Members of the Arakelian family harvest melons in the early 1900s (photo credit Friends of the Fresno Fair-Armenian Exhibit)

Just Beneath the Dirt: Where the Racism of Fresno Began

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By Mark Arax and Aris Janigian

FRESNO (Fresno Bee) – We stood before the school board last week thinking it might be a good time to start a conversation about how Fresno became one of the most racially partitioned cities in the nation and how, as an outcropping of that history, there was an elementary school in the northwest part of town still named after a powerful white supremacist.

As authors whose books have uncovered the past, we knew the emotionally charged ground we were about to turn over. This was a dirt that grew everything. Burdened though our history was, we thought where better to begin a community’s education, if not its reckoning, than at the school board itself?

In the days before the meeting, we went to the county assessor’s office and found examples of the exclusionary real estate codes that for a half century had kept people of color from living beyond the ghetto.

Oddly, it had been no different for our tribe, the Armenians. Survivors of the 20th century’s first genocide, we had come to this Valley to start over, only to be forbidden to live freely by these same “Caucasian-only” codes. It did not matter that we were a people of the Caucasus, the original “white man,” you might say. In the estimation of official Fresno, which pulled every trick to keep us confined, first to the rural farm and then to the south side of town, we were “black Turks.”

As the two of us, shirttail cousins, rose up separately to address the school board and Superintendent Bob Nelson, we recited an especially vile paragraph from a real estate document dated July 20, 1939. On that day, a husband and wife finalized their purchase of a lot near First and Normal avenues. Among the restrictions they were forced to sign was this one:

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“Neither the said premises nor any building thereon shall in any manner be used or occupied by Asiatics, Mongolians, Hindus, Negroes, Armenians or any natives or descendants of the Turkish Empire, and said grantee agrees not to sell or lease said property, nor to convey by deed, any portion of said property except to persons belonging to the Caucasian race, and agrees not to lease, sell or convey… the whole or any portion of said property to any Armenian or to any descendant of an Armenian or to any lineal descendant of an Armenian, save and except [those] employed as servants by the residents.”

The very next sentence read: “No poultry or livestock of any kind shall be kept on said premises.” And that’s where we Armenians belonged in the eyes of Fresno’s civic leaders 60 years after the first Armenian had arrived here in 1881 — in the filth, with the barnyard animals.

This restriction, which stayed in effect until the early 1960s, was everyday business for the developer, a man who platted his tracts across Fresno. He was the same boomer who in the middle 1910s began carving out the 12,000 acres of Fig Garden. His full-page ads boasted: “Fresno’s choicest suburban property will be sold under rigid restrictions — this is a point we cannot emphasize too strongly. Those who buy [here] will be fully protected from resale of property to undesirables.”

Fresno developer J. C. Forkner (photo: Fresno Bee file)

The developer was Jessie Clayton Forkner, J.C. Forkner. The city had an elementary school on Valentine Avenue named after him. How was it that Fresno Unified, without the least bit of vetting, had chosen to honor a brazen white racist by putting his name on the district’s newest school in 1980? How could his name still be standing in the year 2021?

The board members and Nelson did not answer us. In fact, none of them said a word. Trustee Terry Slatic applauded our call to “wipe the stain of Forkner off the paper and stucco of Fresno Unified.” Trustee Veva Islas nodded. The rest took pains to show little or no interest or displayed outright contempt.

Even if our revelation had caught them by surprise, they might have acknowledged the gravity of the history we had brought before them. They might have pledged to address the injustice in the near future. After all, this was a school board that had embraced the causes of inclusion, equity and racial and social justice as a moral charge.

Had they taken their roles seriously, they might have asked us that night, or in the week since, why such a particular animus had been directed at the Armenians? Why had Forkner, in his list of excluded groups, repeated again and again the Armenians? What offense had they committed to earn such revulsion? The answer, we would have told them, was hidden just beneath the dirt. “People are trapped in history,” James Baldwin wrote, “and history is trapped in them.”

ARMENIANS TO FRESNO

Who were these Armenians who began to trickle into Fresno in the early 1880s? Chester Rowell, the great Progressive editor of the Fresno Morning Republican, a champion of the newcomers, set about to educate his readers. They were an ancient people, the first nation to accept Christianity in 301 A.D., the first grape culture, one that had its own distinct branch on the tree of languages and alphabets.

They had fled persecution and massacres in their homeland in Turkey, and many of the first wave of exiles had come to the San Joaquin Valley with educational degrees and money, enough dough to buy 25,000 acres of farmland by 1910. Those who arrived penniless went to work in the fields and fruit packing houses alongside the railroad tracks downtown, where they built their red-brick church and raised their families. Chinatown, the city’s first confined enclave for “undesirables,” sat west of the tracks. Next door was Volga German town inhabited by a tough breed of Germans who had fled persecution in Russia and despised the Armenians.

