Defiant Love: California couples reflect on when interracial marriage was outside the law

INTERRACIAL: Court struck down marriage ban in '48

05/30/2009 6:03 PM

05/31/2009 12:32 AM

OAKLAND -- It was the kind of kiss that could change the world.

More than 60 years later, sitting on a couch in her Hercules home, her eyes still sparkle when she thinks about it.

"With that kiss, we both knew, 'Oh, boy, this is big.' I knew that my whole life was going to change because I knew I was in love with him." Jeanne Tobey was white. Bill Lowe was black. Getting married was illegal.

So in May 1948, the couple defied California's ban on interracial marriage by leaving the state. Boarding a train at the West Oakland station, they headed north through Oregon and across the Columbia River to Vancouver, Wash., where a friend had helped arrange a visit to the county clerk's office.

They avoided the stares.

"The justice of the peace was just as nice as he could be," said Jeanne Lowe, who turned 80 this year. "He didn't say a word." Apart from a shared passion for social-justice causes, there was little that set apart the Lowes from other young couples of their generation.

They met at a club gathering in Oakland's Redwood Regional Park in 1947 and became fast friends. Bill Lowe, who had served as a submarine repairman during World War II, would pick up his new girlfriend for dates in his 1937 Chevy coupe.

He grew up as a foster child in a predominantly black neighborhood of South Berkeley. She grew up on an all-white street in East Oakland. Her parents and grandparents were devoted to communist and progressive causes, including racial equality, but were still stunned to learn that Jeanne Tobey's sweetheart was a black man. "My parents didn't consider themselves prejudiced, but they had an only child who was stepping into the unknown," she said.

The first time Bill Lowe proposed, Jeanne Tobey declined. Two weekends later, while alone and cleaning her family's house, she broke down in tears. She had changed her mind.

Mixed marriages had been banned in California for almost as long as it was a state, so the couple could not have expected that before the year was over, a landmark court ruling would have allowed them to marry in Oakland. Washington, at the time, was the closest place to go.

And unlike many other states, California would not prosecute the returning newlyweds under anti-miscegenation laws that governed what race could mix with another -- just as long as they got married someplace else.

At a wedding celebration back home, Bill's family, who hosted, was welcoming. Hers was polite. Their gifts were those of modest households living in a difficult time: an alarm clock and handmade ashtrays, a blanket from her parents, a used toaster.

In October 1948, six months after the Lowes obtained their Washington marriage license, the California Supreme Court in a divisive 4-3 ruling became the first in the 20th century to strike down a state ban on interracial marriage.

Los Angeles couple Andrea Perez and Sylvester Davis had filed the lawsuit. They were devout Catholics who met on a workplace assembly line. Davis was black and Perez, from a Spanish-speaking family of Mexican descent, was regarded by state law as white. The county clerk refused to give them a marriage license when they went to pick one up in 1947.

What happened next, in some ways, was a fluke, say scholars who have studied the decision. The couple stumbled into the hands of an acquaintance, lawyer Dan Marshall, who vigorously sued Los Angeles County, first casting the claim as one based on freedom of religion because the Catholic Church supported their desire to marry.

And Marshall, in turn, stumbled into the hands of Roger Traynor, a Supreme Court judge whose majority opinion in the case went beyond arguments for religious freedom. He discredited the old eugenic tracts underlying the state's rigid race classifications, rejected long-held claims that the mixing of races was bad for the public welfare and declared "the right to marry (was) as fundamental as the right to send one's child to a particular school or the right to have offspring." Prejudice, he wrote, could not be used to infringe on such an important right.

"He was willing to change the law in response to social conditions," said Rachel Moran, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "California was becoming the great state, the powerhouse it would become after World War II. The need to be responsive to change was really considerable."

The opinion was stunning, scholars said. And once it was over, the newlywed couple forever disappeared from public light.

The opinion did pave the way for longtime unions like that of Rosina and Leon Watson, who in 1950, after a long courtship, were married in the Fruitvale district of Oakland at St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church.

"I remember them coming out of the church," said Jeanne Lowe, who befriended the Watsons and a few other interracial couples through the left-wing political group American Youth for Democracy. "They were so happy."

On a recent afternoon, Leon, 81, was listening to a zydeco CD in their cozy East Oakland bungalow while Rosina, 80, knitted. They have lived in the same house since 1959, raising three children there.

"He was tall, for one," said Rosina Watson, recalling what attracted her to her husband. "The boyfriend I had before was short. And he was a good dancer, and I liked to dance."

Growing up in a Spanish-speaking family that had lived in New Mexico for generations, Rosina Watson said her father initially was furious she was dating a black man from Mississippi. He later came to accept it, she said.

Memories of the Perez case were suddenly revived last May when the California Supreme Court overturned the state's same-sex marriage ban, using the Perez decision as a key precedent. Voters later overrode much of that decision with November's Proposition 8 by eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry.

The state's midcentury interracial marriage pioneers, including Jeanne Lowe and the Watsons, have been largely absent from the debate, though they do have opinions about it.

Leon Watson "couldn't care less" who marries whom, and, playfully conversing with his wife, wondered why the Catholic Church that went out on a limb to marry them couldn't marry same-sex couples.

Jeanne Lowe, who has three children, one of them a lesbian, said she feels adults have the right to marry whomever they choose.

Lowe said she was also moved by the election of President Barack Obama, who is younger than her three children but, like them, was born to a white woman and a black man at a time when such unions were less common -- and still banned in many states.

"My oldest daughter called at the time (his win) was announced. She couldn't speak," Jeanne Lowe said. "It was a feeling that this was my son. That's how it felt. " ... It was a feeling that can't be described."

She wished, she said, that her husband was alive to see it. "We worked so hard to create a community where we were accepted," she said, "where my children would be accepted."

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