Not too long ago, black people couldn’t buy property west of Fourth Street, and the only jobs available for black people were low-paying and didn’t require much education, he said.
Beasley has worked in a variety of professions around the Imperial Valley since the 1950s. His wife of 53 years and he were both educators in the Valley for decades.
Join the discussion and add your comments to this story! Scroll down or click here and tell us what you think.
June Beasley, 72, came to the Valley from Virginia when she was 19 for a job as a teacher.
“I couldn’t wait to get out. When I got here, I couldn’t’ believe how segregated El Centro was,” she said.
As things changed, she ate at her first “white” restaurant.
The pair saw as local schools were gradually desegregated. At first, when students of different races bumped into each other on accident, a scuffle would ensue. Soon, though, he saw them saying “excuse me” instead.
“I could see a light come on. I could see a change as a kid slowly began to integrate at the school,” he said. “It changed their language and attitudes, tended to get along a lot better.”
Sunday could often be the most segregated day of the week sometimes, the pair said, with races cloistering together at respective churches.
Over the years, the subtle barriers came down with Walter Beasley himself becoming involved musically at a variety of churches.
“It’s been very difficult for African-American kids to do well in the Valley,” June said. “These kids could never get a foot in the door, because the first person didn’t get in the door.”
The Beasleys saw over the years that more and more black people rose into positions of leadership in the Valley.
“We knew changes were just around the corner for us,” Walter said. “Some of these changes by Dr. King started to arouse the consciousness of people. … The nation became aware of the inequities.”
Walter said many Valley families such as the Abattis, a well-known local farming family, personally helped him become involved in the community. He turned around and helped young black people learn job responsibility and money management through giving them work opportunities.
“It was my chance to give back to the community that was so nice to me as a kid,” he said.
Dark periods of the Valley’s past provide context for the light of the future.
Volunteers of America Southwest California president and chief executive officer Gerald McFadden said the Martin Luther King Jr. festivities this week are an opportunity to take a “second look at Dr. King’s dream,” and the future of that dream in the Valley.
He has been involved in the Valley for more than 28 years and for 13 years in his capacity at Volunteers of America.
“The walk I’ve had in 13 years is a walk that is both full of excitement and of concern,” he said. “I’m concerned about dwindling numbers of African-Americans that are strategically positioned in the Imperial Valley as we go forward.”
McFadden said the community’s challenge is, “How do we engage all segments of the community for a greater good in terms of social, political and economic policy?”
He believes the Valley is a “community in transition” from a predominantly farming-based community to more commerce-based and in turn will provide new opportunities in the next five to 10 years.
“How do we use this new economic vitality as a way to build strategies to engage those who have not had the opportunity to participate in the American Dream?,” he asks. “That’s Martin Luther King’s dream, to create unseen channels of development, ways for the last of us in society to evolve to a higher level in the collective best interest.”
For local business owner Carlton Hargrave, he believes an awareness of the past accomplishments in the black community are key to moving forward.
“I don’t think we teach African-American history in school like we used to … I don’t think young people today are aware of contributions African-Americans have made over the years to where our society is today,” he said.
“Without a clear sense of where we came from, we can’t have a sense of where we are going.”
Staff Writer Chelcey Adami can be reached at 760-337-3452 or email@example.com.