When Dr. John Somerville arrived in California in 1902, he was shocked by the lack of accommodations for people of color on the West Coast. Black travelers usually stayed with friends or relatives. Regardless of income, unlucky travelers usually had to room in "colored boarding houses" that were often dirty and unsafe. "In those places, we didn't compare niceness. We compared badness," Somerville's colleague, Dr. H. Claude Hudson remembered. "The bedbugs ate you up." 1 Undeterred by the segregation and racism that surrounded him, Somerville was the first black man to graduate from the USC dental school. In 1912, he married Vada Watson, the first black woman to graduate from USC's dental school.
By 1928, the Somervilles were a power couple -- successful dentists, developers, tireless advocates for black Angelenos, and the founders of the L.A. chapter of the NAACP. As the Great Migration brought more black people to L.A., the city cordoned them off into the neighborhood surrounding Central Avenue. Despite boasting a large population of middle and upper class black families, there were still no first class hotels in Los Angeles that would accept blacks. In 1928, the Somervilles and other civic leaders sought to change all that. Somerville "entered a quarter million dollar indebtedness" and bought a corner lot at 42nd and Central. 2 On this lot, in the heart of L.A.'s black community, a $250,000 four story hotel was built. It is said that only African-American labor and craftsmen were used.
The Hotel Somerville boasted 100 guest rooms, 60 private baths, and assorted public rooms, all dressed with $35,000 worth of custom furniture. The opening gala in June 1928 brought out over 5,000 people. "It was a palace compared to what we had been used to," H. Claude Hudson remembered. 3 Like most grand hotels, there were numerous businesses within the building (many run by women). Over the years these included a 100 seat dining room, bar, popular café, flower shop, nightclub, barbershop, ladies' hairdresser, and a stenographer's office. According to the L.A. Times:
The entrance had a spectacular art deco chandelier and flagstone floors and arched windows and tiled floors. The main lobby looked like a regal Spanish arcade, with open balconies and steel grillwork.
The Somerville quickly became the unofficial town hall/country club of black Los Angeles. The hotel's guest rooms were consistently booked by various cosmopolitan visitors, including many entertainers (Josephine Baker), sports stars (Joe Louis) and important thinkers like Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. The year it opened, the first West Coast convention of the NAACP was held in the hotel. W.E.B. DuBois was an honored guest. "It was a place where the future of black America was discussed every night of the week in the lobby," Celes King III recalled. "There were very serious discussions between people like W.E.B. DuBois, doctors, lawyers and educators and other professionals. This was the place where many of them put together plans to improve the life style of their people.