Sun Village Digital History

James Loewen’s famous book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, mentions Palmdale as one of the many towns in the United States where Black people would be shot if they were seen in public  after dusk. Unlike many other places featured in the book, the book’s evidence on Palmdale was thin. But the reality is that Palmdale, and the Antelope Valley more generally, was decidedly against racial integration throughout much of the 20th century. The valley’s society took measures within and outside the law to maintain racial segregation. 

Reverend Wesley A. Swift was a key figure in the Antelope Valley’s white supremacist movement. After moving to Los Angeles in the 1930s, he would help Loa Angeles’ extreme right transition from the Klan years to the anti-Civil Rights years. One of his first major acts was to declare the Klan’s presence via a cross burning at Big Bear. Soon, Swift would make Lancaster his home. He preached at Church of Jesus Christ Christian, where he developed Christian Identity theology, a precursor to today’s Christian Nationalism. He travelled the country, preaching these ideas to conservative audiences, and tapes of his sermons became  popular across the country. Swift was tied, both by his tapes and his extended associations, to attempted bombings of Martin Luther King Jr. in Los Angeles and of Black churches in Alabama and Mississippi. Swift also operated the “Christian Knights of the Invisible Empire” in Lancaster. After a group meeting in 1964 in which the group discussed plans to bomb a Black business in Quartz Hill, the business, Wilson’s TV Sales Service, was targeted with a Molotov cocktail and burned down.

In the decades after Swift’s death, racist violence continued in the Antelope Valley, including. by white supremacist gangs. For example, in the in the early 1990s,

  • *two young white men from Lancaster planted a 6-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide wooden cross in the front yard of Eleanor and James Pate (age 63 and 70, respectively). The cross was covered in “KKK” and white supremacist slurs,
  • * a group of Nazi Low Riders threatened to blow up a Lancaster coffee shop because it served minorities
  • * a Latino individual was beaten outside a 7-Eleven
  • * a group of white supremacist students stabbed a Black student at Antelope Valley High School
  • * Black motorists were shot by three young white men in a racially motivated attack
  • * and an unhoused Black man named Milton Walker Jr. was brutally murdered by three avowed white supremacists in 1995, at least one of whom was a member of the Nazi Low Riders

While the South Antelope Valley NAACP campaigned for Civil Rights, it was opposed by social institutions in the valley. Chief among them were local realtors, who enforced racial segregation by steering Black renters and homebuyers to Sun Village and refusing to show them properties in Lancaster and Palmdale. These practices were the result of the California Real Estate Association (CREA)’s rules for realtors, which advised realtors not to introduce families to neighborhoods where their presence would change the racial makeup. 

While much of this discrimination was curbed by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, real estate industry still found ways to keep the valley segregated. In the 1980s, Investment Concepts, Inc. was alleged to have developed a system of racially discriminating against Black renters. Employees were asked to mark rental applications made by Black applicants with a smiley face, so they could later be denied. A whistleblower case was taken by Bert Voorhees, whose team was eventually contacted “by a little more than 100 Blacks and Latinos who [the company] turned down for housing.”Eventually, Investment Concepts settled for 1.1 million, the largest fair housing settlement in the country at the time.

Beyond housing institutions, racial discrimination was rampant in the valley. In particular, defense industry employers were widely understood to be discriminating against Black employees and tracking them into low-level jobs. In 1977, the Antelope Valley NAACP pushed the issue far enough to secure a meeting with the Edwards Air Force Base’s administration. Attorneys and advocates charged that the Flight Test Center only employed 86 Black workers in its 2,300 workforce (4%). 

And in education, while Sun Village struggled for meaningful education integration, the Antelope Valley fought back, trying to remove John Hope Franklin’s textbook, Land of the Free in the 1960s, and adopting confederate mascots at two Quartz Hill schools that lasted from the 1970s through the early 2020s.

In the early 1960s, California considered a statewide Fair Housing Bill, known as the Rumford Act. CREA campaigned against it, but it passed anyways in 1963. Although it contained loopholes and was subject to uneven enforcement, CREA nonetheless tried to undo it through Proposition 14 (1964), which would enshrine the right to discriminate in housing in the state’s constitution. Palmdale voted 79% in favor of Proposition 14, much higher than LA County’s 67%.

Meanwhile, the valley’s public policy institutions also worked to maintain racial segregation. The Keppel Union School District, for example, recognized that because effective racial segregation required both segregated housing and segregated schools, the work of segregating the Antelope Valley required the construction of schools within Black neighborhoods. This would preclude Black students from attending schools in farther away white neighborhoods. The Keppel Union School Board, faced with a growing Black population within one part of its mostly white district, tried just such a tactic to ensure that Sun Village’s children could not attend school in Palmdale and Lancaster. The proposal involved the use of a bond measure to fund the school’s construction, but the bond required a public vote. The South Antelope Valley NAACP encouraged voters to reject the bond in order to prevent the advancement of segregated schooling. As a report on their activities in 1963 described a first victory in this campaign as follows, “A proposed bond issue to build a junior high school in Littlerock (Keppel Union School District) failed this week. NAACP branch officials have opposed the proposed location of the school on the grounds that it would result in a de facto segregated school.” 

The NAACP defeated the bond measure twice, and as a result, the Board was pushed to respond to Sun Village residents who made clear that the board’s plans would entrench segregation in the valley.

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