As part of an oral history project, Willa Mae Gentry, 88, speaks about growing up in El Centro’s segregated east side on April 28 in El Centro. Gentry has since moved to Antioch to live with her daughter. | JULIO MORALES PHOTO

Oral History Explores Valley’s Black Experience

Nonprofit, Local Colleges Team Up to Interview Pioneering African American Families

With each passing year, the histories of the Imperial Valley’s pioneering Black families are increasingly running the risk of being lost to posterity, as old age claims the lives of some individuals while others relocate outside the county.

Lennor Johnson, Imperial Valley College vice president of student services and equity (from right), is joined by Marlene Thomas, Imperial Valley Social Justice Committee chair (middle), and Brenda Porter, daughter of Willa Mae Gentry, at Gentry’s home on April 28 as part of an oral history project. | JULIO MORALES PHOTO

To counter that trend, a local nonprofit has teamed up with the Valley’s institutions of higher education to undertake an oral history project that will digitally preserve local African Americans’ experiences and make that material available to the wider community and academics.

The idea for an oral history project was initially conceived several years ago by Marlene Thomas, chair of the Imperial Valley Social Justice Committee, and became more of an urgent matter each time a longtime African American community member passed away.

“A great deal of (African American) history has been lost or not told because some people have moved away, but primarily because some have died,” Thomas said. “That history died with the older ones.”

Her idea eventually picked up some steam following a conversation about local Black history that Thomas said she had with representatives of San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus and Imperial Valley College.  

The conversation and the interest that the SDSU-IV and IVC officials expressed about the project was nothing short of divine intervention, in Thomas’ estimation. Both colleges are now providing staff, student, and logistical support.

“I would just call that God making things happen,” she said.

Dwindling Numbers

Imperial County had once been home to a relatively large African American population that has seen a decrease in numbers through the years. In July 2019, an estimated 3.3 percent of the county’s approximate 181,000 residents identified as Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s QuickFacts website.

Longtime El Centro resident Willa Mae Gentry said she suspects that the exodus of the Valley’s Black population is likely the result of a lack of jobs in the county.

Gentry was the oral history project’s first formal interview on April 28. She can also be counted as one of the most recent African Americans to leave the county, as the 88-year-old has since relocated to Antioch to live with her daughter.

Her father, LV Reliford, had been a sharecropper in Longview, Texas prior to relocating to California’s Bay Area. Gentry said her father had been told that there were plenty of jobs to be had in Imperial County, which prompted her parents to move from Richmond to El Centro’s segregated east side in 1945.

Aside from her family’s roots in the county, Gentry also reminisced during her interview about her upbringing, mentors, education, employment history, community service and a few instances of racial discrimination that she experienced in the Valley.

She also conceded that she wasn’t initially thrilled about participating in the oral history project, even after her daughter, Brenda Porter, highlighted the significance of the effort and the need to document local pioneering Black family’s experiences and contributions.

Yet, by the end of the hour and a half interview, conducted by Lennor Johnson, IVC vice president of student services and equity, Gentry had warmed to the questions and the company of those she had invited into her eastside home.

She estimated that the population of El Centro’s east side was about 25 percent African American during her formative years.

When asked what message she would like to provide future generations of Black youths who one day may access her recorded interview, Gentry, a retired registered nurse, said that they should pursue higher education or attend trade school, and to never lose hope.

“You can work hard and be whatever you want to be,” Gentry said.

Some 20 to 25 individuals are expected to be interviewed on video as part of the oral history project. Jazz legend Walter Beasley, who was born in El Centro, is one of the more recognizable individuals scheduled to be interviewed.

Thomas said she was motivated to pursue such a project because many local residents are unaware of how members of the local Black community had contributed to the economic and cultural development of the Valley.

For instance, El Centro’s first Black mayor, DuBois McGee, is widely credited for bringing the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, to the Valley to practice.

Additionally, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was at the forefront of lawsuits that challenged discriminatory hiring practices within the county government and the Imperial Irrigation District during the 1960s and 1970s, Thomas said.

“Our people and our population has dwindled, so it appears that maybe we were insignificant,” Thomas said. “But it’s the complete opposite.”

Ambitious Plans

Depending on the availability of funding, SDSU plans to support the interview process, the production and editing of the video-recorded interviews, as well as the archiving, organizing, and creation of the oral histories’ digital platform, said Dr. Mark Wheeler, SDSU-IV associate dean of academic affairs.

SDSU-IV also plans to provide technological resources to maintain the digital archives and to provide access for future researchers and community members, Wheeler said in a written statement in response to a series of submitted questions. 

“SDSU-IV has already allocated resources to support such work and plans to work in partnership with IVSJC to secure grants and other funds to support the project,” he said.

The project is expected to improve relations and deeper understanding between the campus and the community. It will also provide an opportunity for SDSU-IV and IVC student researchers to engage in original research with faculty mentors, gain crucial academic experience and perhaps have the basis of their work promote further academic publications, Wheeler said.

“We hope that by preserving the oral histories of the (Imperial Valley’s) Black community, the community will have access to precious historical information about itself and that it may use the information to make historically informed decisions about its future,” he said.

SDSU-IV’s involvement in the oral history project can be considered an extension of its faculty and staff’s active participation in efforts aimed at helping the community, said Dean Gregorio Ponce in an email.

Those efforts have been consistent with the public university’s research, education, and service mission. Two past examples include the Imperial Valley Food Bank having had its origins in the garage of some of the campus’ faculty members. As well as the Calexico Brown Bag Coalition having begun in the kitchens of some of its staff members.

“The partnership with the Imperial Valley Social Justice Committee is the latest example of the university’s efforts to work together with and for the Imperial County community,” Ponce said.

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