Marilyn Pursley can recount with crystal-clear precision the day her neighbor ran screaming from the house when she saw that a black family was moving in next door.
She can also recall the numerous white couples who visited properties in “caucasian-only” Berkeley neighborhoods, signing leases so that black couples in Berkeley could live in a decent area.
“They’d come looking at the house pretending to be buyers, and then the black families would move in!” Pursley said recently with a hearty laugh that belied her 96 years.
As a stalwart in the Berkeley real-estate business for more than 60 years, Pursley is just now retiring from Thornwall Properties – the North Berkeley business she started in 1984 after decades of deep frustration with the racial and socioeconomic discrimination she witnessed in the Berkeley housing market.
Pursley originally moved to the Bay Area in 1943 to work as one of the original “Rosie the Riveters” in the Richmond shipyards.
“It took me six weeks to learn how to weld,” Pursley said. At her retirement party from Thornwall, held in late January, Pursley reached into her wallet and proudly displayed the original welder’s certification card she was given during her year in the shipyards.
“The hardest position was overhead!” she said, as she recalled how she would often get sparks in her eyes if she didn’t slam her protective hood down fast enough.
At a recent City Council meeting, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates honored Pursley with a special Berkeley Citizen’s Award in recognition of both her Rosie the Riveter role and her efforts to combat racism in real-estate practices in the 1950s. Most significantly, Pursley prompted an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) investigation into the issue that helped end segregation in the real-estate industry, as well as a ban on non-whites as Realtors.
At her retirement party last month, Pursley’s friends and family gathered around her table poring over old photos and coaxing a lifetime of memories out of a humble woman who believes that “everything she did was just part of her life,” according to Mary Canavan, Pursley’s co-worker at Thornwall since 1998.
““I think that Marilyn was always driven by a sense of justice and fairness, and she always did whatever she thought was necessary – she wasn’t one to shy away from things,” Canavan said.
“She was the one who washed dishes and then showed up on the protest lines.”
Helping to redefine Berkeley real estate
While housing discrimination laws in the Deep South in the 1940s to 1960s may have been more widely documented, Berkeley practiced a similar, although unwritten, form of housing segregation that belied the area’s “progressive” namesake, according to Pursley. Real estate and commercial practices severely limited black and Asian-American homeowners to residing in the southern and western neighborhoods of the city. They were also barred from working in downtown businesses, banks, and university positions. (See Berkeley Apartheid: Unfair Housing in a University Town by Douglas Henry Daniels.)
Pursley felt this discrimination when, as a young, up-and-coming real-estate agent, she was denied admission to the Berkeley Board of Realtors. The reason? She was married to a black man, William Pursley.
“When I tried to join the board, they didn’t make it easy – they said I couldn’t join because I had a black husband,” Pursley explained. As an outsider, she struggled to land clients and couldn’t join the Realtors’ union.
“Someone would call and ask about your house — but they wouldn’t care if you weren’t a member on the board,” she said, speaking of the Board of Realtors. (Pursley is now an Honorary Member for Life of what’s now known as the California Association of Realtors.)
Pursley joined Vernon B. Morris Reality, a real-estate firm that continues to serve Berkeley’s black community. Morris was part of the “Realists,” an all-black real-estate group that existed until the 1970s. Pursley was invited to join, and Morris eventually sold her family their first house — a $13,000 home on Russell and Fulton.
“You had to be the face of buying your house, too,” Pursley said, remembering how her black husband “couldn’t be seen” until the deal on their new house — situated in a white neighborhood — had been closed.
Pursley recalled how the agent who sold her the house asked Morris, “are you sure she’s white?,” to confirm she was eligible to buy the house.
Outraged, Pursley made that important call to the ACLU. The investigation that followed detailed a pattern of racial discrimination against black homeowners and real-estate agents in Berkeley, and forced the Board of Realtors to accept Pursley.
Pursley says that after the initial phone call, she wasn’t deeply involved in the ACLU investigation. However, her admission to the Board of Realtors gave her the status she needed to help start integrating Berkeley neighborhoods.
