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News 8 Throwback: San Diego icons honored during Black History Month

In this week’s News 8 Throwback we celebrate Black icons who served San Diego and the country in honor of Black History Month.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — Prominent black leaders, entertainers and athletes have made stops in San Diego over the years, including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964 and Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984.

Pro Boxer Archie Moore was the only man to fight both Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. He was nicknamed "The Mongoose" and was the longest reigning World Light Heavyweight Champion of all time from 1952  to 1962.

Moore's organization ABC, or Any Boy Can trained young boxers and made him a President Ronald Reagan Appointee. Moore's home along I-15 was known for its swimming pool shaped like a boxing glove, where he also taught kids how to swim and box.

Archie Moore starred in movies like 1960's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and was given the key to the City of San Diego in 1965.

For over 34 years, award-winning classical pianist Cecil Lytle was a UC San Diego Provost and Professor of Music and even kept a piano in his office.

Judge Earl B. Gilliam, City Councilman Leon Williams, and City Councilman George Stevens were San Diegans who made an impact on our community and the Tuskegee Airmen were World War II fighter pilots who took down more than 400 German aircraft. We honor them in this week’s News 8 Throwback.

Judge Earl B. Gilliam

Earl B. Gilliam was the first African American to be appointed judge in San Diego county. He was 32 years old and a former deputy district attorney. We have film from the day he was sworn in, January 31, 1964. His wife and two sons, Kenneth and Derrick were there for the swearing in ceremony. Court clerk John Peterson administered the oath. Gilliam was a San Diego High School graduate, a San Diego State College grad, and he received his law degree from the University of California, Hastings. He served as a criminal investigator for the district attorney's office and was a deputy DA for over three years. Gilliam was appointed to the bench by Governor Edmund Brown. 

In February 1994, News 8’s Maria Velasquez profiled Gilliam when he was recuperating from heart surgery at the age of 62. He was one of 11 federal judges serving the U.S. Southern District Court. Once a month, the Earl. B. Gilliam Bar Association meets. It's named in honor of a man, who many say, has led the way for other aspiring African American attorneys. 

Former San Diego City Councilman and now attorney in private practice, Wes Pratt, also sees him today as a role model. 

"If I can maintain my composure, maintain the degree of integrity that Judge Gilliam possesses and at the same time smile and laugh at some of the things that go on in the world, it makes it all a human existence," Pratt said. 

Gilliam went on to accomplish some major firsts in San Diego. In 1963 he became the first African American Municipal Court Judge. In 1975, another first to the County Superior Court and in 1980 Federal Court. "He said just being there and being able to provide a different perspective and bring his life's experiences to the administration of justice made a lot of difference," said Randy Jones, U.S. Asst. Attorney. 

Many in the 18-year-old bar association recognize Gilliam as a true mentor, never forgetting what it was like to start at the bottom. "He was always available for students. They would call him, and he would pick up the phone and respond to them personally. You don't get that from many people in that type of position of power," said Janice Brown, Pres. Gilliam Bar Association. 

Rulette Armstead was not only the first black assistant chief of the San Diego Police Department but the first woman too.

The North Carolina native graduated from Lincoln High School and San Diego State with her Master's before starting as a beat cop and rising through the ranks as a patrol officer, sergeant, lieutenant and police captain.

Armstead says she "worked around the clock, first watch, second watch and third watch…so it was difficult in the sense that I had to juggle my job and my family. I really would like for people to characterize me as an Assistant Chief first, who just happens to be Black."

In 1992, Armstead  was the highest ranking black woman in law enforcement in California. Retiring after 31 years, she became a professor and mentor until her death in 2020.

Leon Williams, San Diego City Councilman, Board of Supervisors

For Black History Month in 1994, News 8's Graham Ledger interviewed long-time civic leader Leon Williams who was planning to retire after 25 years of public service. Leon was the first African American appointed to the San Diego City Council where he served three terms. He went on to serve another three terms on the San Diego Board of Supervisors. Leon spoke to News 8 about his approach to leadership and involving members of the community. 

