A young California duo, Dr. J. Alexander Somerville and Dr. Vada Watson Somerville (shown in the group photo, courtesy of the UCLA Library for Oral History Research at the Hotel Somerville groundbreaking in 1928) made a conscious choice to bring the challenges of the workday home, much like in today’s post-pandemic world, where it’s often difficult to delineate between the two.

The first African American man and woman to graduate from the University of Southern California (USC) School of Dentistry (1907 and 1918, respectively) shared a commitment to progress in the dental profession and in their local community.

Founded in their living room in 1913: the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

During Black History Month, and every day, the dental community honors the contributions of African Americans to U.S. history and oral health care.

First in his class

Dr. J. Alexander Somerville, according to a feature in a USC publication by writer Sarah Lifton, worked to finance his dental education at the University, and despite a student protest, earned a degree — and the highest GPA in the Class of 1907. Jamaican-born, the young dentist earned U.S. citizenship, and became the second black member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

‘Civil rights power couple’

In the five years that followed, Dr. Somerville joined forces with a counterpart who shared his ambition and ideals: USC undergrad Vada Watson, a California native.

The result: a loving, supportive union that spanned 60 years, outlasted four wars and a stock market crash, and helped others rise above the segregation of their time.

According to Sindecusemuseum.org, the “civil rights power couple” worked for social reform in Los Angeles by:

  • erecting a first-class, 26-unit apartment building to help ease the housing crisis faced by Black residents,
  • building the first deluxe hotel for visiting African Americans (groundbreaking shown above, courtesy of the UCLA Library for Oral History Research at the Hotel Somerville groundbreaking in 1928),
  • hosting the national convention of the NAACP,
  • creating a multiracial dorm at UCLA.

Be inspired by their perseverance by learning more in Dr. John Somerville’s autobiography, Man of Color. (Idea: support a Black-owned bookstore in the process.)