Armenian grape pickers in the early 1900s (photo: Fresno Bee file)

This was a time when great white patricians, men such as Theo Kearney and Wylie Giffen, were attempting to organize growers of raisins — the Valley’s biggest industry — into a cooperative. Some semblance of sanity needed to be applied to the math of the raisin, they reasoned. The world had a stomach for only so many tons of the sun-baked grape, a fact that many growers, operating as individuals, seemed not to appreciate as they kept on planting their vines from one county line to the other.

If the Japanese grower was stubbornly independent, the Armenian grower could be downright difficult. Yes, the idea of a co-op made perfect sense, farmer joining hand with farmer to share the costs of packing, marketing and ways to deal with the surplus crop. But what also made perfect sense was selling your raisins to an Armenian packer you knew from the old country, a tribesman who’d pay you 3 cents more per pound.

Martin Theo Kearney (photo: Fresno Bee file)

The recalcitrant Armenians angered the high-minded Kearney, a shrewd Irishman from the society parlors of San Francisco who dreamed of establishing a Jeffersonian model of yeoman farming on the hot plains of Fresno. The cooperative he envisioned — a benevolent monopoly — was a new flourish to this dream. The Armenians, 6% of the population producing 15% of the raisins, stood in his way.

Kearney went after them, their loyalty to their fellow Armenians, their determination to regulate their own affairs. In Rowell’s newspaper, he wrote: “The danger that threatens us comes from another quarter. I refer to the Armenians. These people have come from a land of oppression to a land of liberty… [and they’ve] set themselves up against the fundamental principles of our people. If they are so stupid as not to see the danger, shall we make no effort to avert that danger?”

Kearney would end up dying a lonely man at sea before he could bring his dream to completion. He had succeeded, though, in planting the seeds of hate toward Armenians. Those seeds would sprout in 1912 with the formation of the Sun-Maid raisin cooperative under the leadership of Wylie Giffen, a giant grower and banker who regarded himself as the bighearted overseer of Fresno. When it came to the Armenians, he brooked no dissent.

To be a successful cooperative — indeed, an agricultural monopoly that enjoyed full government exemption from anti-trust laws — Giffen believed that Sun-Maid needed to enlist not just a majority of growers but close to every single one of them. To get farmers to sign on the dotted line, he did not hesitate to preside over a campaign of terror, employing tactics eerily borrowed from the Ku Klux Klan.

Under the cover of darkness, Sun-Maid’s “Night Riders,” bearing torches and weapons, visited growers who were refusing to join. Some of the farmers were white, some were Japanese, but most were Armenians whose obstinance had long gotten under the skin of the bankers, lawyers, civic leaders, evangelical preachers and businessmen devoted to Sun-Maid. The loyalists even included some Armenians, who were pressured time and again to bring their reluctant kinsmen into the fold.

In this way, Armenian was set against Armenian — at the very time of the Armenian Genocide.

During the co-op’s membership drive, Fresno held its breath. There was a parade on behalf of the raisin, and workers were given days off to rally support. Preachers asked their flocks, “What would Jesus do?” The answer resounded: “Jesus would sign up with Sun-Maid, too.” Schoolchildren whose parents were Sun-Maid true attacked Armenian classmates whose parents were not. Teachers did nothing to stop the beatings. Armenian holdouts, cursed as “Black Turks,” were cornered on their ranches, lassoed with rope and dragged through the vineyards by horseback.

Some Armenian raisin families relented and signed; others refused. So vital was the campaign’s success to the well-being of the county that each day’s tally of how many growers had signed became front-page headlines: “Seventy-percent.” “Eighty-percent.” “Ninety-percent.”

On the night of April 27, 1923, a mob numbering 100 men showed up at the Apkarian farm, carrying torch lights and shouting threats to burn the place down. “Sign. Sign,” they chanted. Inside the farmhouse was Nazaret Der Torosian, his pregnant wife and their 2-year-old son. He was there to protect Apkarian, his neighbor, who was so terrified of the Night Riders that he had fled town, leaving Nazaret alone to stand watch.

Torosian was just such a man: a farmer and wrestler made of iron whose feats of strength and nimbleness were so uncanny that he was later immortalized in a William Saroyan short story. Fearless, bent into a window, he held a 30-40 military rifle and shouted back: “You have come far enough! One more step and I will fire.”

Saroyan’s uncle Aram, who would later defend Torosian in court, described what happened next: “In a body, the mob kept moving toward the house paying no heed to the desperate voices inside.”

