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Remembering Horace McMillan, the Doctor Who Took on Big Banks and Real Estate Lobby Over Civil Rights
by Nick Welsh and Adri Davies | Published February 20, 2020
Horace McMillan was properly mystified. He’d just moved to Santa Barbara with his young wife and baby daughter, and they were looking to buy a house. In his early thirties, McMillan was educated and easygoing. He’d served nearly five years in the military. He was a doctor with all the privileges needed to practice in the local hospitals. Yet his agent was showing him nothing but dreck. “This is strange,” McMillan would recall. “All the beautiful homes up for sale and he’s showing me all these dumps.” McMillan asked the agent, “This is all you have?” The agent’s answer? “This is all we have.”
As it turns out, he was lying.
The year was 1953, two years before the bus boycotts of Birmingham, Alabama, helped trigger what would become the Civil Rights movement. And Horace McMillan was a black man.
For black people in Santa Barbara, buying or renting property anywhere outside of a few designated neighborhoods on the city’s lower Eastside was all but impossible. In some places — like Hope Ranch — deed restrictions specifically barred the sale of property to persons of “African, Japanese, Chinese, or Mongolian descent.” But in most places, such deed restrictions weren’t necessary. Everyone understood; it just wasn’t done. And at that time, that understanding was 100 percent legal.
Eventually, Horace McMillan and his wife, Jessie, would come to buy a house on the Mesa. The woman who sold it happened to be a white member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Two years later, the McMillans would need new digs. They were shown an exceptionally sweet property in Mission Canyon. The owner was in a hurry to sell and the price was right. But the owner refused to sell to black people. To get around this, the real estate agent and the McMillans availed themselves to the services of a white “nominee.” That’s someone who would buy properties on behalf of black purchasers who would otherwise be iced out of Santa Barbara’s real estate market. Many “nominees” charged $100 for their help. In the McMillans’ case, there was no fee.
Before Horace McMillan, Santa Barbara had never had a black doctor. Even now, nearly 20 years after his death, Santa Barbara has never had a doctor — black or white — remotely like Horace McMillan. That his name is not better known throughout the South Coast is further evidence that history is far too interesting to be entrusted to the care of historians — let alone white historians.
Dr. McMillan did not just get mad. He organized. He lobbied. He agitated. And he moved the needle. For more than 15 years, he assembled a mountain of research documenting how much housing and job discrimination took place in Santa Barbara. As chairman of the NAACP’s Housing and Labor Committee, McMillan sought to shatter Santa Barbara’s comfortable illusions that discrimination was a problem exclusive to the American South. He took his case to City Hall. He took it to the press. He took it to the churches. He took it to the medical establishment. He took it to the chief of police, and he took it to the most powerful man in Santa Barbara, News-Press owner and publisher Thomas Storke — and eventually he got all their attention.
But mostly, McMillan took it straight into the teeth of Santa Barbara’s then-powerful real estate lobby, relentlessly shaming them with facts and figures documenting the extent of discriminatory practices. “They really hated my guts,” McMillan would later say. The feeling was mutual. McMillan would call Santa Barbara’s real estate industry at that time “one of the most vicious in the United States,” adding, “In the South, at least you knew where you stood.”
McMillan also focused in on income inequality. In the middle of the 1960s, at a time when one-third of family households brought home $10,000 a year or more, one-eighth took home less than $3,000. That those households happened to be located in Santa Barbara’s black neighborhoods, he noted, was hardly coincidental. He and the NAACP targeted Bank of America, charging the financial giant had never hired a single black person. When McMillan was done, federal regulators were breathing down the necks of Santa Barbara bank managers. Stories started showing up in the News-Press. Eventually, the Bank of America started hiring black people reportedly.
Along the way, McMillan — who spent about 72 hours a week tending to his patients — also changed the culture of Santa Barbara’s medical establishment. Not only was he the first black doctor in town, but he eventually created the most ethnically diverse medical practice, boasting one Japanese, one Latino, one black — himself — and one white doctor. As such, they were the medical equivalent of the Mod Squad. Together, they would build a medical office building that still stands at the corner of Chapala and Arrellaga.
As a general practitioner, McMillan chafed at the restrictions imposed by Santa Barbara’s exploding population of medical specialists hoping to protect their turf. In response, McMillan formed a partnership with seven other doctors — all general practitioners — to start a new hospital in Goleta. By 1968, Goleta Valley Hospital would open its doors to patients. McMillan would later attempt to start an HMO in 1970. Economically, he was about 15 years ahead of his time, and that effort never got off the ground. But he had already made a lasting mark.
In the Heart of Texas
One of three kids, McMillan was born in Waco, Texas, in 1919, just a few months after bloody race riots erupted in numerous cities throughout the United States, leaving hundreds of black people dead and thousands maimed. The family would move to Dallas, where McMillan’s father sold insurance. His mother died when he was 7.
McMillan would later describe what a Jim Crow childhood looked and felt like. Although his father was college educated and owned his own home, McMillan noted, he could not vote. Instead, he lived “in constant fear of sadistic whites.” As a kid, McMillan grew up riding segregated public transportation in a neighborhood with no library and no playground. The movie theater was segregated with black people restricted to the fifth floor. They could go to the zoo only on special days and to the state fair only one day a year.
