The Short Family: An American Tragedy
On December 16, 1945 a mysterious fire killed an African American family of four. O’Day Short, his wife Helen, and children Barry (8) and Carol Ann (7), lost their lives when their home exploded. Over 70 years since the firebombing of the African Americans’ family home, the mystery still exists as to the exact circumstances that occurred that day. After all these years, there are still many unanswered questions due in part to the city of Fontana’s racist past. The city was once the home to a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan as well as headquarters for the Hell’s Angels. The KKK marched in parades as late as the 1970s.
For many years North Fontana, the area north of Baseline Road, was the only area Blacks were allowed to live. There was a saying at the time that most people knew: “Baseline is the race line.” In 1945, O’Day Short, a refrigeration engineer from Los Angeles, built a home on a five- acre lot at the corner of Randall and Pepper Avenue, an area south of Baseline. Short, a civil rights activist, knew he was challenging Fontana’s de-facto segregation policy when he purchased the property. Soon after the home was built, the family was visited by vigilantes and ordered to move or risk harm, but they refused. Short contacted the County Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff’s deputies urged O’Day Short to move north to avoid “having anything ‘disagreeable’ happen to his family” (Davis, 400). The sheriffs were followed by the local Chamber of Commerce who offered to buy the property from the Shorts at cost. Again, the Shorts refused. At this point, Mr. Short had already notified the FBI, the NAACP, and the Black Press.
On December 16, 1945 the family home exploded in a fireball, killing Hellen, Barry and Carol Ann Short. O’Day Short survived almost a month before dying, soon after the District Attorney, Jerome Kavenaugh, told him about his family’s deaths.
Helen Short’s sister, Carrie Stokes Morrison, confirmed that the family received threats less than two weeks before they were burned to death in the fire. The family demanded a full investigation. At the time the allegations of arson made the District Attorney call for an inquiry justice and the San Bernardino Sun newspaper hinted at foul play. The subsequent inquiry listed the cause of death as an accidental house fire. The result of the investigation by the California Department of Justice in 1946 determined the blaze was accidental. Authorities claimed that Mr. Short was lighting an oil lamp which exploded. Meanwhile, the NAACP hired their own arson investigator, Paul T. Wolfe, who found the lamp intact and determined that the fire was set from the exterior, which had been soaked with coal oil, thus causing the explosive blaze witnesses reported seeing.
Thankfully, the story of the Short family has not been lost to history. It was chronicled in Mike Davis’ book, City of Quartz, which offers an unflattering history of Los Angeles and its surrounding environs – including Fontana. In addition, on June 6, 1999 the Daily Bulletin published a 3-page story on the Short family tragedy by then staffer, David Bradvica.
The story was further pursued by Edwardo Gil, a former Fontana resident, who read Davis’ book as well as Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen. Gil, a musician, wanted to draw attention to the atrocity, so he wrote a song about it titled, O’Day Short. Gil tried to drum up support to re-open the case, even attempting to contact the city’s mayor and district attorney, to no avail.
In 1950 the Randall Pepper Elementary School was erected over the land on which O’Day Short intended to settle his family. In 2015, community members from across the Inland Empire gathered at the school to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the tragic event. Nearly two dozen residents stood on the site of the fire. Attendees left flowers, candles, and signed a petition to have a Peace Pole donated to the school in the name of the Short family. Ipyani Lockert of Fontana said that it would be “the first step in sparking a conversation about naming the school after the family.”
Article submitted by: Sharon Smith-Knight
Allen, David. “O’Day Short tragedy still smolders in Fontana.” Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, 16 Dec. 2015, pg 6.
Davis, Mike. City of Quartz. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
MacDuff, Cassie. “A Puzzling Piece of History.” Press Enterprise, 13 Dec. 2015, News 2.
Moreno, Nereida. “Community members gather to remember Fontana family killed in fire.” Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, 16 Dec. 2015 , n.p.
Subjects: African American history; Victims of hate crimes; Fontana (Calif.)