Alongside Berkeley housing activists such as Arlene Slaughter, an “outstanding real-estate person,” according to Pursley, she worked against the prevailing racism to place black families in all-white neighborhoods like Crocker Highlands, or secure poor families starter homes or “cheapies” on Bancroft or San Pablo.
“She was getting people into homes that people probably didn’t think they would ever be able to buy,” Kathryn Hill, a retired Thornwall agent, said of Pursley.
“It’s twice as much work for half as much money, but you get twice the reward,” Hill said.
White couples also would pose as house buyers and sign leases for black families so they could move into previously all-white neighborhoods, a “common” activity among housing progressives, Hill said. “It was the only way that a black person could live in a nice neighborhood,” she said.
After years working at Vernon B. Morris Realty, and then at her own real-estate practice, Pursley founded Thornwall Properties along with nine real-estate agents, including Hill. Her goal was to create a collaborative, rather than competitive, real-estate community where agents could share tips and leads instead of being secretive about their work.
“At Thornwall, people would tell each other things — they knew they could trust each other. It was an amazing environment, and it’s still the case,” Hill said.
Canavan, who joined Thornwall at a time when the banks were still redlining, remembers Pursley forgoing taking listings in more lucrative areas like the Berkeley Hills for ones in West and South Berkeley.
“It was real estate in a somewhat idealistic way, and I think she’s really shown all along that you can do this from the heart, and leave the world a better place than if you were just trying to make money hand over fist,” said Canavan.
A lifetime of protest, as a Communist and civil-rights activist
Outside of real estate, Pursley was active in the progressive movement sweeping Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s. She was a registered member of the Communist Party, which caused her to lose her first job in Berkeley.
“She noticed one day that she had been followed as she came home from lunch,” Canavan said. “When she went back to work, her boss fired her. Her membership in the Communist Party had come to the attention of certain people.”
Pursley was heavily involved in the civil-rights and war protests of the time, participating in everything from campaigns on national issues like House Un-American Activities and the Vietnam war, to Berkeley-centered struggles surrounding the integration of black employees at banks and grocery stores.
“All the left-wingers were always protesting,” Pursley said. “We were always trying to integrate something. Even as small as someone who was getting evicted from their house — we would be there sitting on the stairs of the apartment.”
In her tight-knit, Southside Berkeley neighborhood, progressives and interracial families like her own found a haven of like-minded people. “There were no problems in the neighborhood,” she said. “We were all really left-wing, and prided ourselves on fighting racism.”
“The progressives were just a mutually supportive atmosphere of individuals where every person was playing their own part,” Jordan Vilchez, Pursley’s daughter said.
When asked why she protested, Pursley’s response displayed the matter-of-fact attitude she took with everything in her life — from real-estate jobs to the picket lines. “I am very much against these various activities,” she said.
The “rabble rouser” retires at 96
“I didn’t do anything very memorable, except hang in there,” Pursley insisted to her friends at her retirement party. “I remember when I met people and I told them I was in real estate, some people would step back a few paces!” But to her friends and the wider Berkeley community, this “Rosie” and “Realist,” leaves a 60+ year legacy of fighting for civil rights and an end to housing discrimination.
“The people who knew her as the ‘rabble rouser’ she was — and still is — in her generation are mostly gone,” Canavan said. “But she’s probably left our office as one of the few that truly championed the idea that the quality of the service is more important than the quantity of the transactions and the price point.”
“The first thing that comes to mind to me is a spirit of generosity and caring, and just really wanting to see some different things than what they had seen for so long,” Vilchez said of her mother.
Yet Pursley’s modesty surrounding her activist role will most likely leave many stories of her escapades untold. “I just wish I knew more,” Vichez said.
Op-ed: Berkeley must insist that developers build more affordable housing than currently required (06.18.15)
Joan Lester draws on her background for Mama’s Child (06.03.13)
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Emily Dugdale, a graduate of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, was a summer 2015 intern at Berkeleyside. Follow her on Twitter at @eedugdale.