Gordon French and another thought on Oppenheimer


I read a couple of days ago that this is the 49th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which – among other things – banned whites-only lunch counters and similar discrimination in hotels, restaurants and other places of public accommodation. It reminds me at how close we are to those times and how arbitrarily bizarre they are.

Now I want to say that I have a dog in this fight. America wasn’t just prejudged against blacks, it was prejudged against everybody but White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and I am not one of them. I was born in 1940, I was 20 in 1960, so my childhood was on the edge of the time of American institutionalized antisemitism. I only know about restricted hotels – restricted being code for No Jews, Negros being so restricted it wasn’t even worth mentioning –  from novels and plays like Gentleman’s Agreement. But I did know about restricted clubs, we lived near the Burlingame Country Club and they did not allow Jews to join or – according Richard LeVine in Awaking Waves – even into the diningroom although I did go to several dances there.

So when I read about blacks being kept out of someplace or being redlined in a community, I not only think That could have been me, I think Wow, that might have included me. One of the places that was whites only, were swimming pools in Pasadena, California in the late 1930’s.  Both Robert and Frank Oppenheimer were socially active during that time and they became involved in integrating a public pool in Pasadena. For which they were arrested. To make the pool safe for white people again, the pool was drained and refilled. In California!

And that brings me to Gordon French. My first inside job – meaning not on a construction site working with the tools – was at Gordon French Construction and a main part of that job was as Construction Manager for Silverado Country Club. But I also worked on an apartment complex in Tiburon. The complex had a great pool built on the side of a hill and one day, shortly after we finished it, a tenet and his black friend swam in the pool. (This would have been about 1967, again in California.) Another tenant was outraged and complained to the manager who passed the complaint on to Gordon.

Gordon thought about it for a minute, maybe less, and told the manager to evict the troublemaker. The troublemaker being the complainer, not the swimmers. I knew I was working in the right place.



One thought on “Gordon French and another thought on Oppenheimer

  1. In 1972, I was working in marketing at the Irvine Company, the largest landowner in Orange County, CA. I was asked to set up a photoshoot featuring a black couple. It was a big deal because up to that point the only models used by the company were white. We spent a day shooting the couple in the company’s various residential and commercial developments and brought the resulting slides back to our boss for approval. All was well until he saw some shots of the black couple in a swimming pool with a white couple. “Spooks and whites in the same pool!” he exclaimed. “You can’t show spooks and whites in the same pool!” And we didn’t, until a year later when, under a new boss, I managed to quietly insert the shots in several brochures and ads.

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