Today: John Alexander Somerville, a black man who overcame extreme racial barriers to become a 20th Century business success.
Growing up in turn of the century Jamaica, one of the Caribbean’s most integrated societies, John was the son of a prominent minister and school master and his mother, a school mistress.
With his parents’ encouragement, John was an outstanding student, and like most children there, he attended fully integrated schools and played with children of every race.
But “having read many stories of America as the land of opportunity,” and caught up “in the spirit of adventure,” at 19, John and a black friend of his sailed to San Francisco “to write our names on the scroll of success.”
Were they in for a shock!
When they arrived, John found; “In the new land of my choice I was bluntly made to understand that, because of the pigmentation of my skin, I was denied even the elementary necessities of life – food and shelter.”
In desperation they finally found a modest café that would serve them and a rundown rooming house in the worst part of town that would rent to them. They immediately applied for work but everywhere they went, they were turned away for being black.
As a result, John made a personal vow to himself that he would work “at any job that I could find, no matter how menial,” until he saved enough money to pay for a college education. “I wanted to earn a place where I would not have to ask any other fellow for a job.”
John refused to give-up his dreams and after two weeks struggling to survive in San Francisco he looked for another American city that might offer him greater potential.
Reading a brochure about Redlands 60 miles east of Los Angeles, and seeing “pictures of orange groves with golden fruit against a back-ground of snow-capped mountains,” he packed his bags and made a new start in Redlands.
There he got a job in a bowling alley. And although his wages were small, he scrimped and saved for two years until he had $250, enough money to enroll at the University of Southern California’s prestigious School of Dentistry.
And with his academic achievements in Jamaica, and the encouragement of the many friends he had made in Redlands, black and white, John became the first African-American ever admitted to U.S.C.’s School of Dentistry.
It was a great triumph. And in these hallowed halls among well educated people, John could put behind him the bigotry that had threatened him as he took a huge step to becoming successful.
That is until prejudice again reared its ugly head. On his first day the other students got together and demanded he be expelled. They weren’t going to class with a nigger.
It was a tense time and John’s fate hung in the balance. The Dean called a student meeting and after complimenting John’s achievements he asked him to speak to them.
John spoke from his heart, explaining he was seeking a higher education just as they were and that if he had made application to Oxford or Cambridge in England, he could have joined other Jamaican students and never encountered such prejudice.
But this is America, the land of his dreams, and that if they turned him away because of his skin color, later in life many of them would be ashamed of themselves.
The Dean then told them that anyone that wanted to withdraw from school could do so but that John was entitled to be there and would receive his education. Not one student said a word and the meeting was over.
The next day, the students returned to class and the issue faded, even if some of those students continued to angrily resent his presence. John handled their anger with grace and concentrated on his studies.
Meanwhile, to pay for his schooling and his room and board, John needed a part-time job. He applied at The Westminster, then one of Los Angeles’ finest hotels and where President Teddy Roosevelt stayed when he was in town.
But John was immediately told they didn’t hire black people. However, after speaking with the General Manager, he was hired to work in the kitchen pealing potatoes and washing pots and pans. As he had done in Redlands, he soon made a lot of friends in the hotel and the chef even fixed lunches for him to take to school.
In 1907 John graduated first in his class. He then passed the state dental exams with the highest scores ever attained to that time. He was now Dr. John Alexander Somerville.
His credentials were outstanding, but knowing no-one would hire him, John at 25 started his own dental practice. It was hard to find a landlord that would rent quality office space to him but he persevered and eventually one did.
Being one of the few dentists who would take black patients and having many white friends who made him their dentist; with time, talent and hard work, his practice succeeded.
Of course John’s life also had a romantic side. At church, he met Vada Watson, a U.S.C. student on a scholarship from the Los Angeles Times. In 1912, the couple got married.
Influenced by John, she later became the second African-American to graduate from U.S.C.’s School of Dentistry and also the first black woman certified by the state to practice dentistry.
So as not to be confused with her husband, she became popularly known as Dr. Vada, and as they built their dental practices, they also became well established in the business community.
They were becoming very successful when suddenly it all came crashing down. Next week we’ll find out what happened and whether they bounced back as we conclude this two part series.
Success Tip of the Week:
As John showed us, when you’re confronted with rejection, don’t give up. Learn from the experience and either make a new start or preserver through it as you handle with grace the formidable problems you face.
In the next KazanToday:
Find out what happened to John and Vada and whether they were able to regain their success.
The primary sources for this article were “Man of Color,”  by Dr. J. Alexander Somerville and “A Pioneer of Black Los Angeles,” published in the Los Angeles Times, 12/23/96. “Man of Color” is long out of print but I strongly recommend it to you. My copy came through www.amazon.com.