Thursday, February 19, 2015

Doris Topsy-Elvord's Journey to Success

Education and Exposure to Other Cultures Made the Difference.

Doris Topsy-Elvord
Long Beach, California

First African American 
Long Beach Harbor Commissioner
& Commission President

First African American Female 
City Council Member 
& Vice Mayor

Doris Topsy-Elvord's experience with racial tolerance began in an unlikely place--Mississippi, where she got her early lessons in education and tolerance, unlike the life of Rosa Parks who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, 1955-56. 

Doris Topsy-Elvord was the first African American to serve as a Long Beach Harbor Commissioner, also serving as president of the group; and was the first African American Vice Mayor for the City of Long Beach, California. A new book about this remarkable woman will be released in conjunction with the Grand Opening of the BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way Exhibition of historic photographs, document reproductions, artifacts, official papers and online scholarly research guide September 29, 2015, at the Long Beach Public Library Atrium Center.

Topsy-Elvord is one of the Long Beach, California, pioneering dozen, chronicled in a collection of historical profiles, BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way, edited by Sunny Nash with foreword by Carolyn Smith Watts. "This project introduced our community to local women with a mission similar to that of Rosa Parks," said Nash. "Doris Topsy-Elvord exemplifies that spirit."

Jim Crow laws ruled education in the southern United States in the 1930s, but somehow, Vicksburg schoolgirl, Doris Topsy-Elvord escaped school segregation before the Civil Rights Movement.

Port of Long Beach
First African American Port of Long Beach Harbor Commissioner

First African American Graduate of St. Anthony High School

City of Long Beach
First African American Female Long Beach City Council Member

First African American Female Long Beach Vice Mayor

"I went to school with all kinds of kids," Topsy-Elvord said. "There were Italians and Chinese in my school. I know that may sound strange for Mississippi. Many of them worked on area farms. I didn't know anything about segregation as a small child," Topsy-Elvord said. When she arrived in Long Beach at age ten, she leaned about prejudice when a boy in her school called her the 'N' word. I thought the 'N' word meant that you were Protestant and not Catholic."

Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1931
Born in 1931 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Topsy-Elvord grew up in a family of some means, probably having descended from the well-documented free African American population of Vicksburg. 

The city was experiences some economic decline due to the Great Depression. Her parents were both educated. Her mother attended college and was a nurse at the Vicksburg Hospital; her father owned a local business. Being professionals, Topsy-Elvord’s parents were not farmers or associated with plantation work like many other local families--black, white, Chinese, Italian and others--that relied on indentured and sharecropping arrangements for their livelihood. 

Doris Topsy-Elvord
As difficult as it is to believe—knowing the history of race relations in Mississippi—the Vicksburg Catholic elementary school that Topsy-Elvord attended, Saint Mary's, until she was nine years old, was integrated with the children of minority immigrants from many parts of the world, including children from the city's Chinese and Italian families. Students in this private religious educational setting were not separated by race, so Topsy-Elvord had always been in school with students of other ethnic groups. "The kids there treated me like I treated them. It was based on character, not color," she said.

Catholic schools in Mississippi were some of the first schools in the southern United States to become integrated, a move encouraged by Italian families that had attained prominence in the Vicksburg professional and religious community. Mississippi was a racially conscious society, and Italians were often dismissed as second-class citizens because their skins were darker than those of whites of northern European ancestry. The Italian immigrants who were tenant farmers were downgraded because they did the same work as black farmhands, who were at the bottom of the social scale. Italians experienced bigotry and prejudice, directly associated with their ethnic background. 

Barack Obama & Doris Topsy-Elvord
Daughter of devout Catholics, Doris' family provided their daughter, Doris, an education in a private Catholic school, unlike the children in sharecropping families that needed all hands, including the children's, to work the land, help plant and bring in the crops to pay landowners their share in crops and cash, and to settle the bill at the farm store. 

"My parents expected me to do well in school and in life," Topsy-Elvord said. "And that is what I did."

Topsy-Elvord's parents wanted for their daughter the same thing white parents wanted for their sons and daughters--a good life that a college education could bring. These parent wanted education for their daughter, in spite of the fact that she was born near the beginning of the nation's Great Depression (1929-41). 

What these parents wanted, they got for their little girl who grew up to meet presidents and governors.

