Timeline

1945

December 16th, 1945

Black Family Killed in Southern California House Fire after Refusing to Move from White Neighborhood

On December 16, 1945, the Fontana, California, home of the Short family erupted in flames, killing Helen Short and her two children, Barry, 9, and Carol Ann, 7. O’day H. Short, husband and father of the family, survived the explosion and was kept in critical condition at a nearby hospital. Until their deaths, the Shorts were the first and only black family living in the neighborhood.

Initially organized as a collection of chicken farms and citrus groves in the early twentieth century, by the early 1940s the small San Bernardino County town of Fontana was transformed into an industrial center with the opening of a wartime steel mill. As the community population grew in numbers and diversity, strict segregation lines emerged: black families moving out of the overcrowded Los Angeles area were relegated to living in the rocky plains of “North Fontana,” and working in the dirtiest departments of the mill. Ku Klux Klan activity also surged throughout Southern California during this time period, with white supremacists poised to terrorize black and Chicano veterans of WWII returning with militant ideas of racial equality.

This was reality in fall 1945, when O’day H. Short – a Mississippi native and Los Angeles civil rights activist – purchased a tract of land “in town” with intentions of moving his family to Fontana’s white section. As the Shorts built their modest home and prepared to live in it full time, local forces of all kinds tried to stop them. In early December 1945, “vigilantes” visited Mr. Short and ordered him to move or risk harm to his family; he refused and reported the threats to the FBI and local sheriff. Sheriff’s deputies did not offer protection and instead reiterated the warning that Short should leave before his family was harmed. Shortly after, members of the Fontana Chamber of Commerce visited the home, encouraging Mr. Short to move to the North Fontana area, and offering to buy his home. He refused.

Just days later, an explosion “of unusual intensity” destroyed the home, killing Mr. Short’s wife and children. He survived for two weeks, shielded from the knowledge of the other deaths, but died in January 1946 after the local D.A. bluntly informed him of his family’s fate during an investigative interview.

Local officials initially concluded that the fire was an accident, caused by Mr. Short’s own lighting of an outdoor lamp. After surviving family members, the black press, and the Los Angeles NAACP protested, a formal inquest was held, at which an independent arson investigator obtained by the NAACP testified that the fire had clearly been intentionally set. Despite this testimony, and evidence of the harassment the Short family had endured in the weeks leading to the fire, local officials again concluded it an accident and closed the case. No criminal investigation was ever opened, no arrests or prosecutions were made, and residential segregation persisted in Fontana for over 25 more years.

1862

December 16th, 1862

Dakota Men Hanged in the One of the Largest Mass Executions in United States History

On December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged on a giant scaffolding in Mankato, Minnesota. President Abraham Lincoln ordered the executions following the Dakota War of 1862, a six-week Dakota uprising against white settlers after the United States broke its promise to deliver food and supplies to local tribes in exchange for surrender of tribal land. Commenting on the starving Native Americans, a white trader named Andrew Myrick said, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.”

Following the uprising, 2000 Dakota were captured and several hundred were sentenced to death. President Lincoln pardoned all but 38 men. An onlooker wrote about the execution in the St. Paul Pioneer:

“They still kept up a mournful wall, and occasionally there would be a piercing scream. The ropes were soon arranged around their necks, not the least resistance being offered…. Then ensued a scene that can hardly be described, and which can never be forgotten. All joined in shouting and singing, as it appeared to those who were ignorant of the language. The tones seemed somewhat discordant, and yet there was harmony in it….

The most touching scene on the drop was their attempts to grasp each other’s hands, fettered as they were. They were very close together, as many succeeded. Three or four in a row were hand in hand, and all hands swaying up and down with the rise and fall of their voices…We were informed by those who understood the language that their singing and shouting was only to sustain each other; that there was nothing defiant in their last moments, and that no ‘death-song,’ strictly speaking, was shouted on the gallows. Each one shouted his own name, and called on the name of his friend, saying, in substance, ‘I’m here! I’m here!’”