Saturday, May 25, 2024

Carol H. Jordan (1928-2023)

Carol Jordan, circa 1996.
Another great longtime Orange County local historian, Carol Jordan, passed away on November 22, 2023 at the age of 95.  She was the author of several books, was a founder of the Tustin Museum and the Tustin Area Historical Society, was Tustin’s Woman of the Year in 1979, and wrote frequent historical articles for The Tustin News from the early 1980s through at least 2000. Major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, still quoted her as an authority on Tustin history as recently as 2005. And her fellow historians were going to her for her expertise (and friendship) right up until the end.

Here’s an obituary from her family and the Tustin Area Historical Society Museum:  

Carol Emily Hough was born to Frederic and Emily (White) Hough on June 6, 1928, in Los Angeles, California. She grew up in Pasadena and attended South Pasadena-San Marino High School, graduating with the Class of 1946. She first became interested in history in high school while researching the memoirs of her grandfather, Alonzo Davis, as he described his experiences in the U.S. Army, mining and practicing law and later being elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

She graduated from Occidental College and married William C. Jordan on December 17, 1951. Her love of history and Tustin heightened after they moved here in 1955, when her husband opened his law practice in Santa Ana. Carol had a brief teaching career until retiring to raise their three children.

Carol’s interest in writing history started in 1972 when she was asked by Tustin Unified School District Superintendent to write about the demise of 101-year-old Tustin Elementary School District since it was changing into TUSD. She researched it to write her first piece, a play entitled “Ghosts of Tustin’s Past”.

In 1975, along with Vivian Owen and Mary Etzold, she founded the Tustin Area Museum as part of Tustin’s Bicentennial celebration. She served as the Museum Historian until 2006, was a consultant for the City of Tustin’s Historic Resources Survey, served for 25 years on the County of Orange Historical Commission and was Tustin’s 1979 Woman of the Year. She was the author of many books about Tustin, including Tustin Is My Hometown, Tustin: City of Trees, Tustin Heritage Walk, and Tustin: An Illustrated History.

Guy Ball, local historian and author of Images of America: Tustin, and The City Walk: All About Tustin in 1895, writes, 

Many local cities have people that jump to mind when you think about home-town historians.  For Tustin, Carol Jordan rings clear. Her definitive history of the city, Tustin: An Illustrated History, continues to be my go-to book and has bookmarks and highlighted sections throughout. 

In 1975, along with Vivian Owen and Mary Etzold, Carol founded the Tustin Area Museum (and resulting Tustin Area Historical Society) as part of the city's Bicentennial celebration. She was the Museum Historian until 2006, but was always available to help people searching for Tustin area information.

But my best memory was when I was working on my Tustin book and she helped with some background research on some photos I had. She was so gracious and generous with her knowledge and expertise.

Only a couple months before her passing, I gave Carol a ride to a small lunch gathering at Ruby’s with fellow local historians. Carol was in excellent spirits and happily engaged in talking shop with everyone. 

Afterward, I drove her back to her apartment, and along the way I mentioned a house I was researching in Tustin that week. Once home, she said, “Hold on a minute,” and then fetched a small box from which she extracted a document that included a history of that same house, which she’d written almost forty years earlier. 

Aside from being pleasantly surprised and very appreciative of the unexpected assist, I was also struck by this thought: “I only hope I’ll still be that sharp and helpful to others when I’m 95!” Of course, the odds of that -- for any of us -- are low.

Carol was extraordinary to the end . She is missed.

[Author's note: Mea culpa! I'd intended to post this back in December, when I learned of Carol's passing. But for a variety of reasons, this winter was extremely difficult for me. So this post -- already in rough draft form -- was put on the back burner. Its late arrival is in no way an indication of anything other than way too many distractions.]

Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Cokers: Huntington Beach Pioneers

Plowing celery fields in Orange County’s peatlands, circa 1903.

Although forgotten today, George C. and Catherine Coker were pioneers in the Wintersburg/Liberty Park area of what’s now Huntington Beach. By the time they arrived in 1905, they had already significantly improved their lot in life through hard work and determination. And like many Huntington Beach-area farm families, after many years of wresting a living from the soil, they profited unexpectedly and dramatically from the 1920 oil boom. Their son, George Jr., grew up with more education and opportunities than his parents ever had, and he experienced even greater success. Most of Orange County’s pioneers were in the business of farming, oil, or real estate, and the Cokers became involved in all three. What differentiated the Coker family from other local pioneer families with similar stories was the fact that the Cokers were Black. The 1910 and 1920 U.S. Census listed them as "mullato," and other documents describe them as "negro/black" with a “light complexion.” 

Huntington Beach’s attitude toward Black people during its first few decades was often contradictory, at best. On one hand, the few Black residents in the town’s early years – including laborer and city lifeguard Henry M. Brooks – were accepted and, in some cases, particularly well-liked. On the other hand, an attempt at opening a home for Black orphans downtown was scuttled by public outcry; community leaders strongly opposed the building the Black-only Pacific Beach Club (which was burned by arsonists, days before opening); and in the 1920s the city would become a significant hub for Ku Klux Klan activity. Even as of 2023, only 1.2% of the city’s population was Black (1) and the City Council actively voted specifically not to acknowledge Black History Month.

The view up Main St. in Downtown Huntington Beach, 1905.

With this history in mind, it is interesting to see how well the Cokers fared while living here and to consider how changing attitudes may have eventually encouraged them to leave.

Depending on which Census records you believe, George Cicero Coker was born either in Mississippi or in Tuscumbia, Alabama. In any case, he was born on Nov. 26, 1865 -- just six months after the end of the Civil War – to parents who were native to Alabama. 

He was born with the name “George Tubb,” but was raised by white foster parents Joseph and Jane Coker in Colbert County, Alabama (where Tuscumbia is located) and eventually took their name. Both Joseph and Jane were natives of Georgia. Joseph was born around 1825 and was a farm laborer. Jane was about five years younger than Joseph. (2)

Main St., Tuscumbia, Alabama, late 1800s.

