Honoring Black History in Pasadena
February is Black History Month and Pasadena honors the triumphs and adversities of generations of Black Americans. The tribute to Black history in Pasadena is conveyed all year long and is an indelible part of the nation’s history.
Many early Black Pasadenans arrived in the 1800s to escape the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South, but were still faced with discrimination and segregation. Over the years, Black Pasadenans fought and won several civil rights cases and consistently set milestones in equality and race relations. Today, Pasadena remains a community with a strong Black population with many flourishing Black-owned businesses.
Here are some ways to explore Black history in Pasadena, beginning with a dedication on the corner of Holly Street and Leonard J. Pieroni in Old Pasadena. Pasadena’s Museum of History and the City of Pasadena debut a new exhibit called Exploring Pasadena’s Past.
Pasadena’s Black History Parade & Festival
On February 18th, one of California’s biggest and longest running Black history parades is back. The Pasadena Black History Parade & Festival begins on Fair Oaks Avenue and Figueroa Street and culminates at Pasadena’s Robinson Park (1801 N. Fair Oaks Ave.) for the festival, which features live bands, dance performances, community booths, guest speakers, food for purchase, and tons of fun!
Black-owned Businesses in Pasadena
Black business owners have a long, proud history in Pasadena. In Pasadena Museum of History’s Black History Collection archives, an interview with Pasadena-born Edna Banks highlights the Francisca Building at 24 Dayton Street (west of Castle Green) as a prominent place for Black business. She explains how one of the first Black attorneys, James T. Phillips, managed the building and housed his office there alongside a Black-owned insurance company, barbershop, beauty parlor, and a restaurant.
24 Dayton Street, circa 1923 (Courtesy of the archives of Pasadena Museum of History)
Today, Pasadena celebrates the vibrant and diverse community. Explore this list of Black-owned businesses and enjoy patronizing these businesses.
Try Pasadena teacher and business owner Latanya Smith’s My Place Café for eclectic neighborhood vibes, organic roasts, iced Mexican Mocha, and homely breakfast items like waffles with strawberry and bananas, bagel sandwiches, grilled cheeses, and wraps. Head to the Gourmet Cobbler Factory on Colorado Boulevard for Clifton Powell’s southern-style barbecued meats and buttery fresh fruit cobblers. Go a little north into neighboring Altadena to find Little Red Hen, a multi-generation family owned and operated comfort food restaurant, where the family history is proudly displayed in photos on the walls. For some after-meal perusing, head over to April Blooms Boutique for owner April Hicks curation of women’s fashion and home décor designed to support and empower women. Don’t forget to stop by Leona Lewis’ Coffee & Plants for some very aesthetic café time.
Walking Octavia Butler’s Pasadena
Dubbed the “grand dame of science fiction,” Octavia Estell Butler was born in Pasadena in 1947 and went on to create a body of literary works that helped launch a new genre called Afro-Futurism. Butler attended Washington Junior High School, John Muir High School, received an A.A. degree from Pasadena City College, and also attended UCLA. She spent much of her childhood reading in the Peter Pan Room (children’s section) at the Pasadena Central Library, which is registered in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Washington STEAM Multilingual Academy named their library after Octavia Butler and installed a mural celebrating her. Vroman’s Bookstore, founded in 1894, became an oasis for Octavia Butler, who didn’t always feel comfortable walking into Pasadena businesses in the 40s and 50s. As her fame rose, she would begin doing signings and lectures at Vroman’s. (Source: LA Times)
She also lectured at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, which became the recipient of her papers after her death. Check out The Huntington’s Guide to Octavia Butler’s Pasadena to experience the same walks Octavia had as part of her creative process.
Pasadena welcomes a new independent bookstore by Nikki High in February 2023, Octavia’s Bookshelf, which will highlight authors who are Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.
The Hotel Carver: Pasadena’s First Black-Owned Hotel
A three-story Victorian building at 107 South Fair Oaks Avenue was built in the late 1880s as a showroom for a stagecoach. In the 1940s, Percy Carter purchased the building to become Pasadena’s first Black-owned hotel. Named “The Hotel Carver” after George Washington Carver, this was one of the hubs for the Pasadena Black community in the mid-twentieth century. (Source: USC Libraries) The basement hosted a nightclub once called the Onyx Club and later Club Cobra, which featured Jazz musicians like Clora Bryant and George Morrow. Today, the building is home to Daddy’s Chicken Shack, All Love Collections beauty bar, Pure Barre, and a Pilates studio.
