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John Sommerville’s birth in 1881 is marked on this date. He was a Black businessman and politician.
Born in Jamaica, John Alexander Sommerville came to San Francisco in search of a new life. He was unprepared for the racist realities of life in Jim Crow America. Sommerville moved to Los Angeles where he worked for two years in a bowling alley and saved enough money to attend the University of Southern California School of Dentistry. His white classmates were so opposed to being in the same room with him, and his being treated as their equal, that they demanded his removal from the classroom with threats of not returning to class until he was removed.
Sommerville stood his ground, however, and five years after arriving in the U.S., graduated first in his class and with the highest score recorded at the time. He was the first Black person to graduate from USC School of Dentistry. He opened his dentist office at 4th and Broadway, the heart of Black business in Los Angeles and became the first Black member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
Sommerville married Vada Watson in 1912. She later became the first Black female and the second Black person to graduate from USC School of Dentistry, and the first Black female certified to practice dentistry in the state of California. The couple worked hard to provide a good life for themselves but not all Black Angelenos were as fortunate.
The City of Los Angeles during this period experienced a substantial increase in the number of people migrating from other states, particularly White workers from the south, and a more than 300% increase in the number of Blacks. Discrimination was prevalent, and the restrictions put on Blacks grew. Hotels were off limits to Blacks creating an increased demand for more housing to meet the needs of the increasing Black population. The Sommerville’s founded the Los Angeles Chapter of the NAACP in their living room, and to meet the housing needs built a 26-unit apartment building that they named La Vada.
Following the success of the La Vada, John built the Hotel Sommerville. He suffered during the stock market crash of 1929 and was forced to sell his hotel. Having recovered from his financial woes, he became active in politics, and in 1936, became the first Black delegate to the California Democratic National Convention. In 1949, Sommerville became the first Black appointed to the Los Angeles Police Commission, and in 1954, he was declared an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to Anglo American relations. In 1972, Vada Sommerville died and months later John Sommerville passed away at the age of 91.
USC Center for Black Cultural & Student Affairs
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3601 Trousdale Parkway
Los Angeles CA 90089-4899