Today: John Alexander Somerville, a 20th Century black man who overcame extreme racial barriers to become successful. [Part 2]
Having grown up in the well integrated Jamaican society, at 19 John arrived in San Francisco to seek his fortune. Instead, to his horror, he had trouble getting anything to eat or a place to stay or even a job because he was black.
Fleeing San Francisco, he moved to Southern California and for two years, worked a menial job saving his money to enroll at U.S.C.’s prestigious School of Dentistry, where with his outstanding academic credentials, he was accepted. But on his first day, the entire class walked out refusing to attend with him because of his skin color.
However, the Dean refused to back down, the class returned and in 1907 John graduated at the top of his class and became U.S.C.’s first black graduate. On the California certification exam he got the highest test scores ever up to that time.
He was now Dr. John Alexander Somerville.
John started his own practice and as a rare dentist who would treat black patients and from many of his white friends making him their dentist, he became very successful.
And his success grew dramatically when a friend, a white patient encouraged him to invest in real estate and taught him how. John found an attractive buy and this man, after viewing the property with him, advised him what to offer.
When that offer was accepted, John didn’t have the money to close the deal. In a time of intense segregation, when rarely would credit or even decent housing be available to a black person, this white man, Mr. Dike, issued a cashier’s check for the remaining portion.
“I closed the deal and paid him back on the installment plan,” John proudly remarked many years later. This was the beginning of his lucrative real estate investments.
Meanwhile, at church, John met Vada Watson, also a U.S.C. student. They married and she later became the second black graduate of the School of Dentistry and first black woman certified to practice dentistry in California.
Despite the bigotry that surrounded John and Vada, through charm and perseverance he became only the second black member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
But while limited exceptions were made for the Somervilles and a few other blacks, the color line became even worse as more blacks came to L.A. hoping for less discrimination then elsewhere in the U.S. Those African-Americans were in for a shock and deep disappointment.
In 1913, to offer black people a stronger voice John and Vada formed the first local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
However, this did not stop John from thriving in dentistry and business. Because most hotels and housing were unavailable to blacks and areas where they lived were “red-lined,” meaning lenders often wouldn’t loan there, John saw an opportunity to help his race and make money.
In 1925, with his outstanding financial track record and excellent credit, he convinced a lender to loan to him and he built the fashionable La Vada, a 26-unit apartment complex in what would later be known as South Central. This desirable complex offered black people quality housing and was profitable to John.
Growing ever more successful, three years later, John built the swank Hotel Somerville, South Central’s version of a Beverly Hills stature hotel. It was a beautiful 100 room hotel, with a fancy lobby and upscale stores and the luxurious dining room included a balcony for an orchestra. But the hotel was very expensive and a big gamble as John borrowed heavily to build it.
Its grand opening was a huge event, a Hollywood type premier and 5,000 people turned out. And thereafter, successful black people frequented Hotel Somerville. Musicians such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington and intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes were among its many guests.
John was now on top of the world, a tremendous business success and widely respected.
Then suddenly everything came crashing down.
Like many other moneyed people of the time John invested heavily in the stock market. When the market crashed in 1929 it took his fortune with it. He was forced to sell his hotel and most of his other holdings to meet his obligations. He was broke but he was not defeated.
Ever resourceful and determined, during the Great Depression, John managed to restore much of his fortune. For he still had his dental practice and if one had some cash and courage, investment opportunities for pennies on the dollar were plentiful.
Given his renewed stature in 1936 John became the first African-American to represent California at the Democratic Party national convention. In 1949, he became the first black person appointed to the Los Angeles Police Commission, for he was a pillar of the community.
This latter appointment was crucial because it gave black people a voice in a police force known for being hostile to racial minorities, especially to blacks.
In their personal lives, in 1972, John and Vada joyfully celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, by then a meaningful event for the entire Los Angeles area. But soon after, Vada passed away as did John at 91 the following year.
But they had lived to see the Civil Rights movement sweep away the vast and vicious segregation that had quashed the ambitions and the self-esteem of so many people and replace it with equal rights in which hard working people of any color could succeed.
Yet John succeeded long before then. There was a painting of a sailing ship that for many years hung prominently in his office and later in his home that had a saying in scripted that captured the essence of what made him so successful.
It read, “Do not wait for your ship to come in. Row out and meet it.” That’s wonderful advice for us today, as we hold John Alexander Somerville and his beloved Vada in our hearts.
Success Tip of the Week:
As John showed us, in good times and bad, there are opportunities for those with the courage to act on them. Perhaps this week you will act on one.
In the next KazanToday:
How a struggling businessman with little money turned a root beer stand into a corporate giant that today has over 3500 units in 42 states and nearly 100,000 employees.
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.