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NAACP: the best and brightest

Stanley O. Williford | 7/20/2011, 5 p.m.

It may have been fate that brought the Somerville Hotel into existence just in time to house attendees to the first West Coast convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1928. The hotel was completed in June of that year. The 19th annual convention was held that same month.

Named for Dr. John Somerville, a Jamaica-born dentist, and his wife Vada, also a dentist, it was reportedly the first hotel built by Blacks west of the Mississippi. Up to that point, all Black-owned hotels had been structures previously owned by Whites. It was not the first structure built by the enterprising Somerville. A year before, he had erected the La Vada Apartments, "the first modern apartment building to be occupied by Blacks in Los Angeles," according to the 1973 edition of The Crisis, the NAACP journal.

The Somerville Hotel was not only a source of great pride for Black Angelenos, but its famous Club Alabam played host to the creme de la creme of Black entertainers--Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Bill "BoJangles" Robinson, Jimmie Lunceford, Billie Holiday, and a list of others that is too long to include.

Somerville was the first Black to graduate from the University of Southern California School of Dentistry, and he did so with "the highest honors," reported The Crisis. (Vada was also a graduate of the school after him.) Somerville helped launch the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP and served as its first president.

Four years earlier, another dentist, Dr. H. Claude Hudson, had become president of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP, a position he held for 10 consecutive years. Already a Howard University-educated dentist and a civil rights activist when he arrived from Shreveport, La., Hudson would later combine two other interests--the study of law and banking--into an already frantic schedule. "It was during Hudson's tenure that the branch hosted the 19th Annual NAACP Convention, the first to be held in Los Angeles," says a historical note on the branch's website.

The convention was hosted at Second Baptist Church, which made its own claim to history. Built in 1926, the structure was designed by architect Paul R. Williams (in collaboration with Norman Marsh) and could seat more than 2,000 persons. It was the largest meeting space owned by African Americans in Los Angeles at that time. The church, under the direction of Pastor Thomas L. Griffth, played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement. The church also provided critical assistance for the 1942 and 1949 conventions, and remained an important venue for such political and spiritual luminaries as Adam Clayton Powell, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

The major speakers at the convention in 1928 were W.E.B. Du Bois and poet and activist Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Du Bois, of course, was the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, a founder of the NAACP and the founder and editor of its journal, The Crisis.

In 1942, the convention returned to Los Angeles, and the war in Europe was very much on the nation's mind. It was the organization's 33rd annual convention, and it was held seven months after the United States entered World War II.