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Holocaust in Fontana

Whites from the South compose the majority of the population of Fontana. They have brought to that community their backward community mores, their hate-mongering religious cults . . .
O'Day Short, murdered by Fontana vigilantes, 1946[60]

For hundreds of Dustbowl refugees from the Southwest, still working in the orchards at the beginning of World War Two, Kaiser Steel was the happy ending to the Grapes of Wrath. Construction of the mill drained the San Bernardino Valley of workers, creating an agricultural labor shortage that was not relieved until the coming of the braceros in 1943. Kaiser originally believed that he could apply his Richmond methods to shaping the Fontana workforce: leaving the construction crews in place and "training them in ten clays to make steel" under the guidance of experts hired from the East. But he underestimated the craft knowledge and folklore, communicated only through hereditary communities of steelworkers, that were essential to making steel. Urgent appeals, therefore, were circulated through the steel valleys of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, recruiting draft-exempt steel specialists for Fontana.[61]

The impact of five thousand steelworkers and their families on local rusticity was predictably shattering. The available housing stock in Fontana and western San Bernardino County (also coveted by incoming military families) was quickly saturated. With few zoning ordinances to control the anarchy, temporary and substandard shelters of every kind sprouted up in Fontana and neighboring districts like Rialto, Bloomington, and Cucamonga. Most of the original blast furnace crew was housed in a gerrybuilt trailer park known affectionately as "Kaiserville." Later arrivals were often forced to live out of their cars. The old Fontana Farms colonists came under great pressure to sell to developers and speculators. Others converted their chicken coops to shacks and rented them to single workers—a primitive housing form that was still common through the 1950s.[62]

Although areas of Fontana retained their Millerian charm, especially the redtiled village center along Sierra with its art-deco theater and prosperous stores, boisterous, often rowdy, juke joints and roadhouses created a different ambience along Arrow Highway and Foothill Boulevard. Neighboring Rialto—presumably the location of Eddie Mars's casino in Chandler's The Big Sleep —acquired a notorious reputation as a wide-open gambling center and L.A. mob hangout (a reputation which it has recovered in the 1990s as the capital of the Inland Empire's crack gangs). Meanwhile the ceaseless truck traffic from the mill, together with the town's


adjacency to Route 66 (and, today, to Interstates 10 and 15), made Fontana a major regional trucking center, with bustling twenty-four-hour fuel stops and cafes on its outskirts.[63]

Boomtown Fontana of the 1940s ceased to be a coherent community or cultural fabric. Instead it was a colorful but dissonant bricolage of Sunkist growers, Slovene chicken ranchers, gamblers, mobsters, over-the-road truckers, industrialized Okies, braceros , the Army Air Corps (at nearby bases), and transplanted steelworkers and their families. It was also a racial frontier where Black families tried to stake out their own modest claims to a ranch home or a job in the mill. Although, as the war in the Pacific was ending, there was an optimistic aura of sunshine and prosperity in the western San Bernardino Valley, there were also increasing undertones of bigotry and racial hysteria. Finally, just before Christmas eve 1945, there was atrocity. The brutal murder (and its subsequent official cover-up) of O'Day Short, his wife, and two small children indelibly stamped Fontana—at least in the eyes of Black Californians—as being violently below the Mason-Dixon line.

Ironically Fontana had been one of the few locations in the Citrus Belt where Blacks had been allowed to establish communities. Every week during the 1940s, the Eagle —Los Angeles's progressive Black paper—carried prominent ads for "sunny, fruitful lots in the Fontana area."[64] For pent-up residents of the overcrowded Central Avenue ghetto, prevented by restrictive covenants ("L.A. Jim Crow") from moving into suburban areas like the San Fernando Valley, Fontana must have been alluring. Moreover, Kaiser's Richmond shipyards were the biggest employer of Black labor on the coast, and there was widespread hope that his new steel plant would be an equally color-blind employer. The reality in Fontana was that Blacks were segregated in their own tracts—a kind of citrus ghetto—on the rocky floodplain above Baseline Avenue in vaguely delineated "north Fontana." Meanwhile in the mill, Blacks and Chicanos were confined to the dirtiest departments—coke ovens and blast furnaces (a situation unchanged until the early 1970s).

