Jerry Harrison, an African American man, arrived in Palo Alto from North Carolina in 1922 in search of a better life, according to his grandson Michael Harrison.
He found work as a railroad porter as well as shining shoes at the Hotel President on University Avenue. His wife, Ruth Odessa, cleaned houses and washed clothes, said Michael Harrison, who grew up in Palo Alto and still lives here at age 69.
"They were very frugal," he recalled. "My grandmother used to serve us milk with water added to it."
The Harrisons saved enough to buy a small house in Palo Alto's Crescent Park neighborhood, but because it was illegal to sell to Black residents, Jerry Harrison asked a Jewish friend to buy the property "and they transferred it into my grandfather's name," Michael Harrison said. "That's how he was able to buy the property."
The Harrison family's story wasn't uncommon. Housing restrictions existed in neighborhoods throughout Palo Alto. When the Southgate neighborhood was subdivided in 1923, for example, all properties carried deed restrictions specifying that no persons of African, Japanese, Chinese or Mongolian descent were to use or occupy the houses, according to "Palo Alto: A Centennial History," published in 1993 by Ward Winslow and the Palo Alto Historical Association.
These types of restrictions existed in Palo Alto neighborhoods for decades until the U.S. Supreme Court voided racial restrictions in 1948. Despite the high court's ruling, many restrictions lingered in deeds and bylaws.
There were groups in Palo Alto that condemned such practices, such as the Palo Alto Fair Play Committee, which in the 1950s began pushing for open housing. Members lobbied the government to adopt new laws and created an interracial housing development near the intersection of Greer Road and Colorado Avenue with Black, Asian and white residents. The development became a quiet success, Winslow wrote. But a local survey around that time indicated that most still said they "would rent to Caucasians only."
Developer Joseph Eichler was the first local builder to proclaim, in the 1950s, that he favored selling houses to minorities, according to Matt Bowling's PaloAltoHistory.org.
In 1958, when the trade group Associated Home Builders Inc. refused to support his position of selling to everyone, Eichler resigned from the group. By the time Eichler died in 1974, he had built roughly 11,000 homes in California, including 2,700 in Palo Alto. His subdivisions opened the door for Black and Asian buyers in Palo Alto.
In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the nonprofit Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing also worked to promote equal opportunity by investigating local complaints of housing discrimination and providing legal education to tenants and landlords.
But those who lived in Palo Alto during that time said that discrimination persisted.
Longtime Palo Alto resident LaDoris Cordell said that while house hunting in the late 1980s with her partner — a white woman — she encountered so many irritating stereotypes that she took to waiting in the car instead of entering open houses.
"We went into this one open house in Palo Alto and a white female Realtor said to me,'This house is for sale, not for rent,'" Cordell recalled. "At this time, I was a judge. When I told her I already owned a house in Palo Alto she said, 'Oh, you've come a long way.'
"I was stunned," Cordell said. "Then she followed me all through the open house. The next week I wrote a letter to the head of her company and said I was so insulted."
The response, Cordell said, was "'She's one of our best Realtors. We can't believe she did that — we're so sorry.' I decided I couldn't do it anymore — I stopped going to open houses. But we did find a house.
Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing no longer exists, but the problem of housing discrimination has not disappeared, said Harrison, who lives in a house close to the one his grandparents purchased.
"(Housing discrimination) is going to be an issue as long as there are Black and white people in Palo Alto, and everywhere in the country," he said. "I'm happy things are changing some, but it's a long way from where it should be."