It was the kind of kiss that could change the world.
More than 60 years later, sitting on a couch in her Hercules home, her eyes still sparkle when she thinks about it.
“With that kiss, we both knew, ‘Oh boy, this is big.’ I knew that my whole life was going to change because I knew I was in love with him.”
Jeanne Tobey was white. Bill Lowe was black. Getting married was illegal.
So in May 1948, the couple defied California’s ban on interracial marriage by leaving the state.
Boarding a train at the West Oakland station, they headed north through Oregon and across the Columbia River to Vancouver, Wash., where a friend had helped arrange a visit to the county clerk’s office.
They avoided the stares.
“The justice of the peace was just as nice as he could be,” said Jeanne Lowe, who turned 80 this year. “He didn’t say a word.”
Apart from a shared passion for social justice causes, there was little that set apart the Lowes from other young couples of their generation.
They met at a club gathering in Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park in 1947 and became fast friends. Bill Lowe, who had served as a submarine repairman during World War II, would pick up his new girlfriend for dates in his 1937 Chevy coupe.
He grew up as a foster child in a predominantly African-American neighborhood of South Berkeley. She grew up on an all-white street in East Oakland. Her parents and grandparents were devoted to communist and progressive causes, including racial equality, but were still stunned to learn that Jeanne Tobey’s sweetheart was a black man.
“My parents didn’t consider themselves prejudiced, but they had an only child who was stepping into the unknown,” she said.
The first time Bill Lowe proposed, Jeanne Tobey declined. Two weekends later, while alone and cleaning her family’s house, she broke down in tears. She had changed her mind.
Mixed marriages had been banned in California for almost as long as it was a state, so the couple could not have expected that before the year was over, a landmark court ruling would have allowed them to marry in Oakland. Washington, at the time, was the closest place to go. New Mexico was the second.
And unlike many other states, California would not prosecute the returning newlyweds under anti-miscegenation laws that governed what race could mix with another — just as long as they got married someplace else.
Feeling unwelcome, and far from their comfortable East Bay network of family and friends, the Lowes did not linger in the Pacific Northwest. They spent less than a day there, taking a sleeping car back to Oakland.
At a wedding celebration back home, Bill’s family, who hosted, was welcoming. Hers was polite. Their gifts were those of modest households living in a difficult time: an alarm clock and handmade ashtrays, a blanket from her parents, a used toaster.
In October 1948, six months after the Lowes obtained their Washington marriage license, the California Supreme Court in a divisive 4-3 ruling became the first in the 20th century to strike down a state ban on interracial marriage.
Los Angeles couple Andrea Perez and Sylvester Davis had filed the suit. They were devout Catholics who met on a workplace assembly line. Davis was black and Perez, from a Spanish-speaking family of Mexican descent, was regarded by state law as white. The county clerk refused to give them a marriage license when they went to pick one up in 1947.
What happened next, in some ways, was a fluke, say scholars who have studied the decision. The couple stumbled into the hands of an acquaintance, lawyer Dan Marshall, who vigorously sued Los Angeles County, first casting the claim as one based on freedom of religion because the Catholic Church supported their desire to marry.
And Marshall, in turn, stumbled into the hands of Roger Traynor, a supreme court judge whose majority opinion in the case went beyond arguments for religious freedom. He discredited the old eugenic tracts underlying the state’s rigid race classifications, rejected long-held claims that the mixing of races was bad for the public welfare and declared “the right to marry (was) as fundamental as the right to send one’s child to a particular school or the right to have offspring.” Prejudice, he wrote, could not be used to infringe on such an important right.
“He was willing to change the law in response to social conditions,” said Rachel Moran, a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley. “California was becoming the great state, the powerhouse it would become after World War II. The need to be responsive to change was really considerable.”
The opinion was stunning, scholars said. And once it was over, the newlywed couple forever disappeared from public light.
“Neither of them wanted to be a leader or highly prominent activist,” Moran said. “They just wanted to marry and live like everybody else. They really didn’t see themselves as political people. It might be that they didn’t want to be standard-bearers for a movement.”
No social movements propelled most of California’s interracial marriage pioneers, at least not directly. Miscegenation was a politically and socially volatile issue, and most civil rights organizations were focused on dismantling laws segregating public places, Moran said.
“The civil rights organizations that normally would have made those headlines tactically decided to remain quiet,” said Dara Orenstein, who researched the case as a graduate student at Yale University. “The California Legislature didn’t vacate the statute until 10 years later. That says a lot. No one really touched it. The court was ahead of its time.”
