Doris Richmond, who broke racial barriers, dies

Longtime Palo Alto resident was pioneer at Palo Alto Library and a central member of the University AME Zion Church

Doris Richmond, the first African-American to work full-time for the Palo Alto Library and the oldest member of the historic University AME Zion Church, died June 6 at 95, following a period of declining health.

Richmond, a slightly built woman known to friends and neighbors in the Ventura neighborhood of Palo Alto for her outgoing friendliness, high energy and "adoption" of neighborhood children, was well-known communitywide along with her late husband, Cole Richmond, who died in 2006. They had been married for 59 years.

She was a longtime librarian with the City of Palo Alto, up to her retirement in 1991.

"Doris was just the most wonderful neighbor and 'community watch' person, historian, activist and grandmother," according to a neighbor of 20 years, Elaine Johnson.

"She was always keeping her eye out for the 10 or 12 boys in the neighborhood," including Johnson's own twins, now 20.

"She would always say, 'How are my boys?' She always thought of all the kids on her block as her kids," Johnson said.

She would even welcome arriving community and Stanford University minority students into her home for lunch and a chat, Johnson recounted. Richmond once estimated that she and Cole had hosted several hundred students into their home for dinners and her special secret-recipe potato salad.

The Richmonds were active in several military-related organizations, relating to her assembly-line work during World War II for North American Aviation in Los Angeles and his service with the U.S. Navy in the war, during which he was in eight major battles. He later served as a graphic artist designing technical manuals for the aeronautics industry and designed the instrument panel for the Stealth bomber.

They met in 1942, when they were next door neighbors in Los Angeles, and were married five years later.

They moved to San Francisco but soon, without unpacking, relocated to Palo Alto after Richmond on a weekend trip saw and fell in love with the eucalyptus trees in Palo Alto and on Stanford land. She said in a 1997 Palo Alto Weekly article that when she saw the trees she said, "This is it. This is my home."

They lived with friends until they were able to purchase a home on Chestnut Avenue, just south of Oregon Expressway between El Camino Real and the Caltrain tracks -- one of the few areas where non-whites were allowed by deed restrictions to purchase homes. Together, in 1965, they helped found the Chestnut-Wilton Homeowners Association, which later merged with the Ventura Neighborhood Association.

They were longtime members of the Palo Alto Historical Association and were active in the Palo Alto chapter of the NAACP, the American Heart Association and the Diabetes Association.

In the 1960s Cole Richmond spearheaded a successful fight to save a small community park/playground in the neighborhood and ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 1969. In the 1970s he served on the city's Human Relations Commission.

Among her primary commitments was to the University AME Zion Church, the first black church established in Palo Alto, reflecting her early childhood as granddaughter of a minister. Her parents owned a piano and that made their home a frequent gathering place for neighbors in the African-American community. She and Cole were charter members of the church and were recognized as its oldest members prior to his death. She was active with the choir, as a Christian-education teacher and as a personal recruiter/greeter for newcomers, usually including a home-cooked meal. But she said she wished people didn't think of it as a "black church," as "it's God's house" and everyone should feel welcome.

Richmond was born Oct. 1, 1921, in Clarksville, Tennessee, but moved as an infant to Nashville, where her father worked for a local dairy. She was one of five children.

She recalled that her parents were "very community oriented and worked hard in the church." Her grandmother taught Sunday school, her grandfather was a minister, and her mother played piano for the church.

"We learned that, with the help of God, you can excel in anything," she said in 1997. She said her mother "was always seeing to other peoples' children and the neighbors the type of person that reached out to everybody." Her mother was, in short, a model for Richmond's later life in Palo Alto.

When she was growing up, schooling was highly valued and expected, and with the help of family and mentors Richmond became a track star at Tennessee State University. She graduated in 1941, with a bachelor's degree in physical education and library science and moved to Los Angeles the following year.

In 1958, she started working part-time at the Palo Alto Main Library, then adjacent to the Palo Alto City Hall on Newell Road. In 1966 she was offered a position organizing all the periodicals and the rare-materials collection, becoming the first African-American to work full-time in the library system. In 2014, during a City Council discussion of renaming the Main Library, Richmond's name was among the possibilities suggested.

Richmond is survived by two grown sons, Michael Richmond Sr. of Stockton and Kevin Richmond of Palo Alto, and by three grandchildren. A daughter, Millicent, died in 2002.

Looking back in the 1997 article, Richmond acknowledged that she had felt the sting of subtle racial discrimination in Palo Alto which became an impetus for her community outreach and engagement.

"If you have love in your heart, the other things you don't even think about -- if you think the good, you don't have time for the negative," she said.

People need to "act like a mallard duck and shake it off and go on," she said.

A quiet hour has been set for 6 to 8 p.m., Thursday, June 22, at Jones Mortuary, 660 Donohoe St., East Palo Alto.

Her memorial service has been scheduled for 11 a.m., Friday, June 23, at the University AME Church, 3549 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

WATCH THE VIDEO Doris Richmond appeared in a 2009 video about the restoration of the original University AME Zion Church building in downtown Palo Alto.


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15 people like this
Posted by Miriam Palm
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 13, 2017 at 10:05 am

Miriam Palm is a registered user.

Oh, so sorry to hear this. I always treasured my encounters with Doris although they were not frequent. She was a lovely, non-judgmental person. I will miss her.

17 people like this
Posted by vmshadle
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 13, 2017 at 12:14 pm

What a wonderful life and career. A role model for us all.

14 people like this
Posted by Jonathan Brown
a resident of Ventura
on Jun 13, 2017 at 1:22 pm

Doris had an amazing way of using history, stories, and her keen eye to make people feel welcome in our neighborhood (as I was fortunate to experience 14 years ago when we first met). We have lost a treasure, but her memory will continue to inspire.

8 people like this
Posted by Diane Jennings
a resident of another community
on Jun 13, 2017 at 4:27 pm

Thanks, Jay, for this wonderful story of Doris's life. Those of us who had an opportunity to work with Doris during her career with the Library know how her spirit, energy, and always active mind contributed to her long life and many accomplishments to the community.

2 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 13, 2017 at 6:59 pm

Does anyone know the history of the white supremacist deed restrictions on Palo Alto properties that are mentioned in this article? I presume these restrictions are now illegal and removed from city law. When were they removed? Were any local activists or organizations involved in overturning these restrictions, or were they voided by a change in state or federal law?

2 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jun 13, 2017 at 7:13 pm


The deed restrictions still exist but became unenforceable directly, segregation later had to be enforced via lending practicices, zoning restrictions, and so on.

2 people like this
Posted by casey
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 14, 2017 at 5:08 pm

casey is a registered user.

@resident - These deed restrictions are called "racially restrictive covenants." They were stricken down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948 in a case entitled Shelly v. Kraemer.

Web Link

Here's another source for some local history on the matter:

Web Link

5 people like this
Posted by Judith Spirn
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 17, 2017 at 11:26 am

I worked with Doris, when I first was hired at PACL. She was all about family, community, and Church. Doris was really wonderful to all her co-workers. After she retired, whenever she came by, she treated us like long-lost family. And Doris always looked regal, when she dressed up for any event outside of work.
Michael, Kevin, and family, and her three Grandchildren, it was a privilege to get to know Doris. She leaves behind a very remarkable legacy, and she will never be forgotten by all those whose lives she touched.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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