Although the “For Sale” signs were clearly posted outside the Palo Alto houses, Glenn Kameda and his family were told that the houses were not on the market.
It was 1959, and the houses in question were located near San Antonio Road. Kameda had been living in East Palo Alto following World War II, but his family wanted to move across town.
“My father and I went to a new track home that was being built in Palo Alto, and there was an open house so we went to see the homes,” Kameda says. “He [the realtor] said, ‘Well, they [the houses] were all taken,’ and obviously they were not. I think just the fact that we were Asian is why he didn’t want to sell it to us.”
Kameda and his family were disappointed but resigned. They bought a house in Midtown instead, where they experienced fewer problems.
“Having an experience of being evacuated from California during World War II, it wasn’t the first time we felt discrimination,” says Kameda, whose family was relocated as a part of the internment. “We thought that it was a matter of time that they would get over it and treat us equally so we didn’t pursue it beyond that.”
Legally sanctioned until the 1960s, housing discrimination manifested in forms of realtor discrimination and restrictive housing covenants barring people of color, such as Kameda, from buying property in certain areas. Until 1968, property owners restricted the sale of their homes, discriminating against “Orientals” and minorities in Palo Alto. California updated its Fair Employment and Housing Act in March, reflecting concerns over continued discrimination.
Rooted in the Railroad
The powerful Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins financed the transcontinental Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s, but they needed people to perform manual labor for low wages. The answer was Chinese immigrants. Young males emigrated from China to provide labor for railroad construction, causing American workers to fear that the influx of cheap Chinese labor would threaten their job opportunities.
“Young men who were unemployed in China were willing to come here [California] to do hard work for [less] money,” Palo Alto Historian Steve Staiger says. “The expectation was that they [the Chinese] would go back to China, but many of them couldn’t afford to do that. When the railroad was finished building, they got other jobs [in construction].”
Following the wave of male Chinese immigrants, a wave of Japanese came with their families to work in California agriculture. The Japanese wished to purchase property; however, when Japanese families wanted to settle in “white” neighborhoods, Caucasians feared that living among Asians would devalue their property.
“Palo Alto was started with the idea, ‘We don’t want to have a Chinatown,’ and then it became codified into covenants that were unfortunately quite common,” says Rachel Kellerman, a Palo Alto High School librarian who has archived decades of Palo Alto history.
As people of many different backgrounds flooded into California during World War II from 1939 to 1945, racial prejudice persuaded developers and realtors to build separate enclaves for each race. An advertisement for a Crescent Park property development read “Palo Alto’s LAST High-Class Restricted Residential Section.” This advertisement used coded language to broadcast racial segregation as desirable and used it to sell more property.
“It really came down to simple profits,” Kellerman says. “So instead of having these enlightened laws where everyone could live where they want and go to school where they want, we ended up with an extremely restrictive city.”
A Tale of Two Cities
This discrimination continued past World War II. At its peak, neighborhoods all over Palo Alto were segregated, including large swaths of Midtown, Old Palo Alto, Southgate, Professorville and Crescent Park.
It took a young state assemblyman from Oakland, one of the first black politicians in California, William Byron Rumford, to eventually revise the housing laws and begin outlawing housing discrimination. In 1963, the Rumford Act outlawed the enforcement of housing covenants in certain California developments. In 1968, the National Housing Act did the same, but it still took decades for these laws to overcome the discrimination entrenched in Palo Alto’s housing industry.
“Only the laws that are enforced are going to get followed,” says Eric Bloom, a Paly social studies teacher. “If an African-American family came to look for a house, realtors would only take them to East Palo Alto.”
Laws that outlawed housing covenants could not outlaw discrimination. As a result, tacit rules in the real estate community continued segregating minorities, escalating racial separation in Palo Alto to the point that it split into two cities: Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. Diversity worsened as more minorities settled into East Palo Alto. This phenomenon was part of the reason that Kameda and his family had originally settled into East Palo Alto. There were very few Japanese in Palo Alto already, while there was at least a community in East Palo Alto.
“No one was mixing with one another,” Kellerman says. “What [happens] is that people who don’t live together don’t go to school together, and don’t get to know one another.”
Covenants Take a Turn
Even in a time that was racially segregated, there were stories of acceptance that revealed that Palo Alto, whatever its faults, was also home to progressive residents.When Japanese Buddhist Temple member Toshiko Kato bought a house in 1945 shortly after returning from an internment camp in Arizona, she was easily able to buy a house despite rampant anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast.
“We later learned that the young lady who was selling the house to us had lost her husband in the war at Guadalcanal,” Kato says. “She had no hard feelings selling it to us. … We came and she offered it and we said alright we’ll take it and it was settled right then.”
But this scenario was only one facet of the Palo Alto real estate market. Racial prejudice tainted the lives of many before the 1960s. In the 1990s there were still certain aspects of racial prejudice left in Palo Alto, according to Bloom.
Bloom remembers going to buy a house in Palo Alto in the 1990s with his wife, who is half Japanese-American. According to Bloom, he was surprised by prejudiced remarks made by a realtor that they met.
“She took us to a neighborhood and talked about the neighborhood being a little dark and that maybe I wouldn’t be interested in being here,” Bloom says. “We [Bloom and his wife] kind of looked at each other and then we were like, ‘OK, we need a new realtor.’ So that’s housing discrimination — it’s totally against the law.”
In 1992, Bloom and his wife settled into a 1947 house on Ross Road and discovered a startling clause to their property deed.
“Builders after World War II decided that they wanted to restrict the housing, so it [my house] had a covenant in the deed in the title of the house that said that the property cannot be leased, sold, or rented to anybody of Oriental descent,” Bloom says.
While the restrictions of the covenant were void, stamped out by a seal declaring it unenforceable due to the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the Blooms have been unable to change the original deed to rid it of the restrictive covenant language. If the deed were still valid, Bloom’s wife would not have been able to co-own the property or even live there.
The Second Wave
Even now, although Palo Alto’s diversity has been increasing and the minority community expanding, there has been a resurgence of housing discrimination against the Chinese. As China’s economy continues to grow, many Chinese families are able to relocate to the United States and settle in towns, such as Palo Alto, that would allow their children to prosper educationally. Though under a Communist rule, some Chinese may be encouraged to invest their money out of the country and in American real estate.
“I’ve heard of stories where they [property owners] turned down a better offer from a Chinese family because they want to not sell to a Chinese family, which is illegal,” Bloom says. “This new wave of racial discrimination in Palo Alto is coming on the heels of this sort of fears of the Chinese taking over again.”