He wrote all this in an August 1967 letter to Santa Barbara’s police chief at the time, Jack Hawe. The ostensible topic was whether race riots might erupt during Santa Barbara’s annual Fiesta celebration. By then, the nonviolent civil disobedience espoused by Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was increasingly being challenged by more militant younger protestors whom McMillan dubbed “Patrick Carmichaels,” a mix on the names of Patrick Henry and Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael. In the letter, McMillan playfully warned, “I have often said ‘the young negro of America (the land of plenty) is the most dangerous non-feathered mammalian bi-ped on this earth.’”
Becoming DR. McMillan
That letter was written 25 years after McMillan first moved to Santa Barbara with his wife, Jessie, and daughter, Yvonne. Jessie and Horace first met at a mutual friend’s house in Dallas. He was in college, and she was in high school. He was smart, good-looking, and ambitious; she was smart, beautiful, and formidable. World War II was raging, and young couples tended to be in a hurry. Horace and Jessie were among them. He joined the Coast Guard, where he would earn the distinction of becoming the first black Pharmacist’s Mate in Coast Guard history. After a few months in Brooklyn, McMillan was dispatched to St. Louis with his young family, where they lived for five years. Baseball diamonds, he would tell reporters later, were segregated when they got there; they weren’t when the family left. Jessie engaged in a lunch counter sit-in as early as 1944 — about 20 years before such tactics became the staple of the Civil Rights movement. Worried for her safety, he urged her not to go. She ignored his advice.
After getting out of the Coast Guard, McMillan used the GI Bill to enroll at medical school in Tennessee, one with which his uncle — a doctor who owned a small sanitarium in Texas — was affiliated. Upon graduation, McMillan conducted his residency with a hospital in Sacramento. After completing that, the family explored settling down in a number of Southern California towns. Having been misinformed that Santa Barbara had 4,000 black people — the real number was closer to 1,800 — the McMillans decided to check out the central coast. The Medical Society was less than inviting. He was told he’d “meet with greater success” if he moved to Pasadena, where allegedly there were more black patients. “They didn’t want me here; that’s all it was,” McMillan recalled as part of an oral history taken in 1989. Undaunted, the McMillans moved to Santa Barbara in 1952 anyway. The same Medical Society that urged him to settle elsewhere gave him a warm welcome. McMillan opened an office on the 600 block of Milpas, strategically close to Santa Barbara’s black population. A year later, he moved to bigger digs on the 700 block.
Business was good. McMillan saw a mix of patients: black, Latino, and white. Many were poor. He took his time with patients, explaining things thoroughly. He had presence. One girl with a peanut stuck in her throat — now a 70-year-old woman — recalled being struck at the immediacy with which the peanut dislodged itself after he asked, “What seems to be the problem?” He had that effect on people in his care. If patients needed special treatment, McMillan bird-dogged the specialists. According to one press account, he saw as many as 30 patients a day, a number that borders on the impossible — even with today’s HMO requirements.
From the start, there were issues. At St. Francis Hospital, McMillan was given a statue of a black saint and told to keep it on his desk at all times. When he sought to admit patients there, he chafed at being asked what their race was. Black patients, he would discover, were segregated in private rooms. White patients, by contrast, would share rooms and wards. In his oral history, McMillan recounted he didn’t want to start “any form of resentment or resistance,” but he bristled nonetheless. He questioned the policy, pointing out to one administrator, “You let people who are not citizens in this hospital. You put them anywhere. You let Germans who we just got through fighting, and you let Mexicans who are not citizens, and yet you deny blacks.”
Although the policy eventually changed, he remained wary of St. Francis. When one of his staff nurses, a black woman, was forced to pay the premium rate for a private room when giving birth, he exploded in a letter written in 1969, “This style of exploitation smells to the heavens. The lowest economic group is forced to pay the most.” In addition, he blistered St. Francis for its discriminatory hiring practices. “The hospital has been prejudiced so long. A Negro would not dare apply for a job unless he is a newcomer to the community.”
Mostly, however, McMillan focused on issues of fair housing. Often, black people didn’t realize they were being denied housing based on their race, he stated, because landlords and Realtors rarely said as much. Typically, they were told the property in question had already been sold. But McMillan used the students of one of his patients — a UCSB sociology professor — to conduct endless surveys designed to plumb the extent of housing discrimination. In 1963, only 30 percent of those polled stated they’d rent or sell to black people; the rest said they would not. They also ran tests to substantiate their findings, sending in white would-be renters to apartments after black prospective tenants had been informed they’d just been rented.
