SoCal Icon Frances Grice Passes Away
By Dianne Anderson
Nobody has put more into the local civil rights movement, or given more years of activism and personal energy to the Westside of San Bernardino than community activist Frances Grice.
Ms. Grice passed away December 31. She was 84.
She never saw the city as a lost cause, and frequently reminisced about when it was full of hope, and in full bloom.
At the same time, Ms. Grice was serious about the left-behind areas where other nonprofits failed to make a difference. She pushed to help Black business with contracts, grants and projects to lift the low-income community out of its historic disenfranchisement. She fought to be a voice for the poor for all those without access to resources or rights.
Early on, her fearless contribution to the movement was in ending de facto segregation in San Bernardino city schools in the 1960’s and 70’s. That lawsuit dragged on for years through the court system, and she often talked about the depth of personal sacrifice in that fight for equal education.
Ms. Grice described how she, and social activist partners, Valerie Pope Ludlam and Bonnie Johnson, had dodged bullets after a school board meeting to desegregate San Bernardino city schools. The three faced off against the KKK, and threats of hanging, and cross-burnings. Ms. Johnson’s house was bombed, but it did not stop them from staying their fight against segregation.
But more often than not, her stories of victory were small and peppered against what she considered the greatest sacrifice of all – not being able to reconcile the time lost on that fight to the premature deaths of her only two children. Her daughter Darlene was part of that class action lawsuit of six plaintiffs.
Over the course of numerous interviews with the Precinct Reporter, Grice spoke of how segregation in jobs and education was ripping out the heart of opportunity from the Black community. After coming to San Bernardino in the 1950s from Michigan, she envisioned much more for the Westside.
At her first local job as the secretary for the Precinct Reporter, she was struck by the level of hopelessness and joblessness for Black youth in the area surrounding the paper’s first location. With the support from the paper’s original hard hat publisher, Art Townsend, they set out together to fix the problem. She and the other mothers in the community took up the good fight.
In 1965, Grice started the original League of Mothers and the Freedom Schools, along with many local strong-minded men, such as Richard Cole and several other activists. That national lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court, and they won.
The lawsuit drew big national attention.
“We had Freedom Schools, we had Congress of Racial Equality, all of the civil rights folks, we had Abernathy [from SCLC] down here. People came from all over to help us,” Ms. Grice recalled in a 2012 interview.
All of those early years became a springboard for her desire to work for community economic development in the following decades, especially on post-secondary education and vocational training with Operation Second Chance. There, she trained thousands of teens and young adults in hopes of strengthening local Black businesses.
On several levels, Ms. Grice also pioneered local environmental action with the development of green jobs, sustainable communities and clean energy through Operation Second Chance, a program she started in 1967.
She also looked fondly on the Westside factory where the community made dashikis for sale, and they gained a large contract to manufacture diapers for a local hospital. Eventually, she also brought the Westside into a first-of-its-kind “Solar One” venture in the nation, where she provided jobs for 2,000 men in a Barstow demonstration project, then backed by Edison at a time when discrimination in hiring was rampant.
Through those early years of vocational training, Grice was instrumental in supervising the building and development of what is now the New Hope Family Life Center. That was over 40 years ago when she was director of Operation Second Chance, which became the cornerstone for the library with some training strategies that continue today.
But in 1984, personal and professional tragedies nearly brought Grice’s works to a halt. The death of her child, who was her “best friend” Darlene, at age 26, sent her life into a tailspin. Not long after, a succession of financial problems ended operations, and within two years, she had lost her only other child, Anthony, 34, to a heart attack.
“My son told me before he died, `Mama, don’t give up, don’t give up,” Ms. Grice recalled in a 1995 interview with the Precinct Reporter. “Folks still say, `How did you get through all that?’ You get knocked down; you get back up. With each disaster, the Lord brought me closer to Him.”
That was the spark of determination that she brought to the community, the spirit of survival in the face of the worst kind of adversity.
She credited much local awareness of solar energy to Ms. Pope Ludlam, who had worked in housing and development. Back then, the community looked to better times through Operation Second Chance and its social sustainability projects. Ms. Grice also channeled over 80 Westside teens to Cal State University San Bernardino for job training programs.
Everything that could pull the community out of the quagmire of hiring discrimination hinged on economic development.
“We had the first wastewater treatment training program. We started our own businesses because there were no businesses that would hire us,” she had said in the 2012 interview with the Precinct Reporter.
She also worked hand in hand with local architects, developers, and selected minority contractors for each phase of blueprints and construction of Operation Second Chance. The building was a source of pride, and appreciated by the community who always respected what the building stood for.
From the mid-90’s on through 2012, that early fight cleared the way as she sought to level the playing field of the good ole’ boys network to help the Black community tap state and federal procurement opportunities.
Her woman-owned firm, ADF Networking Consultancy Inc, offered statewide contract procurement and compliance services. She held several procurement events drawing out dozens of big vendors to work directly with small business, minority, women, disadvantaged and disabled veterans.
She also regularly partnered with Southern California Edison Procurement on outreach activities and consumer education surveys, as well as assisting GEM Communications of Los Angeles with statewide research surveys.
She organized hundreds of minority and disadvantaged contractors to meet face to face with representatives from several national and international big business, including Southern California Edison, Time Warner, ATT, the utility companies, PUC, and San Bernardino City purchasing department, along with other local government purchasing agencies.
And, she never gave up on the idea of money to be made for Black business contractors if they would just fight for it, develop the right strategies, and utilize the certification process.
She was bestowed with the Presidential Award from Presidents Reagan and Bush in White House Rose Garden. She received Congressional Record Commendations, along with awards from Congressman Jerry Pettis, Congresswoman Shirley Pettis, and the late Congressman George E. Brown. Congressman Joe Baca presented her with a Congressional Certificate of Achievement, and she won recognition from Assemblywoman Gwen Moore State of California Legislature Women-Owned Business Award. She received two State of California Legislature Woman of the Year Awards – from Assemblyman Joe Baca and Assemblyman Jerry Eaves.
Locally, she has been recognized with the National Municipal League of Cities All American City Special recognition award, and State of California Assembly Resolution from the Honorable Mervyn Dymally and Wilmer Carter for outstanding leadership. Also, Inland Empire Women in Leadership, Women of Achievement from the League of Women Voters and Women of Achievement Award from the Los Black Business Association.
Through her later years, she remained concerned about the need for stronger programs to build up neighborhoods through contract development because she loved the city.
She always looked fondly on the memory of San Bernardino, longing for a return to the days when it stood as a shining example of growth as an All American City.
An outpouring of love on Facebook came from community members for her years of hard work in the fight for community rights as her news of her passing spread.
Ms. Grice had slowed her outreach in recent times through her illness, but if anyone asked, she was always fired up to talk about the history of activism of her day, the fight for the people, and the importance of preserving the city.
Carolyn Tillman recalled Ms. Grice as a bundle of “love and firecrackers,” and how Ms. Grice and her grandmother worked together at the community hospital. Tillman said she counts it a privilege to have interviewed Ms. Grice for the Westside Action Group Oral History Project.
“Frances was a skilled griot and kept my attention for two straight hours–what a life she lived! She was a bold, civil rights advocate who fought for and won battles for economic and educational change in this community. She paid a great price for her sacrifice, may she never be forgotten,” Ms. Tillman wrote on Facebook.