Roger Revelle’s Campaign to End Housing Discrimination in La Jolla

Photo: San Diego History Center

We have yet to see black people in the area of La Jolla we are in, other than our family, so we decided to do some research. I did not find much written about Black housing discrimination, but I found many articles about Jewish housing discrimination in La Jolla. And this story has a happy ending, thanks in part to Roger Revelle..

Rodger Revelle was born in 1909 in Seattle and he grew up in Southern California. He was a distinguished scholar and a scientist, known for his studies of human impact on global warming, among many other accomplishments. This could be an interesting post in its own right, since his research was done in the 1940’s and 1950s, but this story is about how his organizing efforts helped overcome housing discrimination in La Jolla.

Revelle became the Director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography (SIO) in 1950. SIO, located in La Jolla, is one of the most important centers for global earth science research and education in the world. He wanted SIO’s graduate students to have a better foundation in physics, biology and chemistry and envisioned a new University of California (UC) campus in La Jolla with a world renown science faculty . In 1954 he began a campaign to persuade the UC Regents, the Legislature, and the City of San Diego that University of California San Diego should be built right next to the Scripps Institute.

He was successful, but ran into another obstacle. Many of the leading professors were Jewish, and they were not welcome in La Jolla. Like many communities across the country at the time, La Jolla had restrictive housing covenants on the basis of race that applied to Jews, who were not considered to be white. Deeds specifically stated that properties were to be solely owed by whites. These covenants were ruled unconstitutional in 1948 by Supreme Court decision Shelley v. Kraemer but not actually outlawed until twenty years later when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968).

When restrictive covenants were no longer enforceable in the 1950’s, the La Jolla Real Estate Broker’s Association (REBA) devised a more subtle anti-semitic conspiracy among realtors not to sell to Jews; they called it a “gentleman’s agreement”. Whenever anyone suspected of being Jewish contacted a La Jolla Real Estate agent, they were told that there was nothing for sale. REBA actively enforced this policy with real estate agents, who risked losing their jobs if they did not comply. Some real estate agents refused, but most toed the line. Civic groups in town, such as the La Jolla Town Council (with no legal status), Chamber of Commerce, the Civic League , the La Jolla Planning Council, and the Conservation Society helped enforce this practice as well.

According to an article by Will Carless in the La Jolla Light, records at the library of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography show Revelle’s work in overturning La Jolla’s gentlemen’s agreement. News clippings Revelle saved and transcripts of interviews with Ravelle show his concern about the effect this reputation for anti-Semitism could have on the move to bring a state university to La Jolla and to the recruitment of staff. 

In addition to working to end the practice of preventing the sale of homes to Jews, Revelle went around this conspiracy by creating the Scripps Estates. In 1951, Revelle and a group of associates bought land adjacent to SOI with beautiful ocean views, subdivided it into lots and sold them to SOI faculty, many of whom were Jewish. Scientists Ed Goldberg and Leonard Liebermann were among the first homeowners at Scripps Estates.

After much wrangling and cajoling, the issue came to a head in a speech Revelle made to the La Jolla Real Estate Brokers’ Association in the early 1960s. Ravelle said, ” …you can’t have a university without having Jewish professors. The Real Estate Broker’s Association and their supporters in La Jolla have to make up [your] minds whether [you] want a university or an anti-Semitic covenant. You couldn’t have both.” The opening of UCSD in 1959 was the end of discrimination against Jews. Still not sure about other people of color, although UCSD seems to be quite diverse.

The good news is that according to Morris Casuto, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in San Diego, La Jolla is now a very welcoming place for Jews. I n fact, it is the Jewish center of San Diego.

According to the San Diego Jewish Journal, La Jolla now has the largest Jewish enclave with around 12,000 residents. In addition to a lavish Jewish Community Center, there are two Chabad centers, three large synagogues, the annual Jewish Film Festival (one of the largest Jewish film festivals in the nation), and an annual Jewish Book Fair.

Some thoughts on what we can learn from this success story? To generalize, I would say that we should look broadly in forming alliances to help in the fight, especially those with power. Specifically:

  1. It is helpful to have well-connected people of privilege on your side. Ravelle married Ellen Clark, niece of Ellen Browning Scripps, the towns leading benefactor who funded schools, parks, the Scripps Clinic and Scripps Memorial Hospital, and La the La Jolla’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
  • 2. It is helpful to have economic gain in your back pocket when fighting systemic racism. There was pressure on La Jollians from the local defense industry and new companies to accept the university because they needed physicists and engineers to fill jobs in the expanding economy.
  • 3. When fighting to overturn a local discriminatory law, it is helpful to have national or state laws on your side. A Supreme Court ruling had just made housing covenants unenforceable, so potential Jewish homebuyers could test the system in court.
  • 4. You don’t have to be passionate about fighting injustice to be successful at it. Ravelle was actually fighting for his self interest to be able to hire and welcome the best faculty regardless of race or religion. From what I have read, he did not consider himself and activist and might not have undertook this fight if it did not collide with his efforts on behalf SOI and UCSD. IN the end, it does not really matter what motivates allies, as long as you are fighting for the same ends.

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