The San Bernardino City Council voted in 1943 to ban some signs found on the front of a few of the city’s businesses.
“White Trade Only” was the message on these signs, representing a little-remembered skeleton in the Inland Empire’s closet. The signs told African Americans and Hispanics and Asians they weren’t welcome in some businesses in most of our cities.
I must confess until recently I never realized such signs could be found displayed on some storefronts and advertisements in our past. During the first half of the 20th century, the Inland Empire was hardly the Jim Crow era of the South but the signs still delivered a sobering message.
The signs are gone but advertisements of the past offer reminders:
• The ad for the U-Do-Laundry laundromat of San Bernardino in the Colton Daily Courier of May 24, 1937: “We will allow a family washing free. White trade only.”
• Riverside Bowling Alleys in a Sun newspaper ad on Oct. 13, 1914: “Bowling Free to Ladies on Thursdays. White trade only.”
• “Guard Your Health,” with “some shade and warmed water,” was an ad for the Crystal Plunge pool in Victorville that also noted, “White Trade ONLY,” in the Victor Press, Aug. 20, 1948.
• Banning’s Hotel Barber Shop bragged it was “the only shop in town that caters to white trade only,” in the Banning Record of Aug. 12, 1920.
• The Mezzanine Barber Shop in Pomona offered the same message: “We cater to white trade only and assure our customers of careful high class work,” in the Pomona Progress Bulletin, Aug. 4, 1934.
It was difficult to tell if the Ford Lunch, a popular diner in Ontario on the highway from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, had such a sign but the same message delivered to non-Whites was pretty clear.
The place was sued in 1941 by two African American men who were refused service. The men were told the Ford Lunch “would not serve food in the dining room to Negroes and that they must go to the kitchen if they wanted to eat there,” according to the lawsuit, reported the Sun on July 9.
Some steps were taken locally to banish “White Trade Only” signs from businesses, years before the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Of course just removing a sign was no guarantee discrimination would also disappear.
The issue first appeared in San Bernardino on July 5, 6 and 7, 1916, when a hundred African American school and church workers of Southern California Baptist churches were due to attend a convention at New Hope Baptist Church.
A committee of the Afro-American League appealed to the city to remove the signs from businesses during the convention. “The committee presented a list of business houses which displayed the sign and called attention to the danger of stirring up a race feeling,” wrote the San Bernardino News on July 1.
The City Council instructed the city clerk to notify businesses to remove the signs “as a matter of respect to the visitors,” said the Sun newspaper of June 30. This was a temporary action, and those signs likely reappeared after the convention.
More than two decades later, Redlands took a step forward. The Negro Civil League praised the City Council and Police Department for a successful campaign encouraging voluntary removal of “White Trade Only” signs from restaurants and other businesses in the city, reported the Sun on Aug. 28, 1940.
But it really took World War II to illustrate the problems caused by the discriminatory policies advertised on the signs.
In Barstow on Sept. 21, 1943, African American soldiers, unable to get service at several businesses, “strolled the streets tearing down signs reading ‘White Trade Only,’” causing a brief riot, reported the Barstow Printer two days later.
Similar circumstances prompted officials of the Red Cross, USO and St. Paul’s African Methodist Church to urge San Bernardino’s council to permanently ban “We Cater to White Trade only” signs, reported the Sun on Nov. 4, 1943.
“They pointed out that hundreds of colored soldiers coming to San Bernardino every week … are denied the fundamentals of food and sleeping accommodations because of their race,” said the article.
The council ordered the city attorney to draft an ordinance banning restaurants from specifically displaying “White Trade Only” signs. The signs would no longer be tolerated, but there was a loophole – “such establishments have the right to refuse service to anyone, but not because of race alone,” said the newspaper. It formally took effect Dec. 7.
Members of Riverside’s City Council considered a similar ban three years later but just couldn’t bring themselves to actually do it.
The Riverside Press reported that the council came close to approving a sign ban ordinance at its June 11, 1946, meeting. It had received a letter from the local chapter of the NAACP asking for a measure similar to what was passed in San Bernardino. At that meeting, after hearing opposition from some residents, the council temporarily approved it, 4-3.
One aspect of that initial rule’s language specifically allowed signs such as “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” which like San Bernardino still gave opportunities to find reasons to deny service to anyone if they so choose.
Riverside’s June 11 vote was only preliminary because ordinances cannot take effect unless a second reading is approved at a subsequent meeting. And it was here that Riverside council members just couldn’t make the ban permanent.
The council apparently had no difficulty banning the signs, but, due to directions by the city attorney, a justification for such an action had to be spelled out in the ordinance. It was here elected officials balked, unwilling to include language prohibiting the basis of race for refusing service at restaurants, hotels and other eating places, reported the Arlington Times.
The second reading of the ordinance never came to a vote, though the subject of a sign ban continued to simmer at subsequent council meetings.
Finally, on Sept. 17, 1946, the council put the matter to a final decision, killing the ban of such signs by a 5-2 vote.
The council’s justification for that action was “a state law provides the necessary protection in such cases and that a city ordinance was not needed,” reported the Arlington Times, three days later. That state law technically prohibited discrimination based on race, but apparently wasn’t regularly enforced.
While looking through past newspapers for businesses with such messages, I stumbled upon an ironic ad from a San Bernardino eatery in a Nov. 19, 1916 edition of the Sun.
The advertisement was for Porter’s Quick Lunch, a “nice cozy place to eat” and open 24 hours a day and for “White Trade Only.”
It also noted its specialty was “Spanish tamales,” those delicacies simply not available there if you happened to be of Mexican or Spanish descent.
My thanks to Ruth McCormick of the Riverside Public Library for her assistance in researching this subject.
Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history. He can be reached at email@example.com or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out some of our columns of the past at Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IEHistory.