Mack and Jackie Robinson’s Pasadena
Alumni of John Muir High School and Pasadena Junior College, Jackie Robinson rose to stardom as an all-star athlete in track and field, basketball, football, and baseball. He still holds records at now Pasadena City College, attended UCLA, served in the military, and joined the Brooklyn Dodgers to earn a Hall of Fame career. His brother Mack was a sports star in his own right, earning a silver medal in the 1936 Olympics. The brothers’ accomplishments represent significant strides in breaking down color barriers during the path to desegregation.
Head to Pasadena City Hall to find bronze portrait sculptures celebrating Mack and Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson’s boyhood home can be found on 121 Pepper Street, where there’s a plaque in the sidewalk. Over at the Rose Bowl Stadium and Brookside Park, there’s a Jackie Robinson Memorial Field, which is a ballpark named in his honor in 1988. (Source: Pasadena Library)
The Rose Bowl Aquatic Center
The Brookside Plunge was once a municipal swimming pool that set aside an “International Day” for people of color to use the facilities in the 1930s, playing an important role in desegregation battles by the NAACP. The NAACP won the case during a precarious time, when the pool had to close and the facilities became reserved for soldiers returning from battlefields. It wasn’t until 1947 that the pool finally reopened for everyone’s use. Local hospitals, restaurants, and theaters also dropped the restrictions. The Rose Bowl Aquatic Center was constructed in its place in 1990 with the dedication to serve “all members of our diverse community.” Discussions continue today to recognize the history of segregation and racially restrictive policies in Pasadena and the long-lasting impact on communities of color.
360 N. Arroyo Blvd.
Ruby McKnight Williams Bench
At the corner of Westgate and Arroyo, a bench was dedicated to civil rights pioneer Ruby McKnight Williams in 1989, who served as the president at NAACP Pasadena branch. During her tenure, she fought for school and housing desegregation, fought and won local redevelopment battles, and visited the US Supreme Court to witness integration decisions for national precedent-setting civil rights cases.
Loretta Thompson-Glickman: First Black Mayor of Pasadena
In 1982, Loretta Thompson-Glickman became the first Black mayor of Pasadena, and first Black woman to be mayor of an American city over 100,000 residents. Growing up in Pasadena, Mayor Thompson-Glickman attended courses at Pasadena City College, was a jazz singer, and taught high school English in Pasadena public schools in the early 70s. She was a choir director at Pasadena’s Grace United Methodist Church. Loretta was also the first Black woman member of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association. She created monumental milestones in equality and race relations for Pasadena. Head to City Hall to find a painting of Loretta Thompson-Glickman.
Pasadena’s Black Churches
Segregation in America deterred many Black Americans from enjoying basic lifestyle needs, such as access to religion. In Pasadena, Black-run churches became historically significant gathering spaces for Black Pasadenans to connect with one another.
Founded in 1923 by eight women, the Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church (1062 N. Fair Oaks Ave.) was created to provide a space for Black Episcopalians who were forbidden from worshiping at All Saints Church. The church is celebrating its centennial year in 2023.
Founded in September 1893, Friendship Baptist Church (80 W. Dayton St.) is one of the oldest congregations in the area, and when the church was built in 1925, it became the first African American Baptist Church in Pasadena. Designed by Norman F. Marsh in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, the church adorns a tower, a bell-gable, stained-glass windows, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.
Dr. Edna L. Griffin’s Medical Office
The building at 891 North Fair Oaks Avenue served as the first location of Dr. Edna L. Griffin’s office, Pasadena’s first African American woman physician. After receiving education from Meharry Medical School near Nashville, Dr. Griffin considered pursuing her education at USC, but the officials did not accept Blacks into its medical school program. She completed the program at John Andrew Hospital in Alabama and held a practice in Indiana before finally relocating to Pasadena at this very building. She became a community leader and served as the president of the Pasadena Chapter of the NAACP. During her tenure, she was credited with leading the efforts to desegregate the Brookside Plunge (now Rose Bowl Aquatic Center). (Source: NAACP)