News 8’s Jesse Macias spoke with Williams in 1982. Leon Williams gathered with friends and supporters just prior to announcing his candidacy for 4th Supervisorial District seat. The 13-year veteran of the city council said if elected, he was going to be tough on criminals. 

"Rapists, murderers, robbers, muggers, have to be in jail and I believe though that part of the problem we have is that we crowd the jails with petty offenders. I think that petty offenders should be put in honor camps, work camps, or find some other method of dealing with them besides putting them in jail," said Williams. 

He supported county job training programs and said everyone should be able to support themselves and that they could achieve that with job training. Then, the current 4th District Supervisor, Jim Bates, was on hand to lend support to Williams. He won the election and was the first Black person on the County Board of Supervisors. 

In October 2017, the San Diego City Council honored 95-year-old Williams. Councilman Chris Ward applauded him for working to bring diverse communities together. 

Days later, the 3000 block of E Street in Golden Hill was given the honorary name of Leon Williams Drive. He was on hand to see the sign go up. A wonderful way to pay tribute to a man who devoted much of his life to public service. 

Reverend George Stevens, San Diego City Councilman, District 4, 1991-2002

George Stevens was born in Junction City, Louisiana in 1932 and moved to El Centro with his family when he was 13 years old. He moved to San Diego in the 1950s and became an associate pastor at Mount Erie Baptist Church. A civil rights activist, he participated in demonstrations against discriminatory hiring practices in the 1960s. He ran for city council twice before being elected in 1991. When he was campaigning, he pledged to get rid of the term “Southeast San Diego,” the district he represented. 

It was only a name, but he didn’t like the negative images it conveyed. He wanted neighborhoods within the district to be recognized. News 8’s Doug McAllister checked in with Stevens on June 19, 1994, the day before a funeral was to be held for Southeast San Diego. Harold Moore, a Skyline resident, supported the move. He said the connotation was negative. "We have neighborhoods -- Skyline, Emerald Hills, Webster, Oak Park," said Stevens. 

His goal was to bring business to the area and he wanted more single-family homes built and no more apartments. Lena Clark of Bayview Heights didn't think it would change anything because it was just a name. Marc L. Randolph of the Southeast Economic Development Corporation said several bank presidents and corporate investors were interested in investing in the community. They had no intention of changing their corporation's name.

"On this 20th day of June, we have gathered to lay to rest Southeast," is how Reverend Robert Ard started his sermon. It was a funeral unlike any other. No tears were shed and positive messages of hope were delivered. 

Reverend Thomas Smith said, "we can have a community that's identified by quality, by integrity, by brotherly love if we dare embrace the quality of what Dr. King represented in the past, then let's start becoming good stewards over the present and the future." The congregation applauded. 

Southeast's casket was carried out of church and into a hearse. Before this, San Diegans may not have been familiar with the neighborhoods in this area. Now, the community names are familiar and we have George Stevens to thank for that. He served our community for 12 years as a 4th district councilman. He passed away in October 2006 at the age of 74. City Councilwoman Toni Atkins called him passionate and driven and Mayor Jerry Sanders said he brought a lot of change and he would be sorely missed as a community leader. 

San Diego chapter of Tuskegee Airmen speak with News 8

During Black History Month in 1996, News 8 featured a local veteran’s group that wanted to share their stories of African Americans in the military. Black fighter pilots that took down more than 400 German aircraft during World War II would famously be known as the Tuskegee Airmen. News 8 reporter Maria Velasquez interviewed George Mitchell, a radio communication instructor at the Tuskegee Army air base. Mitchell shared pictures and memories from his time serving in the military. One of his students Louis Murray, a fighter and bomber pilot, also spoke about the lack of jobs for Black pilots following the war. Another veteran, Nelson Robinson, shared his memories of being segregated within the military and the discrimination the pilots endured. 

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