Considering only a little more than 6% of Black people in Alabama were free prior to the war, there’s a strong possibility that at least one of his biological parents was a slave. 

Little is known about George’s early life, except that he was self-educated and could read and write. 

As a young man, he worked for several railroads and was a member of the surveying crew what became oil tycoon Henry M. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway Company in Florida. 

Florida East Coast Railway tracks between Blue Springs and Orange City, Florida, circa 1897.

In February and March of 1891 there was widespread news coverage throughout the South of the accidental shooting of thirteen-year-old Bertha Belgart of Hayneville, Alabama by "George Coker." (Miss Belgart had been the lass who, just months earlier, had cut the ribbon to unveil the town’s large Confederate monument.) Unfortunately, only a couple newspapers bothered to run a correction which explained that the man whose pistol went off was actually Will Coker, not George Coker. If that wasn't enough to make a Black man named George Coker want to leave the lynching-prone South, it's hard to imagine what would.

Redlands, California, 1890s.

George Coker arrived in California in 1892. Newspaper accounts in 1896 place him in Redlands.

In 1897 George homesteaded 160 acres just west of downtown Coachella, California. According to Riverside County Historian Steve Lech, this property was at the southwest corner of Avenue 51 and Harrison Street. This area was often referred to as part of Indio at the time (3). Here, Coker became known as leader in the local branch of the Salvation Army. 

But in August 1900 he became truly notable among his neighbors for being the first to dig a successful well in Coachella. (Previous water sources had been artesian and to the southeast.) George still owned a small house in Redlands (4) which he traded to J. Lincoln Casebeer in exchange for digging a 2-inch, 540-foot-deep water well on his desert homestead. The gamble paid off in a big way, not just for him but for everyone in the area -- especially the farmers. Within a year, on the strength of Coker’s successful experiment, at least sixty more wells were dug in the area and local agriculture began to flourish. 

Irrigation in Coachella, 1903.

George sunk some of his newfound money back into Redlands real estate, and he would continue to buy and sell lots there through at least 1907.

Coker lived by himself in Riverside County until November 29, 1901, when he married Catherine E. Simmons (1866–1948) in Brogden, North Carolina and brought her back with him to California.

Catherine was born April 11, 1866, in Dudley, North Carolina, the daughter of Greene H. and Elizabeth “Betsey” Jane (Thornton) Simmons. Greene was a farmer who sometimes worked as a cooper and a mechanic. Like most farmers he had many children. In fact, he had at least eleven children. The 1840 U.S. Census shows that Greene Simmons and at least some of his family were “free colored people.” Some documents refer to them as “mulatto.”

George and Catherine Coker stayed on their Coachella property for the requisite five years to receive their land patent on September 2, 1902. After the patent was granted, they stayed for a few more years before selling and moving back to Redlands.

211 High St., Redlands: The Cokers home just before moving to Orange County. (Now demolished.) The neighborhood features large lots, many of which included orange groves.

On September 23, 1905, George and Catherine purchased twenty marshy acres just south of Wintersburg in Orange County for $3,050 from three prominent Santa Ana businessmen: Brother-in-laws Leopold Goepper and Addison Crockett “A. C.” Bowers and their friend from Odd Fellows, prominent builder Chris McNeill. McNeill’s projects included the Orange County Courthouse, Balboa Pavilion, Holly Sugar Factory (on Dyer Rd.), and the County Hospital. Bowers was on the board of several local banks and ran what would become the Barr Lumber Co.  

Within a year, the Cokers moved onto their new Orange County property (5). During this era – from the 1890s through about 1910 – this area was one of the country’s top producers of celery. And with cool, salty, sea breezes, prodigious artesian wells, and rich soil, it must have been a stark contrast to the Cokers’ years in the desert.

Celery fields near Smeltzer and Wintersburg, circa 1900.

The nearby small town of Wintersburg was centered at what’s now the corner of Gothard St. and Warner Ave. and was named for local celery industry pioneer Henry Winters, who’d given the Southern Pacific Railroad a right-of-way across his property as well as land for a depot. The celery industry attracted many Japanese farmers and laborers to the area. The Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church was founded there in 1904. 

Little more than a stone’s throw to the east of the Cokers was the little agricultural community of Ocean View which began with the founding of the Ocean View School District in 1875. The town had grown up with the Ocean View School at its center at what’s now the intersection of Beach Blvd and Warner Ave. 

A train sinks into peat beds near Smeltzer packing house, Jan 13, 1905.

To the northwest, near the corner of Gothard St. and today’s Edinger Ave., the small town of Smeltzer existed to support celery packing houses. Specifically, this crossroads built up around the packing sheds of David E. Smeltzer, who in 1891 had helped introduce celery to Orange County as a viable crop. 

All three of these small communities would, after World War II, be absorbed into the City of Huntington Beach.

Within a few years of their arrival, the Cokers purchased an additional twenty adjacent acres (6). Now their combined forty acres made a square, bordered (in modern terms) by Gothard St. on the west, Slater Ave on the north, Belva Dr. on the south, and the line of Nichols Lane (if it continued south) on the east. The tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad's Stanton line bisected their forty acres from north to south. The land would be incorporated into the City of Huntington Beach in 1957 and is now zoned for industrial use.

The Coker house (highlighted in red) and the railroad tracks still appear on this 1960 aerial view.

This was their home and their farm. But following the pattern George established in Riverside County, they would also buy and sell investment properties throughout the Huntington Beach area as their fortunes allowed. 

The Cokers’ home was located approximately at what’s now the southwest corner of Slater Ave. and Griffin Lane. It was accessed from a driveway or dirt road off (Huntington) Beach Boulevard (7). This access road later became part of Slater Avenue. 

On Dec. 16, 1906, the Cokers’ son, George Cicero Coker, Jr. was born.  He was delivered by Dr. C. D. Ball, perhaps the best regarded physician in Orange County. George Jr. attended the Ocean View School.  Whether or not George, Sr. had any formal schooling, he impressed the value of education on his son, who proved an excellent student.

