Northside Neighborhood Association (NNA) board member Joyce Ellington has seen it all. She is the last link on NNA's current board to the founding of NNA 36 years ago and is, according to local historian Harriett Arnold, "a quiet, introspective woman who has kept a vigil in the community."
Ellington and her husband, Bob, are natives of the Northside, both having been raised here. They own their home on N. 11th St. and have raised five children there.
Joyce was born Beatrice Joyce Jordan on August 17, 1930 in San Francisco to 21-year-old Bernice Jordan. "Then we moved down here while I was still a baby," says Ellington, whose her maternal grandparents helped raise her while her mother worked. "I never knew my father," she says, and her mother never offered any information about him. Ellington had an aunt who was also named Beatrice, so she went by Joyce. Some of the family even nicknamed her, "Juicy."
Joyce was raised at 468 N. 11th St., the same house where her mother was born in 1909 and where Ellington still lives today. Built by Joyce's grandfather, John W. Jordan in 1908, it is the oldest home with continuing African-American inhabitants in San Jose and is one of 10 sites on the "African-American Self Guided Walking Tour of Selected Locations in San Jose," along with several historically Black churches, the Martin Luther King Library and Empire Library. (The latter was selected for the tour, even before recently being renamed in her honor, because of Ellington's "love of the library" and her tenacity in bringing and keeping "a library in the community of her ancestors.")
Joyce's grandfather, John W. Jordan emigrated to California from Carlyle, Pennsylvania, in the late 1800s. In San Francisco he met his wife, Rosalind, Joyce's grandmother, who was an orphan from New Orleans, living with her aunt. The couple had a son with asthma and were forced to move from the City by the Bay to escape its cold climate. John and Rosalind Jordan chose San Jose, which had the closest substantial Black community, says Joyce. They took up residence on N. 6th St., within the Northside neighborhood. At the time, less than one percent of San Jose's population was of African-American descent and virtually all lived north of Santa Clara St.
In 1893, John W. Jordan, became one of the founding members of the Antioch Baptist Church, San Jose's first Black Baptist Church, which met in the home of Rev. Magette until by the following year a church structure was built at N. 6th and Julian Sts, where it remains today, although not in the original building. John was a trustee and deacon of the church and Rosalind a Sunday School teacher.
The Jordan's three-bedroom home on N. 11th St. was built in 1908 for four thousand dollars, including the land. The house was the first on the east side of the street, which remained unpaved well into Joyce's childhood. "I can remember, as little kids we used to sit and throw clods of dirt at passing cars," Ellington says. "Later, after they paved it, we would play stickball in the street. We'd use the manhole cover as home plate."
The Jordans had eight children. John supported them by working as a waiter at the old Vendome Hotel on N. 1st St., one of the finest in San Jose. He eventually went to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad Co., from which he retired shortly before his death in 1936. The Southern Pacific depot was located on Bassett St. His wife worked part-time at the depot and sometimes sold sandwiches and magazines there. As her family grew, she worked as an alterations lady for a fine ladies' clothing store. She had learned sewing and tailoring from the San Francisco aunt who raised her.
The Jordans' oldest son, Joyce's uncle Harold, worked as a foreman for the T.M. Wright printing plant and was the first Black admitted to the printer's union. His daughter, Joyce's cousin Rosalind Taylor, was among the founders of the neighborhood association and the one who dragged Joyce to the first meetings in 1965. "I was kind of wary at first," Ellington recalls. "When I start something, I tend to get really involved." Little did Ellington realize she'd still be involved 36 years later.
Uncle Harold Jordan built the house next-door to Joyce's, 462 N. 11th St., in the 1920s. It, too, is still standing.
Joyce's mother, Bernice, and her twin sister, were born in the front room of the house at 468 N. 11 th St., in April 1909. "In those days, children were born at home," says Joyce. "And they had a midwife, and the doctor would be called in simply to sign the birth certificate." Well, years later my mother was going out of the country and she needed to show her birth certificate to get a passport, and what do you know it just said "Baby one and baby two." Also, according to family lore, because the babies were so fair, the doctor put them down as white. "It took quite some doing to get it changed," Joyce sighs.