O'Day Short, already well known in Los Angeles as a civil rights activist, was the first to challenge Fontana's residential segregation by buying land in town (on Randall Street) in fall 1945. Short's move coincided with the Ku Klux Klan's resurgence throughout Southern California, as white supremacists mobilized to confront militant returning Black and Chicano servicemen. In early December, Short was visited by "vigilantes," probably Klansmen, who ordered him to move or risk harm to his family. Short stood his ground, reporting the threats to the FBI and the county


sheriff, as well as alerting the Black press in Los Angeles. Instead of providing protection, sheriff's deputies warned Short to leave before any "disagreeableness" happened to his family. The Fontana Chamber of Commerce, anxious to keep Blacks above Baseline, offered to buy Short out. He refused.[65]

A few days later, on 16 December, the Short house was consumed in an inferno of "unusual intensity." Neighbors reported hearing an explosion, then seeing "blobs of fire" on the ground and the family running from their home with clothes ablaze. Short's wife and small children died almost immediately; unaware of their deaths, he lingered on for two weeks in agony. According to one account, Short finally died after being brutally informed by the district attorney of his family's fate. (The D.A. was later criticized for breaking the hospital's policy of shielding Short from further trauma.)[66]

The local press gave the tragedy unusually low-key coverage, quoting the D.A.'s opinion that the fire was an accident.[67] That a coroner's inquest was held at all (on 3 April 1945) was apparently due to pressure from the NAACP and the Black press. "Contrary to standard practice in such cases," District Attorney Jerome Kavanaugh refused to allow witnesses to testify about the vigilante threats to the Short family. Instead Kavanaugh read into the record the interview he had conducted with Short in the hospital, "in which the sick man repeatedly said he was too ill and upset to make a statement, but yielded to steady pressure and suggestion by finally saying that the fire seemed accidental 'as far as he was concerned.'" Fontana fire officials, conceding they had no actual evidence, speculated that the holocaust might have been the result of a kerosene-lamp explosion. The coroner's jury, deprived of background about the vigilante threats, accordingly ruled that the Shorts had died from "a fire of unknown origin." The sheriff declined an arson investigation.[68]

The Black community in Fontana—many of whom "themselves had been admonished by deputy sheriff 'Tex' Carlson to advise the Shorts to get out"—was "unanimous in rejecting the 'accident' theory." Fontana's most famous Black resident, Shelton Brooks (composer of the Darktown Strutter's Ball ), demanded a full-scale arson investigation. J. Robert Smith, crusading publisher of the Tri-County Bulletin , the Black paper serving the Inland Empire, decried an official cover-up of "mass murder"—a charge echoed by Short's friends Joseph and Charlotta Bass, publishers of the Los Angeles Eagle .[69]

The case became a brief national cause célèbre after the Los Angeles NAACP, led by Lorenzo Bowdoin, hired renowned arson expert Paul T.


Wolfe to sift through the evidence. Noting that the supposed cause of the fire, the kerosene lamp, had actually been recovered intact, he found compelling evidence that the Short home had been deliberately soaked in quantities of coal oil to produce an explosive blaze of maximum ferocity. He concluded that "beyond a shadow of a doubt the fire was of an incendiary origin." In the meantime, the Tri-County Bulletin discovered that the original sheriff's report on the fire had "mysteriously" disappeared from its file, while the Eagle raised fundamental doubts about Short's purported testimony to D.A. Kavanaugh. Mass demonstrations were held in San Bernardino and Los Angeles, as scores of trade-union locals, progressive Jewish organizations, and civil rights groups endorsed the NAACP's call for a special investigation of "lynch terror in Fontana" by California's liberal attorney general Robert Kenny (another Gunther favorite). Catholic Interracial Council leader Dan Marshall pointed out that "murder is the logical result of discrimination," while Communist leader Pettis Perry described the Short case as "the most disgraceful that has ever occurred in California."[70]

But it was hard to keep the Short holocaust in focus. Attorney General Kenny succeeded in temporarily banning the Ku Klux Klan in California, but made no attempt to reopen the investigation into the Short case or expose the official whitewash by San Bernardino officials. The Los Angeles NAACP, spearhead of the campaign, quickly became preoccupied with the renewed struggle against housing discrimination in Southcentral Los Angeles.[71] The Trotskyist Socialist Workers' Party continued its own sectarian campaign through the spring of 1946, but used the Short case primarily to polemicize against Kenny (Democratic nominee for governor) and his Communist supporters.[72] In the end, as protest faded, the vigilantes won the day: Blacks stayed north of Baseline (and in the coke ovens) for another generation, and the fate of the Short family, likely victims of white supremacy, was officially forgotten.[73]

However, early postwar Fontana found it difficult to avoid notoriety. If the press downplayed the Short case, it sensationalized the murder trial of Gwendelyn Wallis—a local policeman's wife who confessed to shooting her husband's mistress, a pretty young Fontana schoolteacher named Ruby Clark. At a time when countless Hollywood films in the Joan Crawford vein were beginning to sermonize against wartime morals and gender equality, the Wallis trial became a lightning rod for contending values. Girls argued with their mothers, husbands fought with wives, marriages reportedly even broke up over Gwendelyn's justification for killing Ruby: that she was a "scheming, single, working woman." Her surprise acquittal


in March 1946 was greeted across the country with both anger and celebration. At the courthouse in San Bernardino she was "mobbed by sympathetic women"—mostly long-suffering housewives like herself, who had become her adoring fans in the course of this real-life soap opera.[74]

Finally, to permanently reinforce the new Fontana's wild image, 1946 was also the year that the original nucleus of the Hell's Angels began to coalesce in the area. According to legend, the founders were demobbed bomber crewmen, right out of the pages of Heller's Catch- 22, who rejected the return to staid civilian lives. Whatever the true story, members of the Fontana-based gang were surely participants in the infamous Hollister (July 1947) and Riverside (July 1948) motorcycle riots that were immortalized by Brando in The Wild One ("the bike rider's answer to the Sun Also Rises ").[75] When the beleaguered American Motorcycle Association denounced an "outlaw one per cent," the proto-Angels made that label their badge of honor. At a "One-Percenters" convention in Fontana in 1950 the Hell's Angels were formally organized; the "Fontana-Berdoo" chap-ter became the "mother" chapter with exclusive authority to charter new branches. The founding philosophy of the group was succinctly explained by a Fontana member: "We're bastards to the world, and they're bastards to us."

Although "Berdoo" continued through the 1960s as the nominal capital of outlaw motorcycledom, power within the Angels shifted increasingly toward the ultra-violent Oakland chapter led by Sonny Barger, who also launched the group into big-time narcotics dealing.[76] As Hunter Thompson put it, "the Berdoo Angels made the classic Dick Nixon mistake of 'peaking' too early." There are two different versions of the story of their decline. According to "Freewheelin' Frank," the acidhead Nazi secretary of the San Francisco chapter, "Berdoo" was ruined by the seduction of the movie industry and a lawyer-huckster named Jeremiah Castelman, who convinced them that they would become rich selling Hell's Angels T-shirts.[77]

In the other version of the story, they were driven off the streets by police repression. After the lurid publicity of a rape and two violent brawls, the Berdoo Angels became the bête noire of LAPD Chief William Parker, who organized a posse of law enforcement agencies to crush the chapter. Establishing police checkpoints on favorite motorcycle itineraries like the Pacific Coast Highway and the Ridge Route, he generated "such relentless heat that those few who insisted on wearing the colors [Angel jackets] were forced to act more like refugees than outlaws, and the chapter's reputation withered accordingly." By 1964, when Thompson was slumming


with the Oakland chapter, Fontana—"heartland of the Berdoo chapter's turf"—had been essentially pacified. Local Angels "couldn't even muster a quorum" for an outlaw motorcycle scene in a Sal Mineo movie: "some were in jail, others had quit and many of the best specimens had gone north to Oakland."[78] Despite its eclipse, however, the Berdoo chapter never collapsed. A generation after Thompson's account, mother Angels are still hunkered in their Fontana redoubt, raising enough hell to force the cancellation of a major motorcycle show in Downtown Los Angeles (in February 1990) after a violent collision with another gang.[79]

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