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Photos by Aidan McGloin

The first desegregation ruling in the nation, brought by a Los Angeles lawyer who was later cited in the school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, was for San Bernardino’s public pool and was fought through the efforts of parents, reporters, priests and lawyers.

The American Board of Trial Advocates reenacted the 1944 case Lopez v. Seccombe to students at the Mitla Cafe’s banquet hall in San Bernardino Sept. 15. San Bernardino native and Brown University History Professor Mark Ocegueda flew in to present his research. Roughly 150 people attended the presentation, which was also live-streamed by KVCR.

In 1944, Ignacio Lopez, the chief petitioner in the federal case, edited the Spanish-language newspaper El Espector. The Rev. R. N. Nunez, priest at San Bernardino Parish of the Guadalupe Church, El Sol de San Bernardino publisher Eugenio Nogueroa and students Virginia Prado and Rafael Munoz joined his petition to the federal court to stop San Bernardino’s practice of pool segregation. Los Angeles attorney David Marcus represented them.

Latinos were allowed to swim in the city’s only municipal pool only on Fridays, the day before the pool was drained.

“…from Lopez v. Seccombe, to desegregating Orange County’s schools and finally Brown v. Board, each fight has been to allow children ‘to live their lives as Americans,'”

Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division Two, Presiding Justice Manuel Ramirez

California Southern District Judge Leon Yankwich’s ruling established “that respondents’ conduct is illegal and is in violation of petitioners rights and privileges as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, and as secured and guaranteed to them as citizens of the United States, by the Constitution of the United States of America, as particularly provided under the Fifth and 14th Amendments. That petitioners are entitled to such equal accommodations, advantages, and privileges and to equal rights and treatment with other persons as citizens of the United States, in the use and enjoyment of the facilities of said park and playground and to equal treatment with other persons and to equal protection of the laws in their use and enjoyment of said privileges as provided, and afforded, to other persons at all times when the same is open and used by them.”

W.C. Seccombe, the respondent, was mayor of San Bernardino.

Ocegueda said the denial of services to Latinos was due to eugenics-based racism. Non-Latinos viewed Latinos as disease-ridden, and believed admitting them to the public pool at the same time as whites would spread disease. They based their theories on both falsely perceived sanitation practices and the negative effects of pesticides, which Latinos were more in contact with than whites.

Newspapers also campaigned against Latinos. The year before the case, the Zoot Suit Riots, in which whites attacked zoot-suit wearing Latinos, broke out in Los Angeles.

The priest, the journalists and the parents rallied behind Mike Vales, who was denied entry to the plunge and waited outside as the Cuban friend he biked with swam.

The petitioners argued, and the court agreed, that their taxes, which were put toward the maintenance of the municipal pool, entitles them to admission. The court also found that the petitioners “are of clean and moral habits not suffering any disability, infectious disease,” and that their admittance to the pool “ is not inimical, harmful or detrimental to the health, welfare or safety of other users.”

When confronted with the legal movement, Seccombe claimed the pool’s admittance policy was based on cleanliness, not race, and that the pool allowed cleanly dressed Latinos to enter, said Ocegueda. To test that theory, Nunez, the priest, led a group of freshly cleaned Latinos to the poolhouse, and was denied entry.

San Bernardino’s Latinos, including the petitioners in Lopez v. Seccombe, had also rallied before this case, to force Mountain View Cemetery to accept the burial of a Latino who died in a United States military exercise, Ocegueda said.

Marcus later built on the legal theories he established during Lopez v. Seccombe in the 1947 case Mendez v. Westminster School District, which desegregated schools in Orange County. That case was cited in Brown v. Board of Education.

Also part of the event, members of the legal community reenacted the historic case’s oral argument.

Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division Two, Presiding Justice Manuel Ramirez acted as Judge Yankwich. Attorney Michael Scafiddi argued as H.R. Griffin, attorney for San Bernardino. San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia sat as Seccombe, the mayor at the time. Attorney Michael Bidart argued as Marcus, the petitioner’s attorney. Henry Yzaguirre sat as Lopez. Rafael Munoz acted as Virginia Prado.

San Bernardino Superior Judge John Pacheco, head of the San Bernardino/Riverside chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates, put in around 400 hours planning the event, he said.

ABOTA also awarded teacher of the year to San Bernardino City Unified School District teacher Mikki Cichocki.

The History Club of Oak Hills High School attended. Their own reenactment of Lopez v. Seccombe was a finalist at the Smithsonian’s National History Day event.

Students from Yucaipa High School’s Law and Public Safety Academy, Arroyo Middle School, San Gorgonio High School and Indian Springs High School also attended.

“It was a really great experience overall, to see how things played out, to see all of the evidence on both sides,” said Yucaipa High School Student Narineh Markarian. The city did not have the legal stance on the case, she said.

Ramirez said they chose this case to reenact because it shows the power that regular individuals and parents have within America’s legal system. In each of the three desegregation cases, from Lopez v. Seccombe, to desegregating Orange County’s schools and finally Brown v. Board, each fight has been to allow children “to live their lives as Americans,” Ramirez said.

“That kind of courage, that kind of determination, that kind of patriotism, stirs something deep inside of us and reminds us that there is still a good fight to fight,” Ramirez said.


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