Celebrating Black Excellence: Charles Clifford "Cliff" Berkley
When local newspapers mentioned black Americans, it was typically in regard to crime, the “negro problem,” or some news of a lynching or race riot. These mentions give an insight into the hidden presence, travels of, and concerns about African Americans in the region, but often reinforce prevailing negative assumptions about the community.
Black newspapers, from LA’s own California Eagle to those like the Chicago Defender, provide an alternative record of Orange County’s black community despite its small size. Social activities, church events, travels between counties, marriages, and the like were recorded in the pages of the Eagle, which at one point had a dedicated section for news from Fullerton’s “negro district.” Rather than codify black subservience, these papers celebrated black excellence.
In 1929, the Pittsburg Courier, the Baltimore Afro-American, Norfolk Journal and Guide, and the Chicago Defender carried a story about Fullerton’s Charles Clifford “Cliff” Berkley entitled “Young Colored Lad is Boy Scout Prodigy.” Then a fifteen-year-old sophomore at Fullerton High School, Cliff was the only Negro in his scout troop and managed to acquire 24 merit badges. In addition to heralding achievements as a scout, the article also celebrated his merit as a student. Professor Redfern, his principal, stated that “Clifford is a very satisfactory pupil.” The article went on to explain:
“We often hear many colored students who go to mixed schools decry the prejudice existing among the white pupils and teachers. They cannot get ahead, they are held back, is their claim. But the record Clifford has made seems to disprove this statement. By hard work, study and natural ability he has been able to stand out not as an exceptional Negro, but as a successful and exceptional student.”
Clifford went on record stating that he wanted to study medicine after high school and become a doctor. Looking at his yearbook from 1931, Clifford continued his hard work despite the atmosphere at his school. As a student in Orange County, blackface was a common part of school celebrations and functions, featured in school plays, glee club performances, or even the graphic design of his senior yearbook. Nevertheless, he threw himself into his studies and activities, continuing to excel. By his senior year, Clifford was a member of the Latin Club, the Hi-Y Club, the Cosmopolitical Club, the Redmen’s Club, the Pow War, the football team, the basketball team, and the tennis team. Redfern may have described Clifford as “satisfactory,” but he was nothing less than extraordinary.