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Sindecuse Museum

Vada Watson Somerville

Vada Watson Somerville and her College of Dentistry cohort, University of Southern California

Vada Watson Somerville, top row far right, pictured with her graduating class at the University of Southern California College of Dentistry. Photo courtesy of the University of Southern California, on behalf of USC Libraries Special Collections.

Vada Watson Somerville (1885-1972)
DDS 1918 University of Southern California

African-American Pioneer

Vada Watson was a telephone operator and bookkeeper when she married John Somerville, a dentist. With his encouragement, she became the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Southern California School of Dentistry. After ten years in practice together, problems arose when many patients preferred her over him. Somerville chose the marriage over her practice and left dentistry in 1930 to work towards improving civil rights in Los Angeles.

Civil Rights Power Couple

The Somervilles were keenly aware of racial inequalities. They used their professional status to work for social change and civil rights for African Americans in Los Angeles. In 1913, they formed the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Their home was a focal point for civil rights activity.

Hotel Somerville

Because Los Angeles hotels were segregated, the Somervilles built a deluxe hotel for visiting African Americans. In 1928, they hosted the national convention of the NAACP. Unfortunately, the stock market crash forced them to sell the building. Renamed the Dunbar Hotel, it hosted visiting black entertainers and was a center of cultural life for decades.

Other Efforts

Somerville worked for social reform in numerous ways. In the 1940s, she helped create Stevens House, a multiracial dorm at UCLA to promote interracial understanding. In 1952, Somerville and other members of the Women’s Council for Better Community Relations met with Los Angeles’ Mayor Bowron.

 

Portraits of Vada Watson Somerville and her husband John.

Portraits of Vada Watson Somerville, left, and her husband John Somerville, right. Click to view larger.

Somerville/Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles, 1938

Postcard of the Somerville/Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles, 1938. Text at bottom reads: "115 rooms—75 with bath. Rates $1.00 per day and up. Weekly rates $5.00 and up."  Courtesy of the University of Southern California, on behalf of USC Libraries Special Collections. Click to view larger.

Vada Somerville at Women’s Council for Better Community Relations, January 29, 1952

Vada Somerville, second from right, and the Women’s Council for Better Community Relations with Los Angeles’ Mayor Bowron, January 29, 1952. Photo courtesy of the University of Southern California, on behalf of USC Libraries Special Collections. Click to view larger.