A Scattered San Diego Black Population Comes Together for Art

By Rosemary Eng

Don’t bother looking for African-American neighborhoods in San Diego, because there aren’t any.

It’s strange for a city of 1.4 million, but true.

The first blacks settled in rural Julian in the late-1800s, centered around a small mother lode. But as more African Americans arrived they, like other Americans, spread out looking for new opportunities in the West.

Because of segregation, hotels and specialty businesses like beauty salons cropped up along with restaurants and jazz clubs for everyone.

When African Americans started looking for starter homes they congregated in southeast San Diego only because of race-based restrictive covenants on property deeds.

After laws changed, African Americans who make up five-to-six per cent of the entire 3.1 million population dispersed throughout the city and county and the original African-American enclave of southeast San Diego has been re-settled by others.

To uphold a sense of identity for the scattered community of about 160,000, the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Arts (SDAAMFA) organizes programs like the upcoming Legacy in Black exhibit opening November 4 at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park.

Executive director Gaidi Finnie calls his organization which has no building of its own a “museum without walls” which collaborates with other organizations like the San Diego History Center located in the city’s famous 1,200-acre urban park which is home to other cultural institutions.

Legacy in Black will feature works by eight artists who are from San Diego or who have “a significant relationship” to San Diego, said Finnie.

The exhibition is also used to mentor and teach about a dozen young people ages 12 to 18 about their heritage as they are being prepared to be docents for the show.

The banner of artists in Legacy in Black, which will run through March 28, 2018, are:

Manuelita Brown, artist and sculptor. An alumna of University of California at San Diego, she created the Thurgood Marshall bust at Thurgood Marshall College at UCSD.

Ernest (Ernie) Eugene Barnes Jr. (deceased) who played for a number of football teams including the San Diego Chargers. He had a deep interest in art since he was young. He eventually became a professional artist with many successful exhibits and illustrated album covers for artists like singer Marvin Gaye. His most famous work is the rhythmic, colorful, Sugar Shack.

Jean Cornwell Wheat spent five years as an artist in residence at the Sherman Heights Community Center where she painted murals and worked with the community. She was named by the San Diego Board of Supervisors as volunteer of the year for her work with foster care youth.

Albert Fennell (deceased), a San Diego native, whose work has been exhibited at the San Diego Museum of Art. His work was commissioned by singer Anita Baker and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Kadir Nelson, whose work is in the collections of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and the US House of Representatives, lived in San Diego before leaving to study at the Pratt Institute. His illustration of father and daughter sitting on the stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone is on the cover of the current October 2 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

Faith Ringgold is known for her quilt stories of the African- American experience. Her series of paintings called American People tells the civil rights movement story from a female perspective. She is professor emeritus of the University of California at San Diego where she taught art from 1987 until 2002.

Charles Rucker (deceased) was influenced by both African and Caribbean cultures. He earned associate of arts and associate of science degrees at San Diego City College and a bachelor’s degree at San Diego State University. Working 17 years in the San Diego Police Department, he served as a composite artist and as a community relations assistant to the police chief.

Rossie Wade (deceased) served as president and treasurer of the San Diego Art Guild and as visiting artist, lecturer, art teacher and art juror for many San Diego groups.

SDAAMFA board member Carolyn Y. Smith is a native San Diegan whose parents came to San Diego in 1956 when her father started the first African American Presbyterian Church.

She said there is no African- American cultural center in San Diego but former schoolteacher Chuck Ambers runs the small African Museum in San Diego’s Old Town district. This museum has books, tapes and videos covering 6,000 years of African history.

She mentions San Diego State University’s online exhibit, Creating Community: African Americans in San Diego .

Presented in slide-show format, this is a synopsis of African- American history and culture in San Diego.

Imperial Avenue used to be the heart of the African-American community in southeast San Diego. About the only “old timer” establishment left in that area is Sister Pee Wee’s Soul Food at 2971 Imperial Avenue, says Smith.

Sister Pee Wee’s features a traditional menu of fried catfish, smothered chicken, collard greens and cornbread served atop a red-painted counter. One patron adds, “they serve pigs feet on Tuesday nights.”

Visit the restaurant:

Now the area celebrates the Imperial Avenue Street Festival which in summer remembers “its rich African-American roots” which gave way to “the strong Latino influence that exists today.”

In its ongoing African-American programming the SDAAMFA will be presenting a jazz program April 14th and black storytellers in December.





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