The opinion did pave the way for longtime unions like that of Rosina and Leon Watson, who in 1950, after a long courtship, were married in the Fruitvale district of Oakland at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church.
“I remember them coming out of the church,” said Jeanne Lowe, who befriended the Watsons and a few other interracial couples through the left-wing political group American Youth for Democracy. “They were so happy.”
On a recent afternoon, Leon, 81, was listening to a zydeco CD in their cozy East Oakland bungalow while Rosina, 80, knitted. They have lived in the same house since 1959, raising three children there.
“He was tall, for one,” said Rosina Watson, recalling what attracted her to her husband. “The boyfriend I had before was short. And he was a good dancer and I liked to dance.”
Growing up in a Spanish-speaking family that had lived in New Mexico for generations, Rosina Watson said her father was initially furious that she was dating a black man from Mississippi. He later came to accept it, she said.
Although more tolerant than other places, not all of California was ready to accept the state’s newly sanctioned interracial couples.
The Lowes were pulled over several times by Oakland police who suspected Bill Lowe might be a pimp and his wife a prostitute. When Jeanne Lowe went to job interviews, her husband would sometimes, instinctively, drop her off two blocks away so she could make a better first impression. The Watsons watched as whites suddenly moved from their 77th Avenue neighborhood after the couple moved in, and were later snubbed while house-hunting in the white suburb of San Leandro.
Today, the number of interracial couples who can remember such experiences from that era is dwindling. Bill Lowe died in 1995, as have friends from their circle of East Bay interracial couples who married just before and after 1948. Andrea Perez died in 2000.
Orenstein spoke with Sylvester Davis in 2003, in the last interview he was known to have given. A private man, Orenstein said he cut off the discussions because he loved his wife deeply, missed her, and it pained him to talk so much about the case.
Memories of the Perez case were suddenly revived last May when the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s same-sex marriage ban, using the Perez decision as a key precedent. Voters later overrode much of that decision with November’s Proposition 8 by eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry.
The state’s midcentury interracial marriage pioneers, including Jeanne Lowe and the Watsons, have been largely absent from the debate, though they do have opinions about it.
Leon Watson said he “couldn’t care less” who married whom, and, playfully conversing with his wife, wondered why the Catholic Church that went out on a limb to marry them couldn’t marry same-sex couples. Jeanne Lowe, who has three children, one of them a lesbian, said she feels that adults have the right to marry whomever they choose.
Lowe said she was also moved by the election of President Barack Obama, who is younger than her three children but, like them, was born to a white woman and a black man at a time when such unions were less common — and still banned in many states.
“My oldest daughter called at the time (his win) was announced. She couldn’t speak,” Jeanne Lowe said. “It was a feeling that this was my son. That’s how it felt. ” … It was a feeling that can’t be described.”
She wished, she said, that her husband was alive to see it.
“We worked so hard to create a community where we were accepted, where my children would be accepted,” she said.
SOME MARRIAGE LAW MILESTONES IN CALIFORNIA AND THE U.S.
1661: Maryland enacts the first anti-miscegenation law in what would later become the United States.
1850: Soon after California becomes a state, legislators follow other states by banning marriage between whites and “negroes or mulattoes.”
1880: California Legislature adds “Mongolians” into the ban in an effort to exclude Asians from marrying whites.
1933: California Legislature adds “members of the Malay race” into the ban, rejecting years of advocacy by Filipino leaders seeking equal marriage rights.
1947: Andrea Perez and Sylvester Davis try getting married in Los Angeles. County clerk refuses because she is white and he is black. Later, a lawyer, Dan Marshall, will help the Catholic couple sue to marry on the basis of religious liberty.
1948: In Perez v. Sharp, California Supreme Court sides with Los Angeles couple in a 4-3 ruling. Justice Roger Traynor, author of the majority opinion, goes beyond freedom of religion argument in calling marriage to the person of one’s choice a “fundamental right.”
1967: In Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, unanimously declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional nationwide.
1977: California Legislature enacts law that rules marriage must be between “a man and a woman.” In 2000, a voter-approved initiative strengthens the ban on same-sex marriage.
2008: Drawing on the Perez v. Sharp case, California Supreme Court rules 4-3 in May that same-sex marriage should also be a fundamental right. In November, voter-approved Proposition 8 overrides the court by eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry.
(c) 2009, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.