Heritage Museum: Summer of Civil Rights Exhibit
By Dianne Anderson
When Yvonne Peeples first walked into the Heritage Museum exhibit featuring her mother, and all the early pictures taken with the movers and shakers of the day, there is one simple picture of her on her bike that is the most overwhelming.
It was when she first moved to California.
“I almost cried, it’s basically all the stuff my mom had been collecting since the 1940s about what was going on in OC and Santa Ana as far as civil rights,” she said. “What got her involved was housing and employment.”
Her mother, Harriet Tyler, passed away in 2018.
On Sunday, July 23, the Heritage Museum’s “Summer of Civil Rights Exhibit: Chronicling the Black Movement in Orange County” pulls from Tyler’s artifacts and contributions as the county’s unofficial Black historian. The event runs from 10:00 a.m. to 02:00 p.m., along with select viewings until August, located at 3101 West Harvard Street in Santa Ana.
Tyler, one of the founders of the local NAACP, started her activism because Black people were not able to rent or buy a home where they wanted to.
As a young child, Peeples remembers going out with her mother as a discrimination tester to determine the exact areas of impact against Blacks in units where whites could easily rent.
“They would get three couples, two Black and one white couple. If there was a rental on the other side of town where Black people weren’t allowed, Black couples would go in first, and [owners] would say we already rented it out.”
To tackle the problem, her mother received help from the first Black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, who came to Orange County to assist the local NAACP.
“Mom knew him really well. She said that he loved to come to Orange County because it is a mess,” Peeples said, noting that after the housing discrimination testing, the county began opening doors a little more.
For decades, her mother continued working with the NAACP youth and high schools, but it wasn’t until Peeples saw the mounds of memorabilia that she understood just how much her mother accomplished. She was surprised at her participation in conventions, and contributions to numerous nonprofits and social groups.
Tyler grew up in Louisiana under the worst Jim Crow conditions, but if it was bad there, it was almost as bad in Orange County. Her mother always had a lot of fight, having come to California at 16 years old by herself, and eventually to Orange County, which she thought was better, but soon learned that racism was different than down South. It was covert and disappointing, but it spurred her to action.
“She didn’t know until she got here. She was so surprised that Black people were so scared of all the white folks. They only could live in certain parts of the city, and had to be out of Tustin by a certain time. It was crazy,” she said.
As time went on, Tyler felt her most crowning achievement was pushing for the original Southwest Community Center. Her organization, the Interested Citizens of Orange County, pressured city leaders.
But probably the most exciting time for her mother was voting for President Obama, not once but twice.
“She had two times to vote for him, something that she never imagined to vote for a Black president in her lifetime,” she said. “She was disgusted with Trump, she couldn’t believe he was voted in. It was disheartening.”
Looking at America today, with all the back-to-back incidents since 2018, she believes that for as vicious as race hate has increased, her mother would say to keep pressing on.
“Think about where we’ve come from to where we are. We have to keep believing that we can do it again. Keep fighting,” she said.
Sydney Horner, conservator of the Heritage Museum of Orange County, said they have cataloged a massive collection, about 3,000 items, of memorabilia, pictures, newspaper clippings, documents, and many programs and organizations she was involved in.
“Going through this collection and seeing all of the work, I had no idea she did all of this work in her lifetime. It’s mind-blowing,” she said.
In the exhibit and her life, she said there is a sense of community, and support that people offered one to another in the face of discrimination. One of their sections is devoted to the local NAACP, which includes her actual minutes from their first meeting in 1945.
The exhibit is powerful, but also hearing the oral history about the early days of discrimination in Orange County, learning about Harlen “Lamb” Lambert, the first Black police officer in Santa Ana, and Daniel Michael Lynem, then leading the Santa Ana Black Panther Party, and Connie Jones, retired food activist and granddaughter Annie Mae Tripp, who originally founded the Southwest Community Center.
“[It’s] hearing everyone’s perseverance and ability to overcome such immense obstacles, so many of the stories we hear, how they were able to overcome and create a life for themselves here in Orange County,” Horner said.
Another little-known fact is that Tyler attended Central Colored High School in Louisiana, one of the first high schools in that area.
“I think that probably inspired her to be a curator herself for the history of Orange County. She mentioned she had a teacher at that school who taught Black history,” she said.
The other significant side of the story is how the movement to address civil rights in Orange County was led by women.
“In the national picture of civil rights, it’s the men leading, but at the local level, it was people like Harriet Tyler leading the movement,” she said.
For more information on dates and times, see https://www.heritagemuseumoc.org/for-the-public