George Coker, Jr. appears (upper left) among classmates in this detail from an Ocean View Grammar School class photo, circa 1919.

Their second son, Orvid (or perhaps Arvid or Orrid) Jean Coker, was born on Nov. 22, 1910. Little is known about Orvid, and by the 1920 U.S. Census he is not shown living with his family. He died at an early age. But curiously, he does not appear in the County death records between 1910 and 1920. 

Like most of their neighbors, the Cokers grew celery. A newspaper article in March 1909 mentions their ranch shipping an entire boxcar of the “green top” variety to market. But farming is seasonal, and George, Sr. sometimes supplemented the family’s income by taking additional jobs. For instance, a 1916 newspaper article states that George was “bitten by a dog while delivering milk the other evening.”

A celery blight hit Orange County beginning around 1905-1908, and the crop became less lucrative. In the years that followed, George Coker would experiment with a variety of other crops.

Wintersburg Methodist Church (now Warner Avenue Baptist Church).

The Cokers joined the Wintersburg Methodist [Episcopal] Church in 1910 – just a few years after it was dedicated – and would remain active members as long as they lived in the area. Other members included such key pioneer families as the Huffs, the Gothards, the Murdys, and the Winters.

By 1910, the Cokers’ taxable personal property included a cow, four dozen poultry, two horses, two colts (apparently taxed differently than older horses), two harnesses, farm implements, two wagons, furniture, and a sewing machine. And in February 1918 they made the local newspapers with their purchase of a used Maxwell automobile.

Detail from Westminster Road District plat map, circa 1912, shows “G. Coker’s” property on both sides of the tracks.

George Coker was liked and respected by his neighbors. In July 1918 – with the area’s once-booming celery industry largely supplanted by sugar beets and other crops – he was elected to the first board of directors of the non-profit co-operative Huntington Beach Produce Association, along with such notable pioneers as Joseph J. Courreges, Sam Gisler, and chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors Thomas B. Talbert. 

One of the early goals of the association was to explore the commercial possibilities of winter cabbage. George had agreed to plant at least five acres of his ranch in winter cabbage that season. Ultimately, the new crop failed to make a splash in Orange County, but George Coker’s election to the board of this optimistic endeavor was an indication of his position in the community.

Coker was also a member of the Celery Growers’ Association and the Lima Bean Growers Association.

In 1919, Standard Oil drilled their first successful well in Huntington Beach. Further drilling then showed that the whole area sat on an enormous field of oil. With shocking rapidity, the isolated little beach getaway was transformed into a bustling hub of dirty, smelly industry. Derricks were put up all around and by the end of 1920, Huntington Beach’s oil fields produced as much as 20,000 barrels a day. Additional productive fields were soon found nearby, and speculators were keen to explore all outlying areas. 

Some oil fields near Huntington Beach, circa the early 1930s.

Although not at the heart of the oil fields, the Wintersburg area was significantly impacted. The Coker’s early oil boom fortunes were mentioned specifically in a Feb. 3, 1920 Santa Ana Register article: "There have been many offers for [oil] leases, but the only ones reported as having been closed are the forty acres owned by L. T. Wells, southwest of Talbert, and forty acres held by Geo. C. Coker, south of Wintersburg. Wells received $200 per month and Coker $90 per month, according to the terms of the lease."  

Beginning in 1922, the Cokers sold at least 200 small pieces of land. Many of the buyers acquired the mineral rights to their parcels as well, along with any standing oil leases. The largest number of these parcels were sold during the thick of the oil boom in the 1920s, but the Cokers made many more sales in the 1930s and even a few in the 1940s.

George, Jr. (center) with fellow members of the HBHS Debate & Forensics team, 1922.

George Coker, Jr. spent his first two years of high school – 1921-22 and 1922-23 -- at Huntington Beach High School. He was at the top of his class in forensics both years, representing the school in regional competitions and tying with a Garden Grove High School student for first place as a freshman. As a sophomore he was an honor student, a member of the football team, a continuing star on the forensics team, and was elected the student council. But by the time the 1923-24 HBHS Cauldron yearbook was assembled, the Coker family had moved on.

The year 1923 was a time of numerous big changes for the Cokers, beginning with arrangements to sell half their farm property. The February 26, 1923 edition of the Los Angeles Times announced that "George C. Coker… sold twenty acres of land to C. O. Jaggers at $2000 an acre. It could not be ascertained whether it will be used for drilling for oil or for subdivision purposes."

Curiously, no such deed was ever filed with the County. More likely, the transaction was not a sale but rather the designation of Charles O. Jaggers – a big-time real estate wheeler-dealer and the president of Oil State Petroleum Co. – as the Cokers’ agent for the future sale or lease of those twenty acres to oil speculators. 

Jaggers had been on trial the year before for selling oil land around Huntington Beach without the appropriate state permits, but by early 1923 he seemed to be operating under a full head of steam again. (8)

Ruins of old house (not the Cokers’ home) still standing on the western portion of the old Coker Ranch, at 7412 E. Slater Ave. at Metzler Lane. This house is highlighted in green on the 1960 aerial photo, above.

In June 1923, the new Oil Rectifying & Marketing Company had completed construction of an oil refinery “north of the La Bolsa Tile Factory on the Southern Pacific tracks, on a tract of land commonly known as the George Coker ranch,” reported the Long Beach Press (June 3, 1923). The new plant was intended to “handle all oil which is not in the proper condition to run through the pipeline. It will be hauled to the plant by trucks. The company was financed by Dr. Harry B. Breckwedel and Barney Sorenson of Los Angeles and when completed will have a capacity of 3,000 barrels of crude daily. More than a mile of three-inch pipe was used in the building of this plant."

The year 1923 also saw the birth of the little community of Liberty Park, between the Cokers’ property and (Huntington) Beach Boulevard. This “highway town” was mainly composed of small, inexpensive homes intended for oil workers. 

