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"When Jamaican-born John Alexander Somerville entered the USC School of Dentistry in 1903, his ambition was to train himself for a profession and return to his homeland. But after graduating first in his class and marrying a bright, outgoing USC undergraduate named Vada Watson, he turned his considerable energy and intelligence to improving life in Los Angeles' Black community. And in doing so, he helped shape the history of his adopted city." "It is hard to express the emotion that arouse in my soul at that moment,” he later wrote in his autobiography." The only difference that I had ever noticed between myself and men and women of other racial groups and nationalities was the degree of culture and achievement. In the new land of my choice, I was bluntly made to understand that, because of the pigmentation of my skin, I was denied even the elementary necessities of life - food and shelter." "I made this resolution," he wrote, "that I would work at any job that I could find, no matter how menial, until I saved enough money to enter an institution of higher learning to prepare myself for a trade or profession. I wanted to earn a place where I would not have to ask any other fellow for a job." After a year and a half, Somerville had saved $250, and he enrolled at USC. On his first day as a university student, however, he caused an uproar. Although the university had issued a declaration in 1885 that "no student would be denied admission because of race, color, religion or sex," Somerville’s classmates did not welcome him. His classmates decided they would threaten to resign en masse unless he was dismissed from the university. They presented their ultimatum to the dean, Garrett Newkirk.

Newkirk called Somerville into the meeting, praised his credentials and invited him to address his classmates. Undaunted, Somerville began, "I would hardly expect to encounter race prejudice and intolerance in an institution of higher learning," he said. "I am here today for the same purpose that you are- to seek an education leading to a profession through which I can minister to human needs. You are conspiring to keep me from that goal, for no other reason than that the color of my face is different from yours. "Many of you aspire to be leaders in your chosen line." He continued, "In later years, when you achieve your objective and become mature in thought, you may have reason to be ashamed that during your college days you placed a stumbling block in the pathway of one seeking the same opportunity."

Vada Watson, was a bright, outgoing liberal arts major attending USC on a Los Angeles Times scholarship. Vada, a native of Pomona, was one of seven children born to Dora Watson McDonald, a family matriarch who had instilled in her offspring a strong social conscience and an appetite for achievement. There was a very real possibility that John Somerville would be drafted into military service, so Vada decided to study dentistry so that she could continue to treat his patients if he was called up. She enrolled in the USC dental school and, in 1918, became the school’s second black graduate. She then became the first black women to be licensed to practice dentistry in the state of California, and entered practice with her husband. She retired from dentistry in 1933 and became the leading light in the city’s civic and community organizations, serving on the executive boards of such groups as the Los Angeles League of Women Voters, the Council on Public Affairs, UCLA’s YWCA and the USC Half Century Club. Between Vada’s activities and those of her husband, the Somervilles hosted numerous friends and dignitaries, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Kenneth Hahn, Jesse Unruh, Augustus Hawkins, Mary McLeod Bethune, DuBois, William Pickins, Norma Boyd and Rosa Parks.

John Somerville retired in 1963 and lived another 10 years to the age of 91, surviving his wife by only a few months. Vada died in 1972 shortly after their 60th wedding anniversary. Today, portraits of the Somervilles hang in the dental school, reminders of what vision, ambition and perseverance can achieve. The inspiration they offer echoes the conviction contained in a more modest image that hung for many years in Somerville’s office and later in his den. Emblazoned across the center was an inscription that exemplified his life:"Do not wait for your ship to come in," it read. "Row out and meet it."


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