Jerry Brown & Doris Topsy-Elvord
Doris' family had a comfortably independent life, except for Jim Crow laws that affected all people of color in the South and nationwide. Jim Crow laws made life for African Americans like Doris Topsy-Elvord seem as though the Union had not defeated the Confederacy to win the Civil War, although during the War, between 1862 and 1863, Vicksburg, overwhelmed by Union troops and was captured by Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863, a strategic maneuver by Lincoln's Army. The importance of Vicksburg was significant to the Union due to its location on the Mississippi River as a supply port.

Beginning in the 19th Century Catholic schools in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Topsy-Elvord attended became integrated with Chinese students, whose families arrived in the Delta when indentured Chinese workers finished building railroads and levees in California and parts of the Northwest. No longer of any use in those areas, the locals burned their homes and drove them away. When Mississippi Delta plantation owners heard about these displaced laborers, they rushed to California to import the Chinese workers to Delta farms to replace slave labor after Emancipation. Through labor agents, the same tactic was used to import southern Italian, Lebanese and Syrian indentured servants to Mississippi Delta plantations to pick cotton alongside the Chinese, Italian and black workers. 

"There were also Jewish families in Vicksburg," Topsy-Elvord said. "But they were not farmers or farmhands." Jewish families that  landed in the Mississippi Delta became peddlers of goods and storekeepers as they and their parents had been before leaving Europe. They bought goods at the port in Vicksburg and made their way inland to sell their wares. At the close of the Civil War, there were 90 Jewish families in Vicksburg. They own 35 stores in the town, according to Goldring-Woldberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 

Topsy-Elvord lived with her parents in the city of Vicksburg in a racially mixed neighborhood where she attended the integrated St. Mary's Catholic School within a short walking distance from their comfortable home. What her family had in common with their non-plantation non-black immigrant counterparts, who lived in their neighborhood, was the choice of a good school for their children and the desire to educate their children, a key to improved economic status and social standing, the same desire of the white community. 

"I have never been afraid of anyone, no matter what their race, who they are or how much money they may have," Topsy-Elvord said. "I know my attitude had to do with the fact that I was raised around many different races. My mother always told me, 'Doris, you're as good as anyone.' Later, as I made my way through school, college, professional career, political office, executive boards, commissions and public life, I dealt with all kinds of people. I was never intimidated by them because I never doubted my own ability to compete with anyone at any level. That comes from the way I was raised during the first nine years of my life in Vicksburg, Mississippi."

Often, people who are educated and have been exposed to other cultures look at society and life in a more sophisticated way. Topsy-Elvord's childhood experience with race may account for her later success in an atmosphere that could have felt discouraging to others in her position. This does not say Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a bastion for racial tolerance. It says Vicksburg, a southern city with racial problems, may have forced its minority communities into a fragile social order that developed out of an economic rather than racial climate, unlike West Coast and northern cities that did not have the same racial history and, in many ways, that ignored racial issues. 

Doris Topsy-Elvord
Library of Congress Plaque
In 1942, Topsy-Elvord's family left Mississippi and moved to Long Beach, California. “I was the only African American student at St. Anthony when we got to Long Beach,” Topsy-Elvord said . As a nine-year-old child, when she first entered St. Anthony, she said she learned more about racism than she had ever known in Mississippi. “And it was in Long Beach, California, that I first heard the “N” word.”  When Topsy-Elvord was eighteen years old, she won an essay competition that eventually was collected by the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.

Doris Topsy-Elvord is part of the BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way, about 12 African American women who made a difference in the cultural history of Long Beach, California. This is a collection of historical profiles edited by Sunny Nash with a foreword by Carolyn Smith Watts. 

Nash and Watts have created an exhibition to open at the Long Beach Public Library Tuesday, September 29, 2015 at the Atrium Center & Theater in the Long Beach Public Library off of City Hall Public Plaza. This extensive display of portraiture, historic photographic reproductions, artifacts, documents and memorabilia will cover three decades of achievement by these Long Beach women.The exhibition, sponsored by Leadership Long Beach, will open September 29, 2015.

BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way will be a two-week-long exhibition that will dynamically add to the understanding of the roles of African American female leaders and their individual triumphs within the racial and cultural history of Long Beach, California, and demonstrate the difference they made in the lives of all residents of the City of Long Beach, regardless of age, education, race, ethnic background, nationality, gender, profession, physical condition, economic level or mental challenges or other factors that tend to affect people’s acceptance or rejection of a subject.