Looking north up Beach Blvd toward Liberty Park from 300 feet south of Talbert Ave., 1931

By 1924, George Coker was well-established as a savvy local businessman. Ads for other available oil leases bragged that Coker – along with other noted real estate mavens like Tom Talbert and J. A. Armitage – was “interested in drilling” on their land. Whether true or not, the use of Cokers’ name as bragging rights indicates that he was a local opinion leader.

But with a new oil refinery on one side of them and a new village of oil workers on the other, the Cokers’ neighborhood was changing rapidly. In fact, the whole area was changing dramatically – from a small community where families settled in for the long haul and everyone knew everyone, to a transient place where thousands of oilfield roughnecks (many of them from Texas and Oklahoma) came and went as needed by the oil companies. 

One of numerous older, no-frills homes still standing in Liberty Park.

Worse, the presence and influence of the Ku Klux Klan was growing rapidly in nearby Huntington Beach, as it was in many Southern California communities. It’s unknown if this was a reason the Cokers began thinking of moving to an ethnically diverse neighborhood in Los Angeles, but it certainly seems possible.

The Klan in Orange County was at its peak in the first part of 1924, with at least 1,200 members. They took over Anaheim’s city government and insinuated themselves into positions of authority in numerous other cities. They burned a cross at the Sisters of St. Joseph in Orange, terrorizing nuns and children. They harassed people in the streets. Klan lecturer Rev. Horace Lackey gave a well-attended lecture on a downtown Santa Ana street corner, using a flaming cross and an American flag as his backdrop. They held what was purportedly Southern California’s largest Klan rally ever, with 20,000 attendees and another cross burning, in Anaheim’s City Park (now Pearson Park), where they inducted many new members. 

Ku Klux Klan rally at Anaheim City Park, July 29, 1924.

And Huntington Beach was no stranger to the Klan either. They had attempted to take over the city government as they had in Anaheim. So comfortable were the Klansmen in Huntington Beach that several thousand of them would hold a "spectacular" rally and picnic at 17th Street Park on Labor Day, 1924. The day included a large parade along Ocean Ave. (PCH), two bands, a baseball game, and numerous speakers. 

Perhaps the most remarkable "entertainment" was provided by three airplanes which flew circles around the park that evening: One unfurled a giant "KKK" banner, another carried a large flaming cross, and a third featured a Klansman in full white robe regalia -- hanging below the plane and swooping over the city like a demonic Mary Poppins.

A handful of the thousands of Klan members holding a rally and parade in Huntington Beach pose with the municipal band, 1924.

The Cokers now had more than enough money to move if they wanted to. And they wanted to. In the spring of 1924 they left the rustic marshlands near Huntington Beach and moved into a new home at 3420 S. Budlong Ave., in the Jefferson Park area of South Los Angeles. 

If the rise of the Klan was indeed a factor in their move, their timing was ironic. The Klan in Orange County began its rapid decline later that year. On Sept. 29th, the Orange County District Attorney Alexander P. Nelson kicked off a major campaign against the Klan. Soon, the Klan was banned from various community events, Anaheim began the process of recalling their Klan-dominated city council, the Santa Ana Police Department banned Klan activities for its officers, accusations of Klan membership crippled politicians’ election campaigns, and there was generally a growing understanding that the Klan was a problem to be routed out.

“Strong opposition from Dr. James Geissinger (Anaheim Methodist minister), the Kiwanis Clubs, and Anaheim newspapers… finally exposed the bigoted nature of the organization,” wrote historian Esther Cramer, “and the Klan leadership in the county was decisively defeated at the polls in 1925. Most of the membership sheepishly withdrew their support of the Klan…”

Originally among the wealthiest of the "trolley car suburbs” the Cokers’ new neighborhood of Jefferson Park had been developed in the very early 1900s and is still recognized for its many beautiful Arts & Crafts-style homes. It was already one of Los Angeles’ more ethnically diverse neighborhoods, including (like Wintersburg) a sizable Japanese American community.

3420 S Budlong Ave, Los Angeles

Even so, the Cokers were among the earliest Black families to call the neighborhood home. Generally, the 1930s is considered the decade when upper-middle to upper-class Black people began moving to Jefferson Park in significant numbers. This trend only accelerated after racial covenants were banned in 1948. The post-WWII years also saw many Creole families moving to Jefferson Park and the area was given the nickname "Little New Orleans." Among its many claims to fame, Jefferson Park would become the home of the first Fatburger, of Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel, and of the Mills Brothers. 

Long after their move, the Cokers continued to own land in the Huntington Beach area. Rather than “farmer” or “rancher,” George Coker now listed his occupation as “real estate.” They sold off several downtown Huntington Beach lots in 1925. And by the end of 1926 they had sold over 150 small pieces of the agricultural land in Section 26 (Wintersburg) that they’d purchased in 1905 through 1907. But they continued to hang onto part of their old ranch.

George, Jr. graduated from Los Angeles Polytechnic High School in January 1926.

George Cicero Coker, Jr. at Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, 1926.

George Coker, Sr. died in his Los Angeles home on October 17, 1926. His passing made the front page of the Huntington Beach News, which referred to him as a “pioneer resident of Huntington Beach.” 

Old Wintersburg friends and neighbors, including respected pioneer farmer George Gothard and Elizabeth M. Fox (wife of rancher Ernest M. Fox) made the trip up to Los Angeles to attend the funeral. George Coker, Sr. was buried at Evergreen Cemetery, which was remarkable in its day for never having banned Black people. Other notable Southern Californians buried there include California Eagle publisher/editor and civil rights activist Charlotta Bass, and land baron and "father of Long Beach" Jotham Bixby.

Wintersburg Southern Pacific Railway Depot, on Wintersberg Ave (now Warner Ave) just west of (Huntington) Beach Blvd.

