THE RUMFORD FAIR HOUSING ACT
Story of Byron Rumford
Artist: Clayton Anderson
Writer: Sara Bruckmeier
Original completed 2007
Restored in 2018
Byron Rumford pursued fairness. He moved from Arizona to California seeking higher education,
and paid for college by working as railroad porter. After graduating from the UCSF School of
Pharmacy, he married Elsie Carrington in 1932. He applied for a job at Highland Hospital in
Oakland, Elsie’s hometown, but encountered great resistance. He kept re-applying and was hired at last,
but the experience left an impression. He often talked about how hard it was for black people to get jobs,
even when qualified.
He also worked at Dick’s Pharmacy on Sacramento Street. When the owner retired, Byron bought
the drugstore and named it Rumford’s Pharmacy. At the time, Sacramento St. was the main corridor of
the black business community in Berkeley. Byron and Elsie were well-known and politically active. He
would post a sample ballot in the pharmacy window and people would look to see who he was endors-
ing. A Bay Area political group asked him to run for office. He did, and became State Assemblyman for
the 17th District in 1948. He was the first black man to hold elected office in Northern California.
As an Assemblyman, Byron Rumford advocated for a fair housing bill. Governor Pat Brown said
he would sign one if it passed. At the time, there were many obstacles preventing minorities from living
where they wanted. In addition to redlining, there were also restrictive covenants written into deeds that
prohibited those properties from being rented or sold to minorities. Although this practice was at odds
with the 14th Amendment, which states that all citizens are entitled to equal protection by law, redlining
had been built into real estate practice in a way that was tough to fight in court. Without a law specifically
prohibiting housing discrimination, it was hard to stop.
The debate in the State Assembly about Rumford’s Fair Housing Act was fierce. Finally, Gov. Brown
and Jesse Unruh, Speaker of the Assembly, locked the doors on June 21st, 1963 and wouldn’t let anyone
out until they passed the bill. It passed. However, within a year the California Association of Realtors built
a well-funded campaign to repeal it through Proposition 14. The nation watched as California, one of the
most liberal states, voted for Prop. 14 by a ratio of 2 to 1. The Fair Housing Act was defeated.
But not for long! Nathaniel Colley, civil rights expert and lawyer for the NAACP, filed suit in the state
Supreme Court. Meanwhile, another renowned attorney, Thurgood Marshall, worked with the NAACP
to prove systematic discrimination by landlords. By sending a white couple and then a black couple to
open listings in Orange County, the NAACP documented many instances where the white couple was
approved while the equally qualified black couple was not.
The suit to protect the Rumford Fair Housing Act from repeal rose from the Supreme Court of Cal-
ifornia to the Supreme Court of the United States. It won in both places. Proposition 14 was ruled un-
constitutional because it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Rumford Fair
Housing Act became California law, setting a precedent for the country. Within a year, President Lyndon
B. Johnson signed Title VIII of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, also known as the U.S. Fair Housing Act.