Cover Photo by Carolyn Smiths Watts, Shoreline Village, 
Published in Tuttle Cameras One Camera Project, Exhibited at the Historical Society of Long Beach. 
(Standing left to right): Evelyn Knight marched with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery; Patricia Lofland, first black member of Long Beach City College Board of Trustees; Bobbie Smith, first black LB woman elected to public office and has a school named for her; Alta Cooke, first black high school principal; Carrie Bryant, city’s first black private school operator; Vera Mulkey, the City’s first black Chief of Staff; Wilma Powell, the nation’s first female Chief Wharfinger; Doris Topsy-Elvord, first African American Long Beach Harbor Commissioner & first black female LB Vice Mayor; (Seated left to right): Autrilla Scott, city’s first black LB citizen with street named for her; Maycie Herrington, recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal; Dale Clinton’s letter to President Johnson is archived at the Library of Congress; and (not present): Lillie Mae Wesley, neighborhood parent for 30 years with LB Parks & Recreation.

Grand Opening
Long Beach Public Library
(101 Pacific Ave.)
3:00 p.m. Tuesday, September 29, 2015, 
Atrium Center & Theater, 
2:00 p.m. Press Conference
Loraine & Earl Burns Miller Special Collections Room
2:00 p.m. Reception 
Atrium Garden

The multifaceted signature project, BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way Exhibition, is comprised of archival portraiture, ancestral photographic restorations, artifacts, historic papers, archaic document reproductions, memorabilia, and newspaper and magazine clippings collected, organized by award-winning humanitarian Carolyn Smith Watts, and award-winning author and photojournalist Sunny Nash, on 12 African American Women who made a Difference in the Cultural History of Long Beach, California.


The Port of Long Beach demonstrated its commitment to equal employment access and professional opportunity over the years by appointing the first female Chief Wharfinger in the nation, one of the Legends of this project; and continues that commitment with its support of this project.

Sponsors, donors, partners and contributors committed to date are listed here. Others will be joining the list in the near future. All are welcome to LIKE the Legends on FaceBook.

In 2015, after Nash won a 2015 Arts Council for Long Beach Professional Artist Fellowship to design a Museum Catalogue and restore photographs, BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way became a Signature Project of photo restorations, artifacts, document reproductions, ancestral papers and online resources.

Molina Healthcare

For more than 30 years, Molina has been providing quality, affordable health care to individuals and families covered by government programs. 


Andy Street 
Community Association

BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way Exhibition previewed at the Andy Street Community Association's Bixby Knolls EXPO Event in February. Hundreds of spectators were able to get a glimpse of the coming exhibition, scheduled to open in September. 

At the June 5th First Friday Event in Bixby Knolls, there will be an exhibit preview at the Historical Society of Long Beach featuring 230 collective years of educational accomplishments of the 12 Legends of BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way.

Tuttle Cameras Long Beach
Based on the collection of historical profiles, published in 2007, edited by Sunny Nash, and foreword by Carolyn Smith Wattswhose award-winning photograph of the Long Beach Living Legends was published in the Tuttle Cameras book, One Camera Long Beach.

Chick-fil-A Towne Center, Long Beach

John Howard of the Chick-fil-A Towne Center Long Beach was present that crisp sunny day in September at the Shoreline Village photo session when the historic picture of the Legends was taken.

International Realty & Investments

The project also includes oral history, new photo/video capture and recently discovered images and artifacts that will also be included in a series of television programs on LBTV, the Television Station owned and operated by the City of Long Beach.


City of Long Beach

Long Beach dignitaries will attend and participate in The Grand Opening. Southern California Media organizations will be invited to a Press Conference at 2:00 p.m. in the Loraine & Earl Burns Miller Special Collections Room of the Long Beach Public Library.

Long Beach Public Library, Main Branch
The Long Beach Public Library will host the event in its Atrium Center & Theater off of City Hall Public Plaza, 101 Pacific Ave., Long Beach, California. There will a VIP Reception in the Atrium Garden prior to the program and the screening of a film and online resources.


Long Beach City College
Long Beach Unified 
School District

Long Beach City College (LBCC) and Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) will play equally significant roles in as education partners in advertising the event to their respective constituents. Both have student bodies and faculty to which they will provide electronic announcements on their Internet and broadcast communication systems. Both LBCC and LBUSD can lay claim to several Legends, who either taught, served as officials or attended both LBCC and LBUSD

Los Angeles County 
Sheriff's Department
Los Angeles Sheriff's Department in collaboration with the Long Beach Unified School District will participate in a mini-exhibit and event at Jordan High School, where student government officers will also be present to participate in a seminar involving one of the Legends who was an official of the school.

This event commemorates the historical relationship between Long Beach Unified School District and Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.

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~Thank You~

Breaking Through Lighting the Way

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