An October 18, 1928 article in the Santa Ana Register reported that Mrs. Coker and her son, George, Jr. were visiting Wintersburg, “seeing after their [remaining] ranch property. They have recently returned from a vacation trip south, where they visited in Mrs. Coker's old home in Mississippi, and also in Georgia, the Carolinas and Washington, D. C. . . . George Coker has been attending U.C.L.A., where he has one more year." Additional articles in the California Eagle indicate that their trip also included stops in Chicago and Baltimore and that they stayed with family in North Carolina. 

Like so many others, the Cokers were hit hard by the economic crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression. As early as 1930 and continuing through at least 1945, the tax collector gradually took more and more of the Coker's remaining Orange County land for unpaid taxes.

“George C. Coker, Jr, MBA, USC.” Circa 1930 photo found among the papers of W. E. B. Du Bois.

George, Jr. stuck with his studies. But if he was indeed attending the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), he must have switched at some point to the University of Southern California which was located a few blocks from the Coker home. In 1930, he graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from USC, and he remained there to earn his MBA. The pithy title of his thesis was "A study of the proposed consolidations of the Pennsylvania railroad under the 1929 plan of the Interstate Commerce Commission." Interestingly, a photo of this promising young MBA grad student and Orange County native appears among the papers of noted sociologist, civil rights activist and author W. E. B. DuBois. Coker was also mentioned in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine (Vol. 38, 1931), edited by Du Bois.

Sometime before or shortly after receiving his MBA, George married Zelda Catherine Summers, a politically active young native of Oakland, California. They lived in South Los Angeles until 1933 when they moved to San Antonio, Texas, where George found a job working as a salesman for the Atlanta Life Insurance Co. Their daughter, Zelda Catherine Coker, was born in San Antonio on Nov. 12, 1933.

Zelda Summers as an Oakland High School sophomore, December 1926.

George and Zelda’s marriage was brief. Divorce papers were filed in 1935. Zelda returned to her hometown of Oakland with their daughter and took a job as secretary for the 17th Assembly District Fisher for Congress Club. The two Zeldas would return to live in San Antonio a few years later.

Meanwhile, George returned to South Los Angeles where he moved back in with his mother on Budlong Ave. and began a ten-year run of working for the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. Launched in 1925, at a time when few companies would insure Black customers, Golden State had grown rapidly to become the largest Black-owned insurance company in the western United States. Their Los Angeles office was a centerpiece of the South Central neighborhood, and George became one of the company’s most successful salesmen.

Golden State Mutual Life Insurance home office, 4261 Central Ave, Los Angeles, 1947.

George and Zelda’s divorce was finally granted in June of 1938. George immediately married Ethel Jane West and moved into her home at 1339 E. 33rd St., in South Central Los Angeles. Ethel went by Jane, was about three years younger than George, and was a native of Arkansas. Living with them were cousins Clyde and Georgiana Malone, both Kansas natives. 

From 1935 through at least 1941, George appeared annually in the pages of the California Eagle for being among the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. agents to qualify for membership in the National Black Cat Club (sponsored by Accident & Health Review magazine) by "writing thirteen or more accident and health insurance applications on National Hoodoo Day, Friday the 13th." 

Detail of advertisement for Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. depicting “Black Cat Club” initiates, including George Coker. ( California Eagle, June 19, 1941)

He was still with Golden State at the start of World War II, but he took a job supporting the war effort working in a shipyard in Oakland. Jane and George separated around 1943 and were divorced in September 1945. 

After the war, in 1946, George took a new job with the United States Employment Service. As the remnants of the New Deal faded away and the Employment Service transferred back under state control, George became a state employee. He worked in the Service’s Industrial and Maritime offices in San Francisco until he transferred to the Interstate Unit in Sacramento in 1953.

When Catherine E. Coker died in Los Angeles in July 1948, she still owned land near Huntington Beach. Her estate administrator sought and received authorization to lease some of the estate’s last remaining land in Section 26 near Wintersburg to oil developers Keans, Springmann & Stipek, Inc. 

Annie Virginia Stephens’ law school graduation photo, 1929.

In May of 1954, when George Coker, Jr. was 47, he married for the third time. This time, the bride was Annie Virginia Stephens Pendleton, 51 of Sacramento. Virginia was the first Black graduate from University of California Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. She passed the California Bar that same year (1929), becoming the state’s first Black female attorney. She had her own practice for ten years before being appointed as Attorney for the State Office of the Legislature Council in Sacramento in May, 1939. She helped draft and amend countless legislative bills. She would become the head of the Indexing Section at the State Office of Legislative Counsel by the time of her retirement in 1966.

By the time George married Virginia, he had already earned his own law degree (9). They both tutored Black students for California State bar exams.

Virginia "Coker was variously described by those who knew her as a 'spoiled brat who was loved by all,' 'bright,' 'reserved,' 'every inch a lady' and someone with class,” wrote Nancy McCarthy in the February 2008 California Bar Journal. “She liked to travel, loved music, hated to cook (even though her father was a chef) and loved to shop. She once told a friend, …'If God ever told me, ‘Virginia, you have one more day to live,’ I’d like to do it shopping.' ... A legal indexer who worked for Coker from 1959 until her retirement in 1966 described her as ‘a good supervisor, a good friend, someone you could take personal problems to.’ 

Others said Virginia Coker was conscientious and worked tirelessly, often until late at night. She admitted to a co-worker that she was not confident she could pass the bar exam because she’d been told she was ‘too brief’ in her writing style. Her brevity served as a virtue, the co-worker said, as she had ‘the uncanny faculty for stating things in one sentence, stripping away unnecessary verbiage and getting straight to the point.’”

A later newspaper photo of Virginia Stephens Coker.

George retired from the California Department of Human Resources Development on December 28, 1969. A couple months later, he and Virginia went on a vacation to Africa. While there, George suffered a massive “heart stroke” and was initially hospitalized in Nairobi. Once considered stable, he was flown back to Sacramento where he remained hospitalized. He died in Sacramento on March 28, 1970 at age 63. His obituary showed that he was the father of Mrs. Zelda Mosley of Houston, Texas and was also survived by one grandson. 

