In honor of Black History Month, NBC 7 is highlighting many of the achievements of people in San Diego County throughout the month of February — Ed.
In the 1970s, the now-retired Judges Joe and Ernestine Littlejohn were among the first Black legal professionals in San Diego, devoting their careers to helping inspire the next generation.
Joe has a genealogy book of his family that dates back hundreds of years, all the way to 1685.
“Even though we have endured the segregation and discrimination that we endured, we excelled because we had a hand up,” Joe told NBC 7.
While Joe will be the first to tell you his experience is different than most Black experiences, it wasn’t without challenges. Both he and his wife, Ernestine, were raised in Detroit.
Ernestine went to segregated schools, and Joe lived in and attended school in a predominantly white community where things weren’t always fair in the classroom.
“Gone are the days when my head is bending low — I hear the tender voices calling on old black Joe,” said Joe as he recounted a racially insensitive song his grade school teacher taught students.
In San Diego, Joe joined a school board and was a principal for many years but was sometimes mistaken for someone else.
“A delivery man came in, and I’m dressed in a suit and tie, and the delivery man, who was white, asked, ‘Are you the custodian?’ ” Joe recalled. “I said, ‘No, I’m not the custodian but I can probably help you. What do you need?’ ”
Ernestine was also in education, working for the San Diego Unified School District before they both pursued law careers.
“There were so few of us Black attorneys in San Diego at that time,” Ernestine said. “I’d be mistaken for the court reporter.”
The Littlejohns eventually became judges in the administrative law, criminal justice and juvenile court systems. They also helped other Black attorneys, judges and communities with resources and legal classes through organizations — now known as the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association (originally the Association of Black Attorneys of San Diego County) and Earl B. Gilliam Bar Foundation — that are still active today.
The Littlejohns told NBC 7 that, for them, Black History Month is when they recognize how the Black community has contributed to America. While much has changed, they said, some remains the same.
“The George Floyd murder basically put us all to Step 1 in saying we have to really rethink this issue,” Joe said.
They said, they will always remember how they got to where they are in life, because of the generations before them.
“You don’t have to have 40 acres and a mule,” Joe said, referencing a Special Field Order issued in 1865 by Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman during the Civil War, a form of reparations by which some free slave families were allotted 40 acres of land or less; he later added that the Army should lend a mule as well, if possible. “But for those who got 40 acres and a mule — however they got it — their descendants are standing toe-to-toe with their white contemporaries. Doing just as well, but they got a hand up.”
Go here to learn more about Earl B. Gillam and how the association came to be named for him.