[Editor’s note: This story has been updated.]
Gladys Miles has stories to tell. Ninety-three years of them.
As part of a new “Meet Your Neighbor” series instituted by Mayor Victor Gordo, longtime Pasadena resident Miles, 93, shared a smattering of her fascinating stories Sunday afternoon while sitting on the wide porch of Gordo’s Madison Avenue home, just a short distance from the Claremont Street address where she grew up and raised a family.
More than 50 friends, family members and neighbors sat quietly enraptured by her tales of Pasadena life.
Born to parents who migrated west from South Carolina, she was one of eight girls and two boys born in a little home at 53 W. Claremont.
The family eventually moved to a new home at 41 W. Claremont St. She attended what was then Washington Junior High, until the 10th grade, and was proud of her membership in the local chapter of the YWCA Girl Reserves.
‘When a Girl Reserve walks down the street,” said Gladys, reciting from a razor-sharp memory, “she was 100 percent from her head to her feet! When you see her, you look at her and say, ‘It’s good to be a Girl Reserve!’”
“We made most of our own toys,” she recalled. “We took skates and made skateboards, and we took apricot pits and made jacks, thought we were lucky if we found a ball!”
“We just had lots of fun,” she said.
Young Gladys loved her school experience, from the first day of Kindergarten on.
“It was a great school. We learned so much,” she said. “There were train rides to museums in Los Angeles, to Olvera Street, to Chinatown, to the beach and back. We went everywhere.”
As idyllic as she said much of her young life was, she was aware that there was prejudice and racism in it, and in her own neighborhood.
“We were the second family to move in here, and we weren’t able to participate in a lot of things because of the color of our skin. That was just the way it was,” she recalled.
She credited her faith with getting through those times, and when nudged ever so gently, she rose deftly out of her big chair on the Mayor’s porch and performed her “Praise Dance,” familiar, she said, to her church brethren.
For four minutes, her audience sat silently and enthralled, as she moved through her dance with the grace of a woman many decades younger.
Returning to her storytelling, Gladys said, “At the time, we didn’t think much about [racism], because that was just the way things were. We had our own friends, so it really didn’t matter that much.”
When prom night came, Gladys and her friends simply stood outside the hall and watched the young couples come and go.
“We didn’t really feel too bad,” she said, candidly, “because things were [just] like that.”
At Brookside Park, swimming was only available one day a week. It was called “International Day.”
‘They cleared the pool out for whites to go in afterwards,” said Gladys.
Until one day, she remembered.
A group of friends, unable to attend the pool, instead hiked north up to the Devil’s Gate Dam area. Her friend, Jack Dupree, was standing on a rock near the water. A car crossed the bridge, and its vibration shook the rock, said Gladys, causing Jack to topple off..
‘He broke his neck and he died,” said Gladys, sadly. “And after that, they opened up the pool to everyone.”
According to a historical account, six African American men, with the support of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP, filed a lawsuit against the Pasadena Board of City Directors, the city manager and the superintendent of Pasadena parks.
They were tax-paying Pasadena property owners who therefore had helped fund the construction and maintenance of the plunge, and should have had the right to use it on the same days as white residents, said the account.
On Jan. 3, 1940, the court ruled in favor of the City of Pasadena. The NAACP immediately appealed and won the case, after which the city petitioned the California Supreme Court. The court denied the petition, opening the pool to all.
Gladys’s father worked as a “houseman” six days a week for a family in San Marino. It was the advice of her father’s employer that later inspired Gladys to invest in purchasing a number of homes in Pasadena.
“He would say, ‘You don’t want to have a bunch of receipts in a drawer, and nothing to show for them.’” Gladys told her audience.
Gladys bought a nearby house on Jackson Street for $5500. “The down payment was $75.”
“I borrowed $50 from friends,” she said, “and then another $25 from one family, and another $25 from another family.”
After marrying Ray, she told him she wanted a house with a porch.
‘I was pregnant at the time,” she said, and I told my husband, the house better have a long porch, or this baby is going to be born with a long head!” she laughed.
And friends would help each other build houses, she remembered.
“Construction workers would bring cement at the end of their jobs,” she said. “And lumber and bricks and plumbing from demolished properties. We built a garage and it didn’t cost us a penny!”
Over the years, the couple bought a number of properties, and Gladys filled them with working gardens, planting a host of different vegetables each season, which she still does.
“My Dad always planted a new garden every Good Friday, and I’ve tried to do the same,” she said.
Though Gladys Miles has seen a world of changes from her porch through the 20th and 21st centuries, her view of the world has remained constant.
“I just want to see peace and harmony,” she said. “Be more neighborly,” she gently urged her audience. “Be nicer. Love one another.”
Wise words for any age.