Virginia Coker died in Sacramento in 1986 at the age of 82. Her obituary listed her as the stepmother of Mrs. Zelda Jefferson.

Although noteworthy in the early history of the Huntington Beach area, the Coker family moved to Los Angeles before local government began enshrining pioneers in public memory by naming streets, parks and schools after them. Moreover, the history of areas outside the early city limits has long been given short shrift. As such, the Coker family has generally been forgotten in Orange County.

Site of the Coker home near Wintersburg. Now part of the Central Park Business Centre industrial park at Slater Ave and Griffin St, in Huntington Beach.

Knowing the stories of our local pioneers provides historical context and is critical to understanding the roots and character of our communities. A town’s history is, to a large degree, what makes it unique and interesting instead of a bland clone of every other town on the map.

Today, efforts to remove historic names from the map are disturbingly common. In 2016 there was an attempt to rename several Huntington Beach parks long named for the pioneer Lamb, Wardlow and Arevalos families. In 2021, there was an effort to strip the name from Spurgeon Street Station: Santa Ana’s main downtown post office, named for city founder William H. Spurgeon. By removing these pioneer names, we further separate current residents from a sense of place and from their community heritage. The stories of our pioneers are easily lost.

Conversely, preserving reminders of our pioneer history – and, in the case of the Cokers, rediscovering that history – is important to understanding and shaping community identity today and in the future. Certainly, it’s worth rediscovering (and then remembering) that a successful and respected Black family was among the pioneers who shaped the early years of what became the middle of Huntington Beach. If nothing else, the story of the Cokers helps paint a slightly different – and hopefully slightly clearer – picture of the community’s early development.

[Thanks to Kalyn McCall of “The Happiest Place on Earth” blog, the library staff at Huntington Beach High School, Stephanie George of the Orange County Historical Society, Huntington Beach City Archivist Kathie Schey, Riverside County Historian Steve Lech, Julie Andrews of Community United Methodist Church of Huntington Beach, Dave Furuta, Patrick Jenning, Jim Mcdougall, Rachel Culmer of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society, and Rich Cooper of the Coker Alabama Town Council for their assistance.]

  1. Compared to 2.3% of Orange County’s overall population.
  2. Per the 1870 U.S. Census. Tuscumbia was prosperous before being repeatedly decimated by both sides during the war. It was later also the birthplace of Helen Keller.
  3. The actual place name at the time, technically, was Woodspur – a mequite-choked railroad siding. (Again, per Lech.)
  4. On the west side of Silveria St., and south of Colton Ave.
  5. East 1/2 of the northeast 1/4 of the southwest 1/4 of Section 26, Township 5 South, Range 11 West, San Bernardino Base & Meridian. (See Orange County Deeds 122/14 & 142/385)
  6. West 1/2 of the northwest 1/4 of the southeast 1/4 of Section 26, Township 5 South, Range 11 West, San Bernardino Base & Meridian. (Deed of Trust filed Dec. 19, 1924)
  7. Per the 1920 U.S. Census.
  8. Jaggers would later be arrested again in San Diego County for selling subdivided lots where no subdivision existed.
  9. According to the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, California.

Partial Bibliography:
  • Brigandi, Phil. Orange County Place Names A to Z, Sunbelt Publications Inc, 2006. 
  • Brigandi, Phil. Old Orange County Courthouse: A Centennial History, Historical Publishing Network, 2001.
  • Brown, William Garrett. Northern Alabama Historical & Biographical Illustrated, Vol. II, Smith & Deland, Birmingham [AL], 1888.
  • Christopher Cocoltchos, Christopher. “The Invisible Government and the Viable Community: The Ku Klux Klan in Orange County, California During the 1920s,” University of California Los Angeles, 1979.
  • "City and Vicinity," Redlands Daily Facts, Mar. 13, 1896, pg. 3
  • Coachella Valley Water District, Coachaella Valley's Golden Years, Desert Printing Co. Indio, 1968.
  • County of Orange, Official Records (1846/274)
  • Cramer, Esther R. La Habra: The Pass Through the Hills, Sultana Press, Fullerton, 1969.
  • "Crowds Flock to Beach Here," Huntington Beach News, Sept. 2, 1924
  • Detwiler, Justice B. Who's Who in California, a Biographical Directory, 1928-1929, Who's Who Publishing Co, San Francisco, 1929.
  • Du Bois Papers (W. E. B.), Special Collections & University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
  • “George Coker Passes Away in Los Angeles,” Huntington Beach News, Oct. 29, 1926.
  • HRD News, California Dept of Human Resources Development, 1970.
  • Jeffrey, J. W. "The Land," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 9, 1901, pg 12
  • Jepsen, Chris. "Pioneer Andres R. Arevalos," O.C. History Roundup (blog), May 18, 2016.
  • Jepsen, Chris. "Pioneer William D. Lamb," O.C. History Roundup, March 22, 2016.
  • Jepsen, Chris. “The Rise and Firey Fall of the Pacific Beach Club,” Orange Countiana, Vol. VII, Orange County Historical Society, 2011.
  • Jepsen, Chris. "Santa Ana Federal Building & Post Office (1931)," O.C. History Roundup, Aug. 7, 2009.
  • Marsh, Diann, Huntington Beach: Gem of the South Coast, Heritage Media Corp, Carlsbad, 1999.
  • Miscellaneous Records, County of Orange, (18/154, 20/393, 22/25 & 72)
  • “Odd Bits Here & There,” Pomona Progress, Aug. 30, 1901
  • "Produce Association Articles Are Filed," Santa Ana Register, July 22, 1918.
  • "Real Estate Transfers," The Citrograph (Redlands), Sep. 1, 1900, pg. 2
  • "Real Estate Transfers," The Citrograph, Nov. 9, 1907, pg. 10
  • "Realty Transfers," The Citrograph, Apr. 1, 1905, pg. 8
  • "Reclaiming the Desert," The Citrograph, July 14, 1900, pg 6
  • "Redlands Home Telephone and Telegraph Company" [directory], The Citrograph, Mar. 3, 1906, pg. 3
  • Rothman, Joshua D. "When Bigotry Paraded Through the Streets," The Atlantic, Dec. 4, 2016.
  • "Transfers of Real Estate," Santa Ana Register, Aug. 13, 1907, pg. 4
  • "Transfers of Realty," The Hour (Redlands), Aug. 25, 1900, pg. 8
  • Urashima, Mary Adams. “Prohibition and booze under the cornerstone,” Historic Huntington Beach (blog), Jan. 8, 2018
  • Urashima, Mary Adams. “Recalls 1912-2022: building piers, paving roads, the battle of the tidelands, and the Klan,” Historic Huntington Beach, February 13, 2022
  • Westminster Road District (map), Plat of Orange County, 1912-1913

