Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

February 14, 1946

On February 14, 1946, page nine the Los Angeles Sentinel carried a small news item about an upcoming meeting in Portland, Oregon on the subject of "Vigilante Terror in Fontana."  The paper reported that in Portland, "Myra Tanner Weiss, Los Angeles organizer of the Socialiant Workers Party...will tell the story of the burning to death of the O'Day H. Short family in Fontana two weeks after they were threatened with violence by vigilantes who objected to the Negro family's residence at that location."  The Sentinel had covered the story since December 1945, when an arsonist set fire to the family's home, and called for authorities to investigate the crime.

David Allen, writing in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin on the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy, describes the scene:   

In 1940s Fontana, this was the saying: “Base Line is the race line.” African-Americans were welcome north of Base Line Road but not to the south.

O’Day Short would have none of that. The refrigeration engineer from Los Angeles put $1,000 down on a five-acre vacant lot on Randall Avenue at Pepper Street, near downtown, and began building a house.

Short moved his wife and two children into the half-built home as he continued work on it in the fall of 1945. Not everyone realized the light-skinned family was black, presumably including the man who sold them the land.

But some did. A sheriff’s deputy visited to advise Short on behalf of neighbors that he was out of bounds. The Chamber of Commerce offered to buy the property back at cost. The seller dropped by to warn him “the vigilante committee” might bring down violence.

Rather than cave in, Short contacted the FBI, a lawyer and the black press.

“They’re just trying to bluff me out of my property,” Short told the Los Angeles Sentinel. “I recognize the old Texas technique when I see it.”

They weren’t bluffing, though. It doesn’t seem that way, at any rate.

Because on Dec. 16, 1945, the home exploded in a fireball, the Shorts inside.

Helen Short, badly burned, was seen trying to beat out the flames on the clothing of her children. The family was taken by a friendly neighbor by car to Kaiser Steel Mill Hospital.

Helen Short, 35, died, as did the children, Barry, 9, and Carol Ann, 7.

O’Day Short, 40, lingered in the hospital for a month before dying too, right after the district attorney personally informed him his whole family had perished.

I first learned about this history from Hisaye Yamamoto's autobiographical short story, "A Fire in Fontana" (1985).  Yamamoto describes how, as a Japanese-American writer for a black newspaper, the Los Angeles Tribune, the Short case was a turning point in her understand of race and the role of journalists and writers.  Yamamoto describes having a small role at the Tribune: "I did rewrites mostly, of stories culled from all the other Black newspapers across the country that exchanged with the Los Angeles Tribune, from the very professional ones like the Chicago Defender (with columnists like Langston Hughes and S.I. Hayakawa) and the New Amsterdam News to smaller ones like the primly proper Bostonian sheet with elegant society notes and the smudged weeklies form small towns in Mississippi and Oklahoma that looked to have been turned out on antiquated, creaking presses.  Almost every week, I toted up the number of alleged lynching across the country and combined them into one story."  After describing her modest role ("I'm not one of your go-getters or anything"), the narrator turns to the Short case:

One day when a new secretary named Miss Moten and I were in the mezzanine office, which was really three desks and two filing cabinets jammed into one end of the open mezzanine, with a counter separating the office form the subscribing and advertising public, a nice-looking young man with a mustache came up the stairs.

He said his name was Short.  Urgently, he told us a disturbing story.  He said he and his wife and two children had recently purchased a house in Fontana.  They had not been accorded a very warm welcome by the community.  In fact, there had been several threats of get-out-or-else, and his family was living in fear.  He wanted his situation publicized so that some sentiment could be mustered in support of his right to live in Fontana.  He was making the rounds of the three Negro newspapers in town to enlist their assistance.

I took down his story of the editor to handle when she got in.  After he left, I noticed Miss Moten was extremely agitated.  She was on the tense side to begin with, but she was a quiet, conscientious worker and always spoke in a gentle murmur.

But not her eyes were blazing with fury.  She spat out the words.  "I hate White people!"

"What?" I said, feeling stupid.  I'd heard her all right, but I'd never seen her even halfway angry before.

"I hate White people!  They're all the same!"

Then, later the same week, there was a fire in Fontana.  Dead in the blaze, which appeared to have started with gasoline poured all around the house and outbuildings, were the young man who had told us his story, his comely wife, and their two lovely children, a boy and a girl (one of the other newspaper had obtained a recent portrait of the family, probably from relatives in the city).

There was an investigation, or course.  The official conclusion was that probably the man had set the gasoline fire himself, and the case was closed.

Yamamoto describes the Short case causing a physical reaction for her: "It was around this time that I felt something happening to me, but I couldn't put my finger on it.  It was something like an itch I couldn't locate or like food not being cooked enough, or something undone which should have been done, or something forgotten which should have been remembered.  Anyway, something was unsettling my innards."  The narrator was particularly upset when she recalled the story she wrote about the case: "For, what had I gone and done?  Given the responsibility by the busy editor, I had written up from my notes a calm, impartial story, using 'alleged' and 'claimed' and other cautious journalese.  Anyone noticing the story about the unwanted family in Fontana would have taken it with a grain of salt."

Black newspaper are often described as a "fighting press," and I like Yamamoto's "A Fire in Fontana" because it highlights how black citizens looked to the black press to advocate for justice and how reporters navigated the balance between advocacy journalism and "cautious journalese."  Finally, the Short case highlights how Black newspapers recorded everyday acts of terror even if they could not always prevent them.   

For Los Angeles Sentinel coverage of the Short case, see:
​"Violence Threat Against Short Must Not Go Unchallenged: An Editorial," January 3, 1946 

"Proof of Threat Barred from Short Inquest," January 3, 1946

"NAACP Brand Fontana Fire As Incendiary; Kerosene Theory Flatly Denied by Arson Expert," January 10, 1946

​"O.H. Short 4th Fontana Victim Dies: Lacked Interest in Recovery," January 24, 1946

"$5000 Reward Offered in Fontana Fire Case," April 25, 1946

For recent coverage of the Short case, see:
Cassie MacDuff, "A Puzzling Piece of History," The Press Enterprise, December 11, 2015

David Allen, "O’Day Short tragedy still smolders in Fontana," Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, December 15, 2015

David Bradvica, "All They Wanted Was the Right to Live...Anywhere," Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, June 6, 1999

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