Don Williamson discussing early Corona settlers and racism

When you think of the history of Corona, you likely picture images of citrus groves, road races, and the infamous Grand Avenue, which earned it the moniker “The Circle City.”  But last night, the Corona History Association’s Founder and President Don Williamson held a forum that explored a less grandiose history of Corona; a Corona entrenched in racism.

“Nobody wants to talk about the dark side of their hometown and I certainly don’t either,” said Williamson at the opening of his presentation.  But in regards to racism in the city of Corona, “It’s a story of triumph.  It is a story of people who were not treated fairly, who at the end of the day pushed back and ended the worst forms of racism and segregation and discrimination here in Corona,” he explained.

Over the next 45 minutes, attendees seated in the Corona Fundamental Intermediate School auditorium would be introduced to some of the most prominent instances of racism in Corona’s history.  Starting with the founding of the city, Williamson discussed how the citrus town of Corona got its start on the backs of upwards of a dozen workers from Sicily along with descendants of the “Californio” natives who lived in the region. “Basically, the white people thought they were better than everyone else,” explained Willaimson. This mix of cultures and the white superiority, lead to many cultural clashes in the region.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t the worst of what early settlers in Corona had done.  Williamson later shared a newspaper clipping from 1936 that opened with, “Someone may ask why is it that Corona is so much better to live in than any other rural town in Southern California? The answer in part is, we have no Chinese or Japanese.”  Williamson went on to explains how the paper tells the story of how in 1896 members of the community went out of their way to harass Chinese workers that had come in from Riverside until they left.

Like the Chinese, African-Americans in Corona were quickly discouraged and their numbers were few.  In 1928 a group of African-Americans purchased the Parkridge Country Club in hopes of having a place to hold events and festivities.  Shortly after the purchase was announced, local Ku Klux Klan members burned a cross above where what is now Cresta Verde Golf Course.  The Klan was well established in the region, in fact in Williams explained that in 1924 they held what is believed to be the largest Rally in Riverside County right here in Corona near what is now River Road.

In addition to pressure from the KKK, African-American’s that drove through Corona began getting ticketed for any and all offenses no matter how minor the infraction.  Ultimately the purchase of the property fell through and the majority of African-Americans in the area left.  “There were African-American social clubs in Elsinore and other parts of the Inland Empire, but again, Corona was very vigilant, in not allowing African-Americans,” explained Williamson.  He went on to tell the story of one African-American man who settled in Corona in 1887 and was tolerated by the community, but stressed that otherwise, there was virtually no African-American presence in Corona.

Racial tensions between African-American’s and the City of Corona came up again later in the presentation when a news clipping was shared telling the story of how Corona businesses had refused to serve African-American Sailors from the nearby Naval hospital in Norco.  That is until the Hospital Base Commander threatened to designate the town as “off limits” to all Sailors during a Rotary Club meeting.  Local businesses quickly changed their tune when it came to serving black Sailors.

As the presentation went on it became clear that Italians and Mexicans were really the only minorities who were able to live Corona, but despite their involvement in the start of the city, they were treated as second class citizens.  From the opening of Washington School in 1911, which was designated for Italian and Hispanic students only, to the opening of the city’s Plunge in 1925, which only allowed the Hispanic residents to swim on Mondays before the pool was drained.

The Plunge would remain segregated until in 1944 when the Plunge’s manager Nettie Whitcomb would open it to all citizens following the death of local serviceman Joe Dominguez who was killed in action. “She said, if boys like Joe can go and be killed, they can come swimming here. And that ended it.  She didn’t go out to the City Council…She came over here, threw away the ‘Whites Only’ sign and did the right thing,” said Williamson during the presentation.

The forum went on to discuss individuals in Corona who overcame adversity and became local and even national heroes for their efforts in overcoming discrimination and segregation.  Individuals like Frances Martinez, who is nationally recognized as a champion of Hispanic Rights, but is virtually unknown in her hometown of Corona.

By the end of the presentation, it was still unclear just how Corona managed to escape discrimination.  Was it the acts of people like Nettie Whitcomb or Frances Martinez?  Or was it a forced evolution driven by changes to Federal laws related to segregation.  Either way, it opened our eyes to how things used to be in Corona, and while the presentation was not politically motivated it definitely paralleled well with some of the conversations happening in the present.