Torosian shot into the pack and the pack dispersed. One Night Rider took a bullet in the knee and lost his leg. The sheriff and district attorney, who might as well have been on the payroll of Sun-Maid for the reflexive way they protected the co-op, arrested and charged Torosian. At trial, attorney Saroyan, dressed head to toe in white, implored the jury. “If you convict this man, you will be inviting anarchy and mob rule.” Torosian was freed.

The Sun-Maid drive of 1923 was a rousing success. The wealthiest of the Armenian growers — the Melon King, Grape King, Cucumber King — broke bread with Giffen and Sun-Maid and congratulated themselves for bringing hundreds of Armenians into the co-op’s fold at the last minute.

The hate would find a new form. On 80 Calaveras Avenue, just off Blackstone, an Armenian widower had bought a house using the name of a non-Armenian. He thought his secret was secure until one night in the 1920s members of the KKK came calling. They burned a cross on his front lawn.

RACIST TREATMENT

We strolled into the county Hall of Records the other day and asked for Paul Dictos, the assessor-recorder. He greeted us with a recipe for Greek yogurt and a long list of racist real estate deeds he’d been compiling. The earliest restriction was dated Oct. 15, 1914; the most recent was dated May 20, 1952.

From one to the other, we could see how the brushstrokes of hate were applied. The first exclusions targeted “Asiatics” and “Subjects of the Turkish Empire” and “Negroes,” even though only a few hundred blacks resided in the county at the time. Their exclusion, of course, was a vestige of the Old South, the racist residue of confederates drawn to the Valley by the dream of small agricultural colonies. “Asiatic,” on the other hand, was a term of racist developers, real estate agents, bankers and home buyers who desired a definition so expansive it could exclude Chinese, Japanese, Hindu and Armenian. In a document dated Dec. 23, 1919, we came across the exclusion of “Mexicans.”

No restrictions were more obsessed with the Armenians than those of Forkner. If we wondered why, the answer was right there in the records. In 1922, Forkner’s partner in the development of Fig Garden — the grandest planting of mansions and figs in history — was Sun Maid’s Wylie Giffen himself. The two men had melded their money and minds.

When it came time to procure their 600,000 fig trees, they had nowhere to go but to the Fig King, Henry Markarian, an Armenian. In other words, our fig trees were allowed into Fig Garden but our flesh and blood was not.

This is how the racist campaigns of Sun-Maid became codified in the buying and selling of real estate throughout Fresno County. This is how the exclusions stamped and sealed by the county recorder bled into our governmental and social institutions. This is how the overt racism of the deeds became the covert racism of redlining. The exclusion of Armenians was, in fact, a model.

Up until the late 1950s, our people were told not to apply for jobs at Fresno State, The Fresno Bee, Fresno Unified, the police department and sheriff’s office. Because Volga Germans controlled patronage at City Hall, much of the bureaucracy was closed off to Armenians, too. We were blackballed from the Shriners, Masons, Elks Club, the LARCS Club and Sunnyside Country Club.

When our two fathers, Ara and Andy, moved our families to new Fig Garden in the 1960s and ‘70s, we knew we had finally arrived somewhere, but where? On this same ground, we saw a street and a school named after J.C. Forkner. So buried was this history we didn’t think a thing of it.

RENAME FORKNER SCHOOL

The pain our forebears passed on was immense, yes, but immense was also their shame. You see, if your people are wiped out, it’s a humiliation — on a vast scale. A humiliation so hideous and irreversible that, in a way, you want to keep it hidden, even to yourselves. This feeling was passed on to the children of the survivors, our parents, and this is why this history has never before been told, though it is surely and widely known.

We are not bitter toward Fresno, much less America; indeed, we worked hard to show our gratitude. There were ugly people and policies out there, yes. In Fresno, there still are people who hate Armenians, or maybe, at this point, a better word is “resent” us for our success. But ultimately America was bigger than housing tract covenants or racist business people, or even current school board members. We believed in America, and when it was all said and done, America believed in us.

Most Armenians don’t seek an apology from Fresno, though we deserve one. We don’t come as damaged souls looking for sympathy. We simply ask this city to acknowledge our history, the struggles we endured, to honor us for what we’ve done, and for how far we’ve come. The immense contributions we’ve made, the marks of invention, professionalism and artistry we’ve left and continue to leave on this city, are undeniable.

This is why we ask that a school in Fresno finally be named after an Armenian. This is why we ask that J.C. Forkner Elementary be renamed in honor of H. Roger Tatarian, the legendary journalist and teacher and one of our finest native sons.

If Fresno fails this moment, if it again turns its back on the Armenians, it will be turning its back on itself.

(Reprinted with permission from the authors. Mark Arax’s latest book, The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, is a national bestseller. Aris Janigian’s latest novel is Waiting for Sophia at Shutters on the Beach.)

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