Kenneth C. Kelly, Champion of Desegregation in California, Dies at 94

Kenneth C. Kelly, Champion of Desegregation in California, Dies at 94

Kenneth C. Kelly just wanted to buy a house near his office. As an electrical engineer, he moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1953; Four years later, with a growing family, he dreamed of having a home in one of the city's fast-growing suburbs.

His focus was on Gardena, not far from his job as an engineer with Hughes Aircraft Co. in Culver City. But he couldn't get a real estate agent to return his calls, and he knew why: he was black.

"They would play games, say nothing was available, blah blah blah," he said in a 2009 interview.

Mr. Kelly jokingly asked a white friend if he would buy a house for him; He'll pay it back, said Mr. Kelly. To his surprise, the friend said yes, and a few weeks later the white residents of the neighborhood were shocked to see Mr. Kelly and his family move in.

"The neighbors were in arms," ​​he said. "But it was my house."

At work, Mr. Kelly was a respected scientist who designed antennas for communicating with satellites and spacecraft. In Gardena it was often treated as a plague. Someone wrote an anonymous note asking them to leave, claiming that he and his family had degraded the values ​​in the neighborhood.

In 1963 a new job took him to Northridge in the suburb of San Fernando Valley. Again he had to ask a white friend to buy his house; again he faced constant difficulties. The neighbors refused to say hello and crossed the street so as not to overtake him on the sidewalk.

Mr. Kelly's experience was typical of middle-class black families who wanted to settle in the booming suburbs of the post-war era. But instead of moving or suffering quietly, he joined the San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council, where he ran "tests" – sending black home buyers to agents and then suing if they were discriminated against. He was so determined to break down barriers to home ownership for blacks that he quit his job as a real estate agent in 1973.

During the training, his instructor told him that a black man couldn't sell houses in the valley. The area is not only over 80 percent white, twice the size of the rest of Los Angeles, but the biggest attraction is the promise of the lily-white “good life”.

The instructor was wrong. Within a few years, Mr. Kelly was one of the best salespeople in the valley, running black families in neighborhoods where there were few, if any, people of color. He also joined the San Fernando Valley Board of Realtors and served on state-level committees. In 1979 he was named Realtor of the Year for the valley.

In 1986 he returned to engineering and worked again for Hughes. At this point the valley was far more diverse, partly due to the efforts of Mr. Kelly.

He died on February 27, aged 94, at his home in Sherman Oaks, another neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. He had Parkinson's, said his son Ron. Mr. Kelly is also survived by his wife Anne; his sister Gloria John; another son, Steven; and two grandchildren. Another son, David, died in 1994.

1968, not long after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Kelly was approached by Harriet Glickman, a white, socially conscious colleague on the Fair Housing Council. She had reached out to Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts, to ask if he would consider adding a black character. Herr Schulz had politely declined and said it might appear patronizing.

Undeterred, Ms. Glickman thought that Mr. Kelly might be luckier if he addressed Mr. Schulz in the same way. In a letter to him, Mr. Kelly advocated a black character who would just be one of the gangs, a "surplus" whose skin color would be random.

"A charge of paternalism," he wrote, "would be a small price to pay for the positive results that would result!"

His words won over Mr. Schulz and Franklin Armstrong made his debut on July 31, 1968 in Peanuts as a friend of Charlie Brown, who happened to be black.

Kenneth Constantine Kelly was born on March 6, 1928 in Manhattan and grew up on the Lower East Side, where he was one of the few black children in a sea of ​​new European immigrants. He later said he could count 10 languages ​​spoken in his elementary school class.

His parents, Herbert and Ethlyn (Davis) Kelly, were immigrants themselves after arriving from Jamaica a few years earlier. Mr. Kelly's father worked for a railroad and was killed when Kenneth was 18 months old.

His mother was a domestic maid and seamstress who lived with families for extended periods, and his brother and sister did odd jobs, leaving Kenneth at home alone. Bored, he began to tinker with electrical devices and built a battery when he was 8 years old.

When he told his teachers that he wanted to be an engineer, most of them said that as a black student he set too high a goal. However, a teacher encouraged him to apply to the highly selective Brooklyn Technical High School.

Mr. Kelly graduated from Brooklyn Tech in 1946 and applied for a position as a radio and radar technician in the Navy. He was rejected. Although the military began to split up, many in the Navy still viewed black men as stewards and cooks.

Undaunted, he wrote a letter outlining his case, and within a few weeks he was learning about the latest innovations in maritime communications technology.

He later returned to New York to attend the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, now the New York University Engineering School. He graduated in 1953, the same year he married Gloria White. They took their honeymoon to South Carolina; On the way back, a truck cracked in front of them, hit their car and killed them instantly.

Endeavoring to ease his grief, Mr. Kelly applied for jobs in the booming aerospace industry in Southern California. More than one company turned him down, saying he would never find an apartment close enough.

But Hughes, who was heavily involved in radar and missile guidance research, was keen to hire him. When some white engineers said they weren't going to work with a black man, they were told to resign. The company even paid him for a masters degree from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Mr. Kelly rose quickly to Hughes and became a division manager in 1958. Four years later, he went to Rantec Corp., a subcontractor to NASA, where he helped design massive ground-based radio transmitters used to communicate with orbiting spacecraft, including the Apollo missions, and with satellites – the basis of modern day satellite radio and television .

His second marriage to Loretta Kelly ended in divorce. He met his third wife, Anne, a Michigan fair living attorney, during a meeting sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. They married in 1988.

Mr. Kelly completed his career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California and retired in 2002. His last research included developing devices that would enable Mars rovers to communicate with Earth, some of which are still in use today.

"I meet so many people who are so pessimistic," he said in 2009. "I always thought I could."


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