The girls attended Grant School less than a block away (where the library is today.) When she grew up, Bernice worked for a time for "Chief Black," a white man who had a restaurant known as "The Plantation," in the W. San Carlos/Alameda area, and employed "a whole lot of Negro girls as waitresses," says Joyce. Later Ellington's mother worked as a clerk for the Golden State Mutual Insurance Co., a black firm, and then in the late 1940s got a job as a clerk for a lawyer with the State of California in the agency condemning property for the state's newly developing highways. "She commuted every day to San Francisco," Joyce recalls.
Joyce and her two younger sisters Bernice and Cheryl, like their mother before them, attended Grant School. A brother, Edward, passed away as an infant. Cheryl is now a nurse in Berkeley. Bernice is developmentally disabled and lives in a board and care home in San Jose. Joyce and her husband are her guardians.
Joyce recalls Grant School during her time in the late 1930s as being happily integrated. "Everybody got along," she says. "We went to school with doctor's kids and all those big shots' kids, too. I didn't really have any black friends until I got to high school. Most of my girlfriends were Italian or Japanese or Mexican - but they would call themselves Spanish."
"I always had mixed friends," says Joyce. "It seems like I always ran in threes. I had an Italian girlfriend and a white girlfriend." Her husband Bob experienced the same thing, she says. His best friends were Dom Zoccoli, an Italian, and Shigao Hioki, a Japanese-American boy who lived on 19th St. and sold papers with Bob. Zoccoli has passed away, but Bob still keeps in touch with Hioki.
"When we were young," Joyce explains, "everybody knew everybody in the neighborhood. So as a kid, you were really well-protected in the neighborhood." If anyone did something wrong, they knew someone would alert the parents or the grandparents. "It was always a safe community because you knew people all over the place. We're trying to maintain that same sense of community," Joyce says of the neighborhood association. "I still know practically everyone on my street. And every place Bob and I go we run into someone who lives here or used to be from the neighborhood."
As a teenager, Joyce worked at the Tri-Valley Cannery at Tenth and Taylor Sts. "That was the way we earned money back then," she says. "There were't any fast food places." Then, as a young adult, "I went down to Hart's [department store] at Market and Santa Clara, to their personnel office and they didn't blink an eye," Joyce says, somewhat surprised at the absence of discrimination. "I ended up in the basement in housewares, but I was out there on the floor and no one ever gave me a bad time."
A teacher at San Jose High took a liking to Joyce and urged her to go to college. "But there was no way I was going to college," Joyce says. Her family simply could not afford it. Joyce later attended night school as an adult, but is even today several credits from an AA degree.
Joyce's husband Bob Ellington also grew up in the Northside and also attended Grant School, but not at the same time as Joyce. Bob, born in 1923, was seven years older than her and lived at 325 N. 20th St. (the house has since been torn down and replaced) after having been born at 491 N. 4th St., next-door to where Kelly's Grocery Store is and was. "Of course, I knew him all our lives, but when he came back from the war in '45 is when we met," says Joyce. Bob, nephew of famed jazz musician Duke Ellington, had been with a segregated bridge demolition unit in Europe during the second world war. When he returned at age 22, Joyce was still only 15 and "too young to go out," she says. "But since the family knew Bob, I could go to the show with him once and awhile. I just had to come home on time."
Joyce and Bob also went dancing. "They had the big bands come through," Joyce recalls. "They were dances, not concerts. They let you dance." The couple were married more than a half-century ago, on February 26, 1950 at the Antioch Baptist Church on Julian and N. 6th Sts. The reception was held in the N. 11th St. home where they live today.
Joyce and Bob had five children, four boys and a girl: David (born in 1954), Daniel (1956), Derek (1961), Deborah (1963) and Douglas (1966). Daniel was killed in a car accident in 1978. (A painting of Grant School hangs in Empire (now Ellington) Library, dedicated to his memory.) The oldest boy, David, is married but has no kids and teaches special education classes in San Leandro. The youngest, Douglas, is unmarried but "shacking up," says Joyce. The other two Derek, who lives in Hayward, and Deborah, who lives Los Banos, each are married with children. Derek has two boys, Eugene (12) and Christian (9), who Joyce was babysitting at the time of the interview for this oral history. Deborah has three children, Kimberly (11), Daniel (9) and Robert (6). Altogether, Joyce has five grandchildren, four boys and a girl, the same number and composition as she had children, she remarks.