Monday, May 06, 2024

Diann Marsh (1935-2024)

Diann Marsh with some of her illustrations of historic Anaheim, circa 1980.
One of Orange County's great historians and historical preservationists, Diann Carol Marsh, passed away on February 18, 2024 at the age of 88. 

I didn’t know Diann as well as some of my mentors and slightly older colleagues did, but I was lucky enough to hang out with her several times when she made return visits to California. And we emailed back and forth periodically on matters historical. She was always a font of knowledge and offered encouraging words. And of course, her books are – and will remain -- a vital resource for all of us in this field. 

Residents of several local communities know of Diann’s specific contributions in their own backyards. But she actually had a major impact on the local history and preservation scene throughout Orange County.
Robert & Diann at the Tustin High School prom.

Diann was born on July 15, 1935, in Peoria, to Eldon and Virginia (Taylor) Travis. The family moved to Tustin, California in 1952 and Diann Travis would attend Tustin High School. The following year, she married her high school sweetheart, Robert G. Marsh and they moved into a modern home in North Santa Ana. However, what they really wanted was a historic home. It would be a while before that would happen.

By 1962 they were living in another modern home in Garden Grove, but with a growing family, they wanted to find a more “wholesome life” in the country. That year, the Marshes moved to a small ranch near Norco in Riverside County. There, her children had “plenty of room to run and play,” and the family maintained a veritable petting zoo of peacocks, chickens, goats, pigs, dogs, cats, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, and even a couple cows. 

In 1969 they moved again to a tract house in Corona, but the beautiful houses in the town’s nearby adjacent historic core reminded them of their desire for a historic home of their own. They loved the community of Corona, and were active in their church, the Indian Guides and Maidens, the P.T.A. and the Corona Art Association. 

When the gasoline shortage of 1973-’74 hit, it was decided that Robert needed live closer to his job.  So the Marsh family moved back to Orange County. 

321 N. Philadelphia St., Anaheim, circa 2023.

In 1975 they finally made their dream of owning a historic home a reality when they moved into 321 N. Philadelphia St. in Anaheim. This 1903 transitional Bungalow is known as the “Backs Honeymoon Cottage,” as it had been built as a gift from newspaper publisher Richard Melrose to his daughter, Jessie Melrose Backs, and her new husband, Fred Backs. Researching the home’s history only intensified Diann’s love of historic buildings and she took the role of architectural historian like a duck to water.

Diann and Robert soon joined the Orange County Historical Society. Diann would remain an active member of the Society as long as she lived in California. She made presentations before the Society on at least ten occasions, organized events, and contributed to many of their publications. Robert also served on the Executive Committee of the OCHS Board.

Over the years, Diann also served on the boards of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society, the Santa Ana Communication Linkage, the El Dorado Ranch Committee, and the Historic French Park Association. She was member of the Orange County Historical Commission (representing the 1st District) and the Santa Ana Historic Resources Review Committee. In 1983, Diann was the Coordinator of the California State Historic Preservation Conference. She was also a major contributor to the countywide effort to celebrate the Orange County’s centennial in 1989 – contributing a great deal of research and writing.

Diann Marsh (in red) with some fellow Orange County historians, 2009. L to R: Keith Dixon, Bill Hendricks, Phil Brigandi, Diann Marsh, Pamela Hallan-Gibson, Don Dobmeier, John Elliott. Seated: Jim Sleeper and Esther Cramer.

According to her friend and fellow writer Peggy Stortz, "In 1975, she was hired to do a historic survey of Escondido, Calif. For twenty-two years, she was a Historic Preservation Consultant. She provided architectural profiles for over 10,000 buildings in fifteen cities [throughout Southern California] and authored National Register applications for over 500 buildings and ten districts." 

As a historical architecture consultant, she sometimes worked through her own Marsh & Associates company, and other times in the employ of consulting firms like Thirtieth Street Architects of Newport Beach. 

Along with Andy Deneau, in 1976, Diann founded the Anaheim Historical Society – which, together with the efforts of the Anaheim Neighborhood Association, are the only reason ANY of the remaining bits of Downtown Anaheim survive today. She’s still a big enough deal there that she was made Grand Marshall in the Anaheim Halloween Parade several years ago. And the AHS continues to be a valuable part of the community.

Diann's illustration of an earlier incarnation of St Boniface Catholic Church, Anaheim.

Diann was also a gifted artist, known for her oil and watercolor paintings and her intricate pen and ink architectural illustrations. She studied art at Riverside and Chaffey Colleges and privately with professional artists. Her works were exhibited throughout the country, won prizes at the Orange County Fair, and graced many local history publications.

In 1985, the Marshes bought another historic home -- this time an 1883 Italianate Victorian in Santa Ana's French Park neighborhood. Former Anaheim City Preservation Officer Phyllis Mueller writes, “The Marshes sold their Philadelphia Street house to Keith and Judith Olesen, who themselves would soon become leaders in saving their neighborhood."

