Even with the clearest of minds, personal and historical memory ebb and flow. Recollections of our own past and that of the society around us often become shaped by current circumstance and selective recall. If one adds dementia to the mix, personal memories become scattered vestiges of our former selves that bound across the mind. Lest one thinks society as a collective operates any better, it does not. You need only point to the occasional survey of American knowledge of U.S. history to know the past might stalk us invisibly at every moment, but as Americans we seem blissfully unaware.
When two-time gold medal Olympic diver Sammy Lee disappeared for several days this past April, the issue of personal and historical memory took on increased importance. Suffering from the onset of dementia,the famed Korean American diver was tracked down by investigators, finding him safe and sound in Pico Rivera. While Lee’s diminishing memory serves as a testament to the individual tragedy that dementia imposes on millions of people around the world, it also highlights Lee’s place in historical memory, particularly that of Southern California. Few individuals serve as a through line for Southern California’s racial politics and the impact of Cold War America on its Asian American residents, than Sammy Lee.
Born in Fresno and raised in Highland Park, Lee epitomizes the California Asian American experience. As a child, Lee witnessed neighbors picketing his family’s presence in their community. Adolescence proved little relief from such slights. Despite being the 1939 diving champion of Los Angeles, Lee faced resistant school officials when he put his name on the ballot for school president. “This school has never had a non-white student body president,” Lee’s principal informed him. “You might as well get your name off the list.” Lee didn’t and emerged victorious, telling the bewildered principal, “My fellow classmates do not look at me as Korean. They look at me as a fellow American.”
Indeed, Lee’s father took him aside as a young man and told him that being an American stemmed less from race or appearance and more from inner fortitude, and understanding citizenship made you a member of the national community. “Son, you were born a free American,” his father told him after Lee had fallen into dismay when rebuffed at a local party. “You can do anything you want because you’re free, but if you are not proud of the color of your skin and the shape of your eyes, you’ll never be accepted.”
Even with the endorsement of his fellow students and his father’s advice, discrimination hounded Lee. The Brookside Pool in Pasadena only allowed Lee to use its facilities one day a week, on Wednesday — the only day non-whites were permitted to swim; in fact, Wednesday just happened to be the day before the weekly pool cleaning. This was initially established for Pasadena’s local African American population, though by the 1930s, SoCal’s racial diversity included Asian and Latino Americans, leading officials to dub it as “International Day” — perversely framing segregation as some sort of cosmopolitanism.
As Jeff Wiltse notes in his history of public swimming pools, fears regarding interracial sexuality and racist ideas about the hygiene habits of non-whites contributed to similar policies of segregation across the United States. 1 Though Wiltse focuses largely on the divide between African American and white swimmers in Midwestern and Eastern locales, one can assume that similar, though not identical, dynamics were at play in Southern California.
So how did Lee train for the Olympics? His coach, the indomitable and notably un-PC Jim Ryan, dug a large hole in his backyard and filled it with sand so that Lee could practice his diving technique when pools remained off limits or unavailable. It worked. Lee won Olympic gold medals for diving in 1948 and 1952, becoming the first American of Asian heritage to do so. Academic success soon followed. Lee graduated from Occidental College and later earned a medical degree from USC. With two gold medals under his belt, by the mid-1950s, Lee hoped to establish a medical practice in Santa Ana, but doctors in the area spoke disapprovingly of Lee’s future and local developers in Garden Grove refused to sell a home to Lee and his Chinese American wife.
In the city, integration moved forward, even if haltingly. Within Los Angeles, during the late 1940s and 1950s, white flight and growing numbers of minorities meant communities like Crenshaw and Leimert Park shifted quickly from white to non-white. For example, the new Spanish styled stucco homes and the nearby quality high school made Crenshaw very attractive to middle class Asian, in this case Japanese, and African Americans. 2 As a result, the area developed a strong network of Japanese American networks in business, and formidable social and political organizations. Black-Asian alliances and interactions also blossomed, as evidenced by local institutions like the Holiday Bowl.
Yet the Lees’ attempts to integrate Garden Grove also represented the fact that Asian Americans and Latinos found passage to suburban environs — certainly not easy, but more available than their African American counterparts. 3
Unfortunately, outlying suburbia, particularly regions like Orange County — where many of the white families that were replaced by non-whites, in neighborhoods like Crenshaw and Leimert Park, had moved — employed much stronger racial restrictions and housing covenants than those in Los Angeles County. Acceptance did not immediately emerge. However, the same nation that interned its Japanese American population looked outward at the postwar world and feared what it saw. As the international community divided itself between the communist USSR and the democratic United States, Americans began to worry that communist accusations of racial discrimination within the United States, especially toward Asian Americans, threatened Cold War imperatives.
