to try and "buy" Verginia off. And a city councilman approached attorney Charles Kasch in an apparent attempt to get him to drop the case.
Whatever else went on behind closed doors we'll never know, but we do know that George Mann, et al, recognized the growing sense of self-determination within the Indian community and agreed to change the theater's policy regarding people of Indian blood. In an out of court settlement, the defendant agreed to pay the prescribed minimum of $100 for such infractions and in accepting this lower amount, Verginia stated that the primary purpose of the action was not to recover money but to put a stop to the continuation of discrimination against Indian people.
After the settlement, sociologist Alan Purcell recorded a statement from Steven Knight and the following is an excerpt describing the atmosphere in and around Ukiah at the time.
"Now I'm just waiting for some place in town to refuse to serve an Indian who is clean and decent and goes in honestly for service. The minute that happens we'll slap a suit for denial of right against them. Nothing has happened yet. The merchants in town are a little scared, I think. I know the beauty parlor operators got all excited about it and held meetings about it, but nothing has happened yet.
"Last week Bill (Steven's son) went to the barbershop next to Maple Café, the worst place in town as far as cutting Indian's hair is concerned, and the guy cut his hair without a word. It looks like if the Indians are going to get their rights and enjoy them, they've got to fight for them."
The case of Marceline Allen vs. the State Theater was a turning point for Indian/White business relations in the Ukiah area and many local Indian people spoke with pride at the outcome about the changes that occurred. And three/four years ago when I first researched this piece they still did.
Susan Billy, proprietor of Bead Fever, basket weaver, and student of Elsie Allen remembers stories told her by Elsie about the case. Elsie talked of the racial discrimination prior to the suit and the changes after. She was especially proud of the involvement of the Pomo Mothers Club, who sponsored the suit and of which she was a member; Verginia Allen was president.
Lenette Laiwa, Marceline Allen's daughter, a basket weaver and active speaker for Indian rights, certainly remembers the stories. She remembers talk of the pressure put on to drop the case and the importance of her great grandfather, Steven Knight, in holding out for a proper settlement.
Another Pomo woman from Coyote Valley, who asked me not to use her name, was herself a girl at the time but still remembers the sense of accomplishment and the Indian community's feeling that after so many years they were finally being acknowledged as human beings.
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In two weeks the National Museum of the American Indian will open on the mall in Washington DC. I plan to be there for the celebration. One of the participants made this statement, "We want recognition, we want our dignity yet we do not want to melt in the pot and lose our identities as deep rooted peoples."