In 1963, the state legislature passed what was called the Rumford Fair Housing Act, meaning Realtors could no longer legally refuse to sell based on race. In retaliation, the real estate lobby teamed up with the John Birch Society to qualify a statewide ballot initiative — Prop. 14 — that would repeal the Rumford Act. California was engulfed in the controversy. It didn’t pass Santa Barbara by. Things got hot. When Episcopal minister Clyde Everton (tinyurl .com/clydeeverton) announced he would not list his home for sale with any real estate agent who supported Prop. 14, the industry flooded Everton with angry phone calls from people demanding why he insisted on selling “to negroes only.” When one real estate agent, Eric Lyons, announced he supported the Rumford Act and opposed Prop. 14, he was kicked off the board of Realtors. Lyons sued for $100,000 and was eventually readmitted. McMillan engaged in a running war of words with real estate hotshots who insisted on the primacy of property rights. Prejudice, others argued, could not be solved by passing a new law. McMillan, ever outspoken, dismissed such arguments as “a Pandora’s box of lies, half-truths, and ill-disguised racism.” In 1963, a young black woman named Julie Ann Steven sued a landlord for refusing to rent to her based on her race. She won $250. Henry Robertson, an active crusader for fair housing, stated he was denied a chance to rent many apartments because of the color of his skin, even though he offered to put up a $50,000 cash bond.
“America can declare war on medical diseases, then why not a similar declaration against such social illnesses as deprivation and racism?”
— Horace McMillan
McMillan tried to alert News-Press publisher Thomas Storke to the problem but said he got nowhere. “Nobody believed me. And when a newspaper editor who has lived here all his life didn’t know what was going on in his community, who thinks it’s a fair city, you have a hard time.”
Prop. 14 passed at the polls with Santa Barbara voters weighing in overwhelmingly in favor of it. Ultimately, however, the California Supreme Court ruled the initiative unconstitutional in 1966, thus opening the floodgates to $22 million in federal housing funds.
Getting a Job
By then, McMillan shifted his focus to employment discrimination and issues of economic inequality. That was easier to prove. McMillan was part of an effort to flood the Bank of America with 15-20 overly qualified black candidates for bank teller positions. All were told the position had been filled. Then, McMillan had a white woman from Canada — the mother of one of the young women who had just been denied — call the bank, inquiring about the job, and she was told it was available. Once exposed, bank officials got really mad, McMillan recounted, complaining they’d been trapped. When McMillan sent his information to federal bank regulators, they showed up in town to talk to him, Storke, and the bank administrators.
McMillan also blew the whistle on the Metropolitan Transit District after it received a large infusion of federal funds. Not one black person worked for the transit agency at that time, he said. “Now it’s just full of them.”
For all the bills passed by Congress and all the rulings issued by various courts, racism, he argued, was still alive and well in Santa Barbara. McMillan described how he and his wife had made reservations at Somerset, an upscale Montecito restaurant. When they showed up, the hostess said she had no such reservations; if the McMillans sat at the bar, she suggested, perhaps something would open up. McMillan quickly called friends, a white couple named Robert and Marjorie Frost. When the Frosts showed up 15 minutes later, the restaurant staff raised no issue about reservations. The McMillans sued, and the case settled for $1,000.
McMillan served on numerous city commissions designed to promote health, housing, and human rights. He found himself crossing swords with then-Mayor Don MacGillivray over proposals to create a new city watchdog agency to combat housing discrimination. MacGillivray always had arguments why such plans couldn’t work or went too far.
Shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, McMillan delivered a 15-page blueprint for what the City Council needed to do to avoid a possible racial conflagration. He called for the construction of a $10 million one-stop-shop social service center — a hospital of sorts to help victims of discrimination heal. In it, he included dramatic statistics highlighting the great divide between the “richest of the rich” and the “poorest of the poor.” If Cottage Hospital could spend $8 million on new hospital construction, he argued, then certainly the community could find $10 million for such a center. After the Watts riots, he noted, City Hall expanded the number of police officers by 23. The salary of just three officers could go a long way in providing the sort of services such a facility could provide. “If America can declare war on medical diseases, then why not a similar declaration against such social illnesses as deprivation and racism?” he asked.
Ultimately, the council balked at McMillan’s grand plans. It was too expensive. Others recoiled when it was suggested that some of the funds City Hall set aside for lawn bowling might prime the fundraising pump for this enterprise. Although McMillan’s proposal would never be built, it provided the impetus for what would ultimately emerge as the Franklin Community Center located on the Eastside. For McMillan, the gap between his dream and the Franklin Center’s reality was too great. “If no progress is made in this direction, I for one have no hope,” he had warned, “and I will retire from public life.”
McMillan didn’t quite make good on that threat. Instead, he threw his energies into building the new Goleta hospital, a massive undertaking. He continued to sit on numerous boards and commissions dedicated to public health and affordable housing until he had a serious heart attack in 1978 and finally retired 10 years later.
In 2001, at age 81, Horace McMillan — the Coast Guard’s first black Pharmacist’s Mate, the first black doctor in Santa Barbara, and the first black doctor to start a new hospital in Santa Barbara — was done in by a fatal stroke. The only record of McMillan’s remarkable life is a photograph on the hallway wall just off Goleta Valley Hospital’s emergency room. He’s one of the hospital’s eight original doctors posing with their shovels during the groundbreaking ceremonies.
Our thanks to the librarians at UC Santa Barbara for access to the Horace James McMillan Papers, CEMA 7, Special Research Collections, UCSB Library; and the Santa Barbara Afro-American oral history project collection, CEMA 42, Special Research Collections, UCSB Library.