In the late 19th century, a new California civil rights law was put to the test after San Franciscan John Harris was turned away from Sutro Baths because he was black. His experience provided a unique opportunity to see if the recently ratified legislation, meant to ensure equal access in public places, could actually compel change.
John Harris Fights Back Against Discrimination
On July 4th, 1897 black San Francisco resident John Harris visited the newly opened Sutro Baths with a group of white friends. After paying the 25 cent entrance fee which covered entry, a bathing suit and access to the changing room, Harris alone among his friends was denied entry to the pools.
1897 was the year after the infamous Plessey v. Ferguson Supreme Court case established the principal of “separate but equal” as the law of the land, effectively legislating an American apartheid of public facilities. Plessey v. Ferguson was upheld on the premise that public facilities provided for both black and white citizens would be equal in quality, when in reality this was never true; facilities for black citizens were shamefully neglected.
While the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery throughout the country, the struggle for racial parity was fought every step of the way in the years following the US Civil War. When Mr. Harris went on his 4th of July excursion to Sutro Baths 32 years after the Civil War, he faced an uphill battle in the courts.
The Racial Climate of California in the 19th Century
California’s 1849 bilingual constitution, written in both English and Spanish, outlawed slavery; though it was a fiercely contested decision.
Miners were against slavery, and Mexican and Spanish influence in the region had outlawed slavery since 1830. Despite a history free of human bondage, there was no shortage of discrimination against African Americans in the state. Blacks weren’t allowed to vote or testify in court, attend public schools or ride public transit. Marriages between people of different races was illegal.
The 1850s were a period of greater political activism within California’s black community centered on improving their civil rights. The Franchise League, formed in 1852, led to more groups including the Assembly Club, the Colored American McKinley Club, the Afro-American League and the Excelsior Republican Club, forming around the right to vote and other civil rights issues.
The organizing led to progress. In 1863, a law passed allowing blacks to testify in cases with whites. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed the right to vote, and in 1880, racial segregation was struck down in public schools. However, interracial marriage was still illegal between whites and blacks and whites and Asians.
Mr. Harris’ Lawsuit
After being turned away on July 4th, Mr. Harris, a service sector worker, returned to the baths a second time on July 11th and was denied once more. On July 31st, he filed a suit with the San Francisco Superior Court. Because of the speed with which Mr. Harris sued, it’s speculated that he was aware of the Dibble Civil Rights Act, a California law that was enacted only months before that protected citizens against racial prejudice.
The act stated all citizens "of every color or race whatsoever" shall "be entitled to the full and equal" facilities of "all places of public accommodation or amount," was the product of careful lobbying by African American advocacy groups, with several members from Oakland and San Francisco traveling to Sacramento in order to testify on the bill’s behalf before the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
A Precedence for Action
The Dibble Act was introduced to the California legislature by San Francisco Assemblyman and abolitionist Henry Clay Dibble and Theophilus Morton, California president of the Afro-American League. Mr. Morton pressed Dibble to introduce a civil rights bill because of his long held stance on racial justice and his success in desegregating public schools in New Orleans during Reconstruction before relocating to California.
Dibble and Morton were successful in getting their bill signed into law on March 13, 1897, effective as of April 29. Like other civil rights legislation of that time, however, it could prove hard to enforce. Despite the Dibble Act’s simplicity and specificity, precedent indicated it could be ignored or worked around. Mr. Harris’ suit presented an important crucible for testing the strength of the new law.
The African American Assembly Club, committed to putting weight behind the new law, offered to help with Mr. Harris’ legal expenses. Mr. Harris sued for $10,000 in damages, $5,000 for each incident, telling the San Francisco Examiner he was “disgraced and degraded in public,” and that his “feelings and sensibilities were injured by being held up as an inferior and degraded man.”
The trial took place in February, proceeded over by a jury and a judge. The case and Mr. Harris were ridiculed in editorials in San Francisco’s newspapers.
The defense did not argue that they weren’t in violation of the law; instead they claimed following the law would bring ruin to their business because white people were the majority of their clientele, and would refuse to swim in the same pool as black people.
Edgar Sutro, son of one-time mayor and owner of the baths Adolph Sutro, was in charge of day-to-day business operations at the baths In regards to Mr. Harris' claim he was quoted in the San Francisco Call, saying: “It would be ruinous to allow negroes in the baths, because the white people would be unwilling to mingle with them, and there were not enough colored people to justify separate baths for them.”
Even in the courtroom, there was an air of indifference to the matter, a sense that the trial was something of a farce. After deliberation, the jury even asked the judge if they could ignore the law, meaning the Dibble Act. The judge said they could not, and the jury found in favor of Mr. Harris, though they only awarded the minimum amount in damages sought: $100 for both incidents, likely not enough to cover the legal expenses incurred.
Still, the verdict in Mr. Harris’ favor proved that the law could be enforced, and spurred many more civil rights cases in its wake. The subsequent cases, however, met with varying success. The Dibble Act stayed on the books into the modern day until it became the Unruh Civil Rights Act of 1959, which expanded the original language of the Dibble Act by stating, "All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever."