Race debate embroils Atascadero's Historical Society

E.G. Lewis is revered today for founding Atascadero a century ago, but a clause he put into land deeds said that only whites could purchase property in the colony he had created.

That fact, reflecting the common practice of the time, was presented to the Atascadero Historical Society last fall by Lon Allan, then society historian and former managing editor of the Atascadero News. (Allan is now a weekly columnist for The Tribune).

Ever since Allan’s talk, the Historical Society has been in a heated debate over the issue of possible censorship if city officials were put in charge of approving society exhibits in the Rotunda building, which is scheduled to reopen this summer after extensive repairs and retrofitting. The topic of deed restrictions has been a tender one that rankled some society board members.

Now, as Atascadero’s centennial year gets under way, Allan and E.G. Lewis descendent Tom Lewis remain far apart in their views regarding how to share the colony’s history and which stories should be included in the telling. It all started with Allan’s speech late last fall during an Atascadero symposium that included visiting history buffs from across the state.

“With respect to whites-only living in Atascadero, the only publication I have ever seen was Oscar Willet’s brochure referring to Atascadero as the ‘whitest and brightest,’ which had nothing to do with racism …” society board member Tom Lewis wrote in an email to Allan. “Other than the alleged boilerplate deed restrictions from the turn of the century, I have no idea what engendered this seemingly urban myth.”

In fact, E.G. Lewis did include deed restrictions from the first half of the 20th century that stated, under a section titled, “White Race,” that “It is a condition precedent to the enforcement of this contract that the second party is a member of the white or Caucasian race, and further that this contract, or any interest therein, is not assignable, and shall not be assigned by the second party to any person not a member of said race.” There was a second restriction forbidding the transfer of ownership or occupancy of saloons to residents not from the Caucasian race. That text was taken from a 1914 deed.

E.G. Lewis also included the language in his prospectus on the community of Atascadero published in 1916, in which he wrote, “The sale of land in Atascadero is restricted to members of the Caucasian race.”

Since the society’s internal debate began last fall, Tom Lewis, in visits with other local historical groups, has been emphasizing that E.G. Lewis’ deed restrictions were legal, and, in fact, they were.

Such restrictions were common in the United States during that era. Stanford Law Professor Richard T. Ford discussed those sorts of deed restrictions in the context of the times.

“Sadly, racially restrictive deed covenants were not uncommon in the first half of the 20th century — many properties still have such restrictions in their chain of title, although, of course, they are no longer enforceable,” Ford said in an email. “The question of whether we should condemn those who used such racial restrictions is more complicated. Because the practice was widespread, it was often hard to buy property without such restrictions and many people included them for economic reasons — to get mortgages and insurance and to stabilize property value.”

Lewis and Historical Society president Jim Wilkins said Allan was supposed to speak to the group about downtown buildings. Instead, Allan covered the E.G. Lewis controversy, making the speech “the worst part of the whole symposium,” Wilkins said. Allan took offense to Wilkins’ public remarks and resigned from his post as society historian.

“Significant effort and expense was put into the planning of the fall symposium for the (California Conference of Historical Societies), specifically to promote Atascadero as a desirable historic tourism destination. … Your insistence in controlling the narrative with scintillating and controversy (sic) which was virtually devoid of any commentary relevant to the afternoon’s events was tantamount to throwing a basket of dirty laundry on our efforts for this event,” said Tom Lewis in an email he sent to Allan after the event. “(You) acknowledged the vital role of promoting the development of the Civic Center to set up … (a) building-specific presentation. This does not speak well of you. I suppose for you having the last word was more important?”

One of the symposium’s organizers, Tina Metzger of the California Conference of Historical Societies, worked with all parties. When asked whether Allan’s speech hit the mark, she affirmed it did.

“Lon’s speech/presentation was excellent,” Metzger said in an email. “He held our attention; and many of the symposium attendees remarked to me later what an interesting presentation Lon gave. He really helped to make E.G. Lewis come alive for our audience.”

In an interview, Allan expressed confusion over why Lewis and Wilkins would be upset with his speech or his depiction of E.G. Lewis.

“I didn’t know they wanted me to talk about the Civic Center or Rotunda building,” Allan said. “I wanted to paint a picture of who he (E.G. Lewis) was. I would hope that nobody puts restrictions on what we tell about our past, whether it’s the historical society board or the City Council, otherwise it becomes a bogus history.”

In a recent interview, Tom Lewis adjusted his position on the matter, saying “My position is, the whole story should be told.”

Neither Wilkins or Tom Lewis responded to requests for a final interview for this article, but society board member Len Colamarino responded by saying that he hopes Allan will return to the group in his role as historian to help tell Atascadero’s story.

“It is my hope that Lon will soon be again helping us manage and direct the Atascadero Historical Society in some capacity or another,” Colamarino said. “Lon is too important an authority on Atascadero’s history, and has been too instrumental in organizing and operating the Historical Society over the years, for all or any of us to let some recent misunderstanding end his involvement in the society.”

When asked if he would accept his former position as historian, Allan said, “There haven’t been any communications from the board at any time since I tendered my resignation. If asked, I would not be interested in returning to the job of historian.”

McCambridge is a freelance writer who lives in Atascadero.