The Black Icons of Santa Barbara – The Santa Barbara Independent
A former slave who became a gold miner and horticulturist. A minister and musician. A teacher. An author.
Nineteen African-American people and their families who have made major contributions to the Santa Barbara area are now on display at the Goleta Library as part of a new exhibit from the Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society.
The exhibit, explained Holly Snyder, president of outreach, is the latest in the Genealogical Society’s ongoing series of showcases that “spotlight” various cultural groups, starting with Italian immigrants. While the African-American physical exhibit is hosted by the library, the full set of photos and detailed information from the show can be found at sbgen.org.
To create these profiles, Snyder said, Society members looked at their own records and conducted extensive research at UCSB. They also sifted through birth certificates, wills and newspaper clippings. But most helpful were the dozens of interviews, phone calls, and email exchanges with family members, who approved each mini-bio before it was published.
Committee member E. Onja Brown and longtime Santa Barbara poet and peace activist Sojourner Kincaid Rolle helped lead the effort. Below are four condensed samples of the 19 richly detailed accounts.
Otto Artie Hopkins, 1897-1976
As a young man, Otto Hopkins played Negro League baseball, pitching for the San Antonio Longhorns. He also did boxing. In the early 1920s, he and his wife moved to Santa Barbara because “it was the most beautiful place he had ever seen,” recalls his grandson, Wilbur H. Tate.
Otto worked briefly as a stone worker at the Californian Hotel and soon after opened his first club, The Cotton Club, located across from St. Paul AME Church on Haley Street. It was a place where multiple ethnicities drank, danced and continued together at a time in American history when Jim Crow and segregation laws were still enforced with terrifying results in other parts of the country. “Blacks and whites got mixed up,” Tate said. “They got a ball.”
In 1935, after a 10-year run, the Cotton Club was closed when the Mayor of Santa Barbara, EO Hanson, got into a street brawl that made headlines with another nightclubber. Otto later opened a dinner club, the Brown Derby Club, in the same location, and then formed the Desert Inn Night Club in Las Vegas, allegedly the city’s first integrated nightclub.
King Nelson of Valencia, 1928-2019
In the early 1980s, Valencia Nelson and her husband, Herman, started a program that would one day become the Santa Barbara Food Bank. At first, they did everything themselves, distributing food to needy residents of Eastside by renting a truck and collecting surplus government food at Oxnard.
Valencia would go on to become a social worker for the county’s welfare department and specialize in helping new mothers understand the needs, both physical and emotional, of their infants. She was also an active member of the NAACP Santa Barbara Chapter.
Later in life, after retiring and returning to her hometown of Anniston, Alabama, Valencia and several friends established what would become the largest repository of African American genealogical research information in the States. -United. The organization, AfriGeneas, was established in 1999 and continues to this day.
Floyd E. Norman, 1935-
While in high school in Santa Barbara, Floyd Norman was introduced and began helping local cartoonist Bill Woggon, creator of the “Katy Keene” comics. After graduating, Floyd attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and in his senior year he was recruited by Walt Disney Studios, becoming the company’s first African-American designer.
In 1958, Floyd took a hiatus from Disney to serve in the military in Korea. He was stationed near the DMZ for fourteen months. He returned to Disney Studios in 1960 and worked on films such as The jungle Book, Mary poppins, and The Sleeping Beauty. Floyd left the studio after Walt Disney’s death in 1966 and co-founded Vignette Films Inc., one of the first companies to produce black history films. Most recently, he worked as a screenwriter for Pixar on Toy story 2 and Monsters Inc.
“At the age of 85, I’m busier than ever,” said Floyd. “Many years ago I sat in the library at Santa Barbara Junior High and decided one day to go to Hollywood and make movies. I ended up doing just that.
Anita Johnson Mackey, 1914-
Granddaughter of an emancipated slave, Anita Mackey became the first African-American supervisor of the Veteran Association’s outpatient clinic in Los Angeles before moving to Santa Barbara in 1964 when the VA opened an office here.
A tireless advocate and ally of those in need, she went on to serve on numerous local boards and commissions, including the Civil Service Commission, the City Housing Authority and the Mental Health Advisory Board. She became one of the community’s first psychiatric social workers of color, and in 1976 was named Santa Barbara Woman of the Year.
Anita and her husband Harvey, who had no children, adopted 22-year-old Nigerian Alexander Adekanmbi, who received a doctorate from the University of Oregon, became a university professor in Nigeria and was elected leader of his community. Anita has also been an avid traveler throughout her life, visiting all seven continents and over 130 countries. On January 5, 2021, she turned 107.
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