All of Joyce's children attended Grant School. Shortly after her firstborn became of school age in the late 1950s, Joyce joined the Grant School PTA and in short order became its president. Joyce, an accomplished seamstress like her mother and great-aunt, was put in charge of the annual fashion show. Joyce was also a cub scout den mother and her scrapbook contains numerous scouting commendations. "I got those every year," says Joyce, dismissive of their significance.
Grant School's PTA was a fertile breeding ground for neighborhood activists. "That's where I met a lot of the women who became active in the Northside" neighborhood association, Ellington says. She came to know Florence Menteer, another Northside activist, through the PTA, as well as Euphemia Nutter.
Over time, "Florence, Euphemia and I became friends," Joyce recalls. "There's the threesome again," she laughs. Indeed, Joyce, Florence and Euphemia were for more than two decades the holy trinity of the Northside Neighborhood Ass'n, the energetic core of the organization which kept it going while other groups came and went. "We used to ride our bicycles through the neighborhood to pick out the bad spots," says Joyce. "Then we used cars when we got too old to ride bikes." They preferred Joyce's station wagon, but it frequently stalled out. "I would always just pray it would get us where we wanted to go,"Joyce remembers.
The three Northside matrons exerted influence by bringing City officials out into the neighborhood to see the problems first hand. "We always invited the big shots out to us," says Ellington. "Then we invited them to one of our places for coffee. We talked to practically the whole City Hall that way."
One of the association's biggest accomplishments was securing a neighborhood library, and Ellington was a "driving force," according to a City of San Jose press release. In the early 1970s, Grant School was rebuilt and relocated to the other side of the block from Empire and N. 11th to Jackson and N. 10th Sts. "When they tore down that school, we said we got to protect that corner," Ellington recalls, fearing that it would be used for high-density housing. "We talked about making it into a park and I guess I'm the one who suggested a library be built there," Ellington told the San Jose Mercury News at Empire Library's groundbreaking.
"At the time, Norm Mineta was mayor and holding meetings in the neighborhoods. There was one at the Methodist Church," on N. 5th St., Ellington recalls. "It was left up to me to go and save the corner. So, I went and said, we need a library there. Norm was once of us in the beginning, so he listened to us," Ellington says. According to the News account from 1977, when the library was dedicated: "Mineta was an original member of the Northside Neighborhood Association. By the time the group decided a library was what they needed, Mineta was San Jose's mayor and giving them assistance from City Hall." Mineta subsequently served in Congress and helped obtain federal revenue sharing funds for the project. (He is now U.S. Secretary of Transportation.)
Northsiders also got assistance from their neighbors in the Olinder community. "The city and library officials at first wanted to put the replacement for the old Carnegie branch at 23rd and Santa Clara streets in the Olinder area," the News reported. "'But the Olinder people said that we needed one more than they did and they could still use their old library,'" Menteer was quoted as saying. "So, we got our library," Joyce says, matter-of-factly.
Ellington, who says she has "a deep love of literature and the arts," also spent seven years on the San Jose Library Commission, including being elected its chairperson in 1980, the first African-American to hold the position.
Ellington was "especially glowing," according to the contemporaneous News article, in anticipation of the 1977 dedication of Empire Library. "The northsider who as a girl wasn't close enough to a library to walk to it until she attended high school is moved to happy laughter when she explains the excitement of her youngest child, Douglas [eleven at the time]. 'He's going to Grant now, like I did,' she said, 'and he keeps running home to tell me the progress on HIS library.'" Soon, Douglas' library will bear his mother's name, a testament to Joyce's tireless efforts on behalf of all the children of the Northside.
Although Ellington has received countless commendations and has served selflessly on NNA's board over the years, thankfully, she's not done yet. Of NNA's holy trinity, Menteer passed away in 1996 and Nutter retired to Orange County a couple years later. Although she continues to keep in touch with Nutter by phone and lately also by email, Ellington is the only one left to carry the torch of neighborhood activism. In failing health, she doesn't get out as often as she used to, but she tries to remain active. Joyce hosts NNA board meetings in her house so she doesn't have to travel any further than her easy chair. She generally remains quiet during the meetings, but when she speaks there is a rapt silence, respectful of the fact that she is a veteran of neighborhood battles fought before many board members were born or long out of diapers.
In a "president's corner" message in the Spring 1984 edition of the Northside newsletter, Ellington wrote that she and her husband "remember with fondness our youth here on the Northside and the quality of life we enjoyed. Our commitment to that quality has kept us here."
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