Perez and Davis: The Love Story that Abolished California's Law Against Interracial Marriage

Jhemmylrut Teng

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Photo by Drew Coffman(Source: Unplash)

California is one of the most diverse states in the United States. It's a mosaic of different cultures from all parts of the globe. California's history was also colorful, especially that before it became part of America, it was first under the colony of Spain.

The diversity of cultures in California opened to tons of exposure to various possibilities, including matters of the heart. Despite such a reality, the fact speaks that California was one of the infamous states in the U.S. that banned interracial marriage. Specifically, white women against people of color such as Native Americans, Hindus (South Asian), Mongolians (Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans), and the Malays (Filipino).

Nevertheless, bad things also had their end. In 1948, the love story of Andrea Perez and Sylvester Davis stopped California's unjust treatment of dictating whom a person should fall in love with.

California's Anti-Miscegenation Law

As early as 1850, when the State of California became an official state, its officials were infamous for banning relationships and marriage between whites and blacks. By 1901, at the height of Chinese exclusion in California, the anti-miscegenation law was amended and included the "Mongolians."

In the early 20th century, when Filipino men (also called the "manongs") arrived in California, they were first allowed to marry Caucasian women since their race did not belong to the prohibited classification.

Also, at the time, Filipinos were colonists of America. Therefore, technically they were somehow American citizens. Eventually, white men turned their hatred from the Chinese to the Filipinos, dubbing them the "Third Asian invasion." White men perceived the manongs as a threat and competition for their jobs and the affection of white and Mexican women.

Riots between Filipino and white men spread like wildfire in the 1930s. Eventually, the hatred against Filipinos led to another amendment of the anti-miscegenation law, through the case of Roldan vs. Los Angeles County.

Roldan v. Los Angeles County

Many exclusionists called for the amendment of anti-miscegenation law to include the Malay race so that Filipinos can no longer marry white women. The sentiment came into a reality in 1933. When Salvador Roldan, a Filipino, was engaged to a white woman from England, Marjorie Rogers.

When they were applying for a marriage license, the Los Angeles County Clerk refused to give them one because Roldan was a Filipino. The clerk perceived Roldan as a Mongolian because of his Asian features, albeit he's a Filipino.

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Imperial Valley Press article on Roldan and Rogers "forbidden" marriage, 1931(Source: Library of Congress)

The couple petitioned for a writ of mandate to the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Judge Walter Gates granted the writ for the reason that Roldan was a Malay and not a Mongolian. The L.A. County Clerk was forced to issue him a marriage license. The City officials appealed the Superior Court's decision, but the court didn't act on it.

Therefore, in that same year, the California State Legislature voted to amend anti-miscegenation law, covering the "members of the Malay race." California Governor James Rolph signed the amendment into law on April 5, 1933.

"All marriages of white persons with Negroes, Mongolians, members of the Malay race, or mulattoes are illegal and void" - California Civil Code, Section 60

The amended law effectively and retroactively made all previous interracial marriages with Filipinos void and illegitimate.

Perez v. Sharp

According to research wrote by Robin A. Lenhardt in Fordham Law School, Perez and Davis worked in the same factory in California. They fell in love and decided to spend the rest of their lives as husband and wife.

They went to Los Angeles Country Clerk to apply for a marriage license. But they were refused by the county clerk, W.G. Sharp, because their relationship was illegal in the eyes of California's law.

Perez and Davis believed that they didn't violate any law since Perez was a Mexican. However, in California, Mexican Americans were considered as "mestizo" due to their Spanish heritage. For marriage purposes, Mexicans were regarded as "white," even though mestizos were not even at par in privileges the