Dorothy Adams dies; broke race restriction on homeowners in S.F.

In memory of the woman who "had to break into their own home in defiance of neighborhood restrictions against black homeowners."

By Nanette Asimov
http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Dorothy-Adams-dies-broke-race-restric...

The year was 1959. Like many young families, Dorothy Mae Provost Adams, a saleswoman at Macy’s in downtown San Francisco, and her husband, Artemus Adams, a San Francisco police officer, dreamed of owning a home with a yard — perfect for their two little kids.

Unlike most families, they had to do their house hunting at night.

Their story is being remembered this week after the death of Dorothy Adams at age 85. She and her husband had to break into their own home in defiance of neighborhood restrictions against black homeowners. The U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled such restrictions unenforceable. But some neighborhoods — and neighbors — still held them dear.

The Adamses had their eye on Westwood Park, a neighborhood of bungalows just west of City College of San Francisco on the south side of town. Like communities across the country, Westwood Park had racist restrictions: “No person of African, Japanese, Chinese or any Mongolian descent shall be allowed to purchase, own or lease any real property in said Westwood Park,” said Article XIII of the neighborhood’s declaration of Covenants, Codes and Restrictions — the document given by title companies to all prospective homeowners. Westwood Park’s was written in 1920.

The rules sounded pretty definite. But the Adamses were more definite about wanting to live in Westwood Park.

Never timid, Dorothy Adams had already broken one color barrier when she became the first African American to manage the concession stand at the Uptown Theater at 2101 Sutter St. in San Francisco years earlier. She also modeled for Macy’s, the San Francisco Jewish Center and Our World Magazine. She danced tap, adored jazz — and married one of San Francisco’s first black police officers.

They went house hunting

So she and Art Adams found a real estate agent and went house hunting.

“Dark. Dreary,” was how Mrs. Adams described the house they visited on Plymouth Avenue one day after the sun went down. Then the real estate agent showed her a photo of a home bathed in sunlight, and she said, “I like this house!”

“We laughed at that,” Art Adams recalled. He and the agent told her, “Dorothy, you just left that place!”

Though Art Adams was a police officer, the couple couldn’t get a loan. “But the agent had places where he could get them,” Adams said. Then they paid $800 to an unnamed person who bought the property on their behalf.

But when the seller realized she had sold her house to a black family, she wouldn’t give up the key. For six months, the couple continued to pay rent on their Waller Street flat while paying mortgage on a house they couldn’t move in to. Adams contacted the seller and asked not only for the key, but to be reimbursed for the extra rent they were forced to pay.

“Put yourself in my position,” he told her. “Do you think this is fair?”

The seller was unmoved. So the Adamses talked to a lawyer and came up with a plan.

The next night in Westwood Park, the couple and three friends approached the darkened house on Plymouth Avenue. The doors were locked. Using a tire iron, Art Adams jimmied the side door.

They opened it wide, and for the first time the Adamses stepped into their own home. The first black family in the neighborhood broke the color barrier by breaking into their home.

“It kind of hurts to think about it,” Mrs. Adams remembered years later. She celebrated that first night by cleaning the bathroom.

On the second night, the doorbell rang. It was their neighbor.

A warm welcome

“I’m here to welcome you to the neighborhood,” the woman said. “I live next door.”

Another visitor showed up a couple days later. It was a deputy sheriff with a check for six months of rent on their old flat. The seller had been subpoenaed and had to pay up.

Art Adams served three terms on the neighborhood association board, and Dorothy Adams inaugurated a five-family dinner party in the neighborhood every two months for more than four decades.

“When some neighbors were not successful in forcing my family out, they attempted to buy them out,” said their niece, Sandra Everhart of Oakland. “Because of Aunt Dorothy's and Uncle Art's persistence, resistance and determination that 'they shall not be moved,’ all efforts on the part of (some neighbors) to keep the area segregated failed.”

Racist restrictions remain on the books of many San Francisco neighborhoods to this day, despite the 1948 Supreme Court ruling, Shelly v. Kraemer, declaring them unenforceable. Most famously, baseball great Willie Mays was prevented from buying a house in San Francisco’s tony St. Francis Woods neighborhood after his team, the Giants, arrived in the city from New York in 1958.

But homeowners will no longer find those restrictions in Westwood Park’s residential documents.

In 1992, a Chinese American resident of Westwood Park, Norman Yee, spoke up at a community meeting and said he was angry that the restrictions were on the title documents he was given when his family bought a home there a few years earlier. He asked if that could be changed.

“There was resistance, especially with the older folks,” said Yee, now a city supervisor. “They didn’t want to change it. They made up excuses.”

But another neighbor, Stephen Theoharis, a lawyer, said he would do some research free of charge.

“The goal was to get it off the books entirely,” he said. “Unfortunately, you can’t expunge the records. So we did a work-around.”

Language eliminated

He and Yee rewrote the residential documents and eliminated the offensive language, then refiled the papers with the city assessor. Other neighborhood associations contacted by Theoharis’ wife, Anita, who would later join the city’s Planning Commission, declined to join them, Theoharis said.

On Tuesday, Theoharis and Yee learned that one of the neighborhood’s pioneers, Dorothy Adams, had died Jan. 3.

“They were a wonderful couple,” Theoharis said. “It’s hard to believe there was a time when this neighborhood wouldn’t want them.”

The Adamses, married 62 years, lived in their Plymouth Avenue home until December. Within weeks of the couple’s move to a senior residence in San Mateo County, Mrs. Adams died.

Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: nasimov@sfchronicle.com

In addition to her husband, Artemus, Dorothy Adams is survived by son Artemus “Artie” Howard Adams, daughter-in-law Petra, and grandsons Anthony and Jason of South Carolina. Her daughter, Kim Michelle Adams, died in 2010.

Services will be held for Dorothy Provost Adams at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Emydius Church, 286 Ashton Ave. San Francisco.