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.
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  • Jepsen, Chris. "Pioneer William D. Lamb," O.C. History Roundup, March 22, 2016.
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  • Rothman, Joshua D. "When Bigotry Paraded Through the Streets," The Atlantic, Dec. 4, 2016.
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  • Urashima, Mary Adams. “Prohibition and booze under the cornerstone,” Historic Huntington Beach (blog), Jan. 8, 2018
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  • Westminster Road District (map), Plat of Orange County, 1912-1913

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