William Byron Rumford (public domain)William Byron Rumford (February 2, 1908 – June 12, 1986) was a pharmacist, community leader, and politician. He was the first African American elected to any public office in Northern California, and the first African American hired at Highland Hospital1

Born in Courtland, Arizona, Rumford was the second son of Chauncey G. Rumford and Margaret Lee Johnson.  Chauncey Rumford left his family and moved to Los Angeles in 1910, and later the first son, also named Chauncey, moved in with his father and paternal grandmother.  Rumford and his mother moved to Phoenix, where she married a barber, Elmer J. Williams. In 1915 they moved to Los Angeles in order to join the rest of the family.

In 1916, Rumford's paternal grandmother's sister, a songwriter, poet and painter, helped Delilah L. Beasley write The Negro Trail Blazers of California in 1916.

Rumford graduated from a segregated high school in Arizona in 1926.  At 18, he moved to San Francisco and worked for a year, before attending Sacramento Junior College.

The School of Pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco accepted Rumford, and he worked his way through school, working as a parking valet and a doorman at night, and graduated in 1931.  While at UCSF Rumford was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

In 1932 Rumford and Elsie Rebecca (Rumford) (1908–2002) married.  Together, they had three children, William Byron Jr., Randolph Lee, and Elsie Rebecca II.

At the age of 25 William Rumford passed the State of California employment examination in 1933, at a time when very few African Americans worked for the State.

After passing the employment exam, Rumford took the California Board of Pharmacy investigator examination, where he twice passed the written part of the exam, but was twice failed on the oral portion.  "I think I frightened everybody to death on the board when I was there for my oral examination. I took the examination for food and drug investigator and I flunked the oral after they asked me about Joe Louis. And later I came back, took it again, and I flunked it again."  Rumford said that the board was "asking silly questions to get rid of Blacks."

Rumford then passed the examination for California State Venereal Disease investigator, but again was failed on the oral presentation portion for a third time.  Undaunted, Rumford visited one of the members of the Personnel Board who lived in Oakland.  Christenson, the board member, appealed the Board's decision to fail Rumford based on the grounds that he was asked irrelevant questions.  Rumford went on to appeal on the grounds that the Board had publicized statistics that African Americans suffered from sexually transmitted diseases at a greater rate than other ethnic groups, but had not taken done anything to improve the situation.  Rumford won the appeal and was granted his California State certification.

In 193_ Rumford was hired as an assistant pharmacist at Highland Hospital in Oakland, the first African American to be hired by the hospital.  He worked under Dr. Benjamin Black, described as an outstanding authority in hospital administration" as well as "a very prejudiced person" who did not want to hire Rumford due to concerns he would "make trouble" and also was reluctant to grant him pay raises.

Rumford became co-owner of a pharmacy in Berkeley in 1942 at the age of 34, which he later purchased outright and renamed Rumford's Pharmacy.  He tried to continue with his job at Highland Hospital while running the pharmacy.  Eventually, Rumford decided to leave Highland Hospital, devoting his time fully to the pharmacy. 

In addition to his business, Rumford was director of the Red Cross Oakland chapter, President of the East Bay Health Association, and a member of the Democratic Central Committee for the Bay Area.

In 1944, he was appointed by Governor Earl Warren to the Rent Control Board, a state agency that was part of a federal wartime program during World War II dedicated to keeping wages and rents down. 1

He helped found the Berkeley Interracial Committee in 19__.

William Byron Rumford Plaza (c.c. photo)Rumford served in the California State Assembly from 19481966, with a special focus on in fair employment, control of air pollution, and fair housing.

In 1955, Rumford first introduced a Fair Housing Act, and in 1963, the California State Legislature passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act which outlawed restrictive covenants and the refusal to rent or sell property on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, marital status, or physical disability. 2 A group of well funded realtors and landlords put together and passed Proposition 14 which would amend the state constitution to allow property owners to deny minorities equal access. The state Supreme Court ruled it was in violation of the state constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling and also noted it was in violation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

He was a member of the Prince Hall Freemasons.

Death and Burial

Rumford died in 1986, and is buried in Mountain View Cemetery along with Elsie who died in 2002.

The Rumford Freeway (part of Highway 24) is named for him, as is the Byron Rumford Post Office located at 1301 Clay Street in the Federal Building. His archives are at AAMLO.

Rumford grave
photo CC SA-BY Our Oakland
Plaque adjacent to Highway 24
CC SA-BY Our Oakland

Memorials and Remembrances

Doug Harris, a noted documentarian who normally focuses on sports personalities, is in the final editing process of a documentary about Mr. Rumford called "Fair Legislation". The movie is expected to be released in the next few months. 3

Links and References

  1. William Byron Rumford on Wikipedia
  2. Fair Housing on Wikipedia
  3. Sports documentarian Harris takes on a political topic, Sam Whiting, San Francisco Chronicle, July 27, 2015