Diann and Robert bought their Santa Ana house for $10, moved it to a vacant lot five blocks away at 321 East 8th Street, restored it, and (in 1987) moved in. Their garden was decorated with elements of many historic buildings from Anaheim that had met their doom in redevelopment. To the house itself, she added stained glass windows from the old Zion Lutheran Church of Anaheim. 

The Marsh home at 321 East 8th St., Santa Ana, May 2024. (Photo by author)

“An old house has character just like a living person,” Diann wrote. “Over the years it has acquired its own personality. The joys and sadnesses of long ago linger in the halls. …Owning an old house is an unique experience, full of surprises, joys, problems and challenge. The fun of researching your own home at the library, of finding old bottles under the house left from the ’38 flood, making old woodwork glow, picking camellias from the bushes as big as trees far outweighs the problems.”

In 1998, the Marshes left California and moved into another historic home in history-rich Galena, Illinois. There, Diann continued her work -- albeit with a different geographic focus. Orange County's great loss was clearly Galena’s tremendous gain.

The Marsh home at 309 Park Ave, Galena, Ilinois, 2023.
Diann was involved in local historical, preservation and re-enactment groups in Galena, including volunteering at the Galena & U.S. Grant History Museum and at President Grant's home. She was also involved in the local arts council, Ex Libris Writers, the Galena Writers Guild, was a founding member of the Galena Center for the Arts, and served as clerk for the board of Grace Episcopal Church. In short, she took to her newly adopted hometown like a duck to water and was a big success there. And it seems the people of Galena loved her back.

In addition to her many articles, essays, short stories, editing and illustrating credits, and chapters in anthologies, Diann published at least eleven history books including:

  • Santa Ana... An Illustrated History
  • Huntington Beach: The Gem of the South Coast
  • Anaheim's Architectural Treasures
  • Anaheim's Colorful Heritage
  • Corona, the Circle City: An Illustrated History
  • Galena Illinois A Brief History
  • Images of America: Galena

I don’t know enough about Corona or Galena history to speak to her books on those subjects, but her Santa Ana book is still a very well-respected resource, and her Huntington Beach book is, hands-down, still the best book on the subject. Robert served as editor and/or photo editor on most, if not all, of these books.

Diann and Robert Marsh, circa 1990s.

According to the Galena Gazette, “Diann is survived by her husband, Robert; their children: Elaine (Paul) Rumaker, Randy (Elaine) Marsh, Kevin Paul (Vivian) Marsh, Eric (fiancée Andrea) Marsh, Ginger Huff, and Rodney Marsh. She also leaves 10 grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; a brother-in-law, Ethan; and two sisters-in-law, Sharon Fauber and Louise Jones. Diann was preceded in death by her parents; a daughter, Robin, in 1997; an infant son, Kevin Andrew; one brother, Glenn; and a sister, Elizabeth.”

I feel lucky to have known her – albeit mostly from afar and through her excellent body of work.

Diann Marsh with the author, Chris Jepsen, at the Orange County Historical Society, 2012.

And finally, in addition to my own thoughts, I wanted to pass along the following tribute from Diann's fellow local Anaheim historian, Cynthia Ward:

Diann Marsh was one of the people who shaped the person I became as an adult. 

Back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth… my Girl Scout troop was tasked with studying Anaheim history to complete a badge on our community. Diann Marsh and Andy Deneau, at the brand-new Anaheim Historical Society, very kindly stepped up to create a map, with notes on the locations, to guide our troop on a bicycle tour of old Anaheim. I don’t recall all the buildings. But I do recall the old Concordia Hall on Broadway, which at the time was used as the Pepper Tree Faire craft and antique mall. Today the lot is a storage yard for a landscape company. Such is progress. 

We were told to look for the hitching rings embedded in the alley-side of the old City Hall, and I remember somewhere with weaving looms and spinning wheels. 

Both Andy Deneau and Diann Marsh opened their personal homes to us. Oddly enough, Andy Deneau’s home was built by the parents of Fred Backs, who owned Diann’s home. Andy’s elegant Backs House had not yet been relocated (against his will) by the Redevelopment Agency, and the sprawling home sat so graciously on its large lot with mature gardens on Claudina Street. Diann’s charming Backs Honeymoon Cottage one block away was a work in progress, but it captured my imagination. I realized on that day I would never again be comfortable in a new tract house. The creak of old floors, the old-house-smell that can’t be described but can only be experienced, it was like coming home to a place I already knew and loved. My heart had been opened in a whole new way.

Many years later, my husband and I pursued that passion for ourselves, and took on the first of our Money Pit old-house projects. By then Diann had moved to Galena, but my time at the Heritage Services Reading Room made me aware of her work and I realized this was the woman who had so kindly fanned the flames of my early history-nerd heart. I was able to meet Diann a few times when she visited. By then I was serving as President of the Anaheim Historical Society, and we honored Diann with a special recognition during one of her trips back to California. (Note to future generations, do not design a crystal award for someone flying halfway across country to get it home.) 

Ward with one of her own "Money Pit" preservation projects, 2005.

Diann was also able to see the merger between the Anaheim Historical Society and the old Mother Colony Household, Inc., which had been contentious opponents in her day, in the battle between the “old guard” who often owned the old buildings being torn down for profit, and the “upstarts” trying to save it all from the wrecking-ball. Thanks to people like Diann, preservation won at least some of the war. 

Today, nearly that entire generation of historians has left us, and even some of our younger co-conspirators, like our beloved Phil Brigandi, have gone on to the Great Archives that await us all. But I hope that our generation can remember those who came before us, people like Diann who nurtured the love of these lived-in, loved-in places we treasure. We need to repay that time and effort they gave to us and find ways to reach out to the next generation that will someday inherit what we, in turn, have preserved. 

Thank you, Diann, for everything. You are missed. 


[Blogger's Note: My thanks to Cynthia Ward, Guy Ball, Phyllis Mueller, and Roberta Reed, who each played a roll in this small  tribute.]