THE RUMFORD FAIR HOUSING ACT

Story of Byron Rumford
Artist: Clayton Anderson
Writer: Sara Bruckmeier
 
Original completed 2007
Restored in 2018
BR_edited.jpg

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.