Just three years prior to the Lees’ efforts in Garden Grove, Southwood residents attempted to prevent Chinese American Sing Sheng from joining their community. The all white suburb of San Francisco took a poll that overwhelmingly voted in favor of maintaining segregation, but, unlike previous examples in the 1940s, the reaction of Southwood homeowners sparked outrage as the story morphed into a national debate. Thousands contacted Sheng to lend their moral support, and then-California Senator William Knowland rued Southwood’s action as a future tool in the USSR’s propaganda machine. The Southwood example, he argued, “will undoubtedly be put to the worst possible use by Communist propaganda in Asia.” 4
Local whites mouthed the usual arguments. “[W]hen one oriental or anyone of a minority group comes into an area others follow,” Southwood resident and spokesman Clinton Kenney noted. “The property value then drops correspondingly.” Kenney even suggested that residents themselves were held hostage by prejudice of their fellow whites; many, he argued, would automatically ascribe material depreciation to the community, regardless of the racial beliefs of Southwood. America Plus, an organization gathering signatures to place a “Freedom of Choice initiative” on the November 1952 California ballot, used the controversy to push its segregationist agenda. State Senator Jack Tenney, one of the organization’s most prominent proponents, argued that “if people don’t have the right to vote on their neighbors, they don’t have the right to vote on their president.” 5
Fortunately, amid the pressures of the Korean War and American international concerns, the Southwood neighbors eventually relented and the controversy subsided, as did the efforts of America Plus, which decamped for Oklahoma after witnessing failure in California. Still, a residual nativist prejudice lingered as white residents of Southwood confessed to interviewers that the Sheng family should live among their “own people in a Chinese district.” The Sheng’s arrival would herald the influx of other minorities, notably blacks, who their children might marry since they “don’t know the difference.” The Chinese lived off ten cents a day and crowded three families into one house, they argued. 6
Much like its northern California counterpart, the aforementioned Orange County community of Garden Grove struggled with similar impulses. But in the ether of Cold War America the region’s anti-communist fervor collided with its entrenched racial biases.
The editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Scott Newhall, came to the Lees’ defense and touched on the political implications of such discrimination. “Here was an American of Oriental descent, demonstrating to Asians that despite Communist propaganda the United States is a land of tolerance and opportunity,” he pointed out. “The story of Major Lee’s reception in Garden Grove will embarrass our country in the eyes of the world.”
Still, the vestiges of anti-Asian racism remained. One of the white salesmen who turned the Lees away noted that he preferred the family to many white families already residing in Garden Grove, “but if you have one – a nice one – then you’ll have others, including a little guy from a produce market who smells like hell.” 7 Homeowners noted they could care less about a “Chinaman” moving in, but that the new family would reduce property values.
Of course, Lee had done work for the State Department, traveling across Asia promoting the nation through diving exhibitions. The potential for international embarrassment clearly was not lost on Lee or, as evidenced by Newhall, others. “If he went public with his story of discrimination, he might embarrass America and perhaps create propaganda fodder for the Soviets and Chinese Communists,” Charlotte Brooks pointed out in her 2009 work “Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing and the Transformation of Urban California.” 8 Conservative presses, like The Santa Ana Register and Long Beach Press Telegram, put aside reservations regarding the civil rights movement and integration and supported the Lees’ efforts. The latter offered to fly Lee in from his military post in Colorado to Orange County, and help the gold medalist secure his family a home. 9
Eventually local leaders sided with their anti-communist impulses, as The Garden Grove Chamber of Commerce, the West Orange Real Estate Association, the local FHA, and others all welcomed the Lees, while developers who had earlier denied the Lee family now announced the couple could purchase homes from them. 10 Within a decade or so, the same “foreignness” that had resulted in discrimination against Asian Americans now became “white Californians’ new rationale for Asian American inclusion,” argues Brooks. 11
Unfortunately, for all the advances Asians made in integrating Southern California neighborhoods, many whites soon moved out, thereby enabling more Asians to move into the suburbs –pointing to the limits of mid-century racial tolerance. Moreover, even when whites grew more tolerant, black homeowners remained a bridge too far; blacks faced a level of violence often absent from the racism endured by Asian Americans. Cross burnings, bombings, and the like, occurred with far greater frequency when black homeowners integrated white communities. “By the early 1960s, African Americans in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas readily understood that white Californians treated them differently than Asian Americans,” noted Brooks. “Asian Americans now moved to places where African Americans could not follow, and their arrival no longer promoted the beginnings of white flight.” 12
Cold War tensions legitimized Asian American housing integration, but whites soon used the fact that African Americans rarely followed Asian American housing integration, as a reason to accept it. With the rise of Model Minority tropes that privileged Asian Americans ultimately serving as a tool to discipline other racial and ethnic groups, greater numbers of white Californians accepted this accommodation of racial change. Brooks describes this shifting attitudes of Californians as “historical amnesia,” as they now scrambled to nullify previous arguments that Asian Americans might lower property values. Asian values, white Californians argued, now reflected their own.
By the mid- to late- 1950s, many white California homeowners promoted the ways in which “Oriental values” aligned with their own, and contrasted them with what whites believed to be the political militancy and absence of values they attributed to other minority groups, especially African Americans. Asian American integration of California nudged the doors of integration open, but the larger fact remained that Southern California housing remained open to some and closed to others.
The contrast between Lee’s fading memory and the “historical amnesia” experienced by Southern Californians of the 1950s and 1960s provide a window into the ways that American ethnic and racial diversity collided, burst apart, and reformed. Post 1950s Southern California embraced a new vision of tolerance, but one that seemed as much about negating larger threats by embracing smaller ones. One hopes that even if Lee can no longer remember his vital role in integration battles, that he remains a symbol of how things can change, but also a reminder that often in these sorts of debates, two steps forward are often accompanied by one step back.
1 Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 2007, pgs. 124 – 125.
2 Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), pg. 215.
3 Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003) pg. 110.
4 Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, pg. 194,
5 Ibid, pg 200-201.
6 Ibid, pg. 204.
7 Ibid, pg. 218.
8 Ibid, pg. 219
9 Ibid, pg. 219.
10 Ibid., pg 219-220.
11 Ibid, pg. 196.
12 Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, pg 224.
This article originally appeared on the KCET Departures website under its Intersections column.