February marks Black History Month and San Diego History Center has launched a new exhibit titled, Celebrate San Diego: Black History & Heritage. Though the center is currently closed to the public, everyone can encounter the exhibit at bit.ly/3aT8rHM.
“We’ve experienced wonderful success in collecting community-sourced content through our “Share Your Story” COVID-19 initiative,” SDHC president/CEO Bill Lawrence said.
A virtual time line celebration acknowledges historical events of African Americans who lived in San Diego County, which includes the following nuggets of interest. Some of the heroes will also be recognized in a 24-foot wide feature at the Balboa Park SDHC Museum.
In 1913, Henrietta Goodwin became the first African American graduate from the State Normal School of San Diego (now San Diego State University). Goodwin was not listed on the school’s roster of 15 graduates, which is likely why San Diego Union excluded her in its announcement. Let it be known, however, that both an attendance ledger and registration record indicated that this young Black woman entered the school in 1908 and graduated in January 1913.
The Colored Voters Political Club was the first Black bureaucratic organization in San Diego. By the early 1900s, the city’s Black population swelled dramatically, though still less than one percent of the populace. With this increase, they formed groups to express themselves in ways not permitted in a predominately White setting.
In 1887, Solomon and Cordelia Johnson were instrumental in the formation of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The congregation met in the Johnson home at F and Union streets until funds were raised to secure a church site at 1647 Front St.
Remembering San Diego’s 1905 naval disaster brings attention to John Henry Turpin, one of only a few Black sailors in the U.S. Navy at the time. Born in New Jersey in 1876, Turpin enlisted in the Navy in 1896. In 1917 he was promoted as one of the Navy’s first African American chief petty officers.
During Turpin’s 29-year naval career, he survived two shipboard explosions: the first in 1898 on the battleship USS Maine, Havana Harbor, Cuba. The explosion, which contributed to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, killed 260 seamen.
A second explosion, took place in San Diego when two boilers let loose aboard the Navy gunboat, USS Bennington, in July 1905. One officer and 65 sailors died.
In both incidents, a stunned Turpin rescued a number of injured and dying shipmates, swimming them to shore one by one. Eleven of Bennington’s crew, for similar actions taken, received the Navy’s highest service award, the Medal of Honor. Turpin did not!
Our hero transferred to the Fleet Reserve in 1919, also qualified as a master diver, and retired from the U.S. Navy in 1925 to Bremerton, Wash.
Jamaican born Turpin fought for a country that never fully recognized him, until now. (President John Kennedy approved his Medal of Honor nomination for posthumous award in the 1960s, but it went to the government’s back burner. Current efforts are underway.)
In September 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation to rename Washington’s Bremerton Post Office to honor John Henry Turpin.
Let’s all salute San Diego’s Black history, citizens that lived in, and stepped out of, the shadow of what was rightfully theirs.
—Karen Scanlon is a local writer of history and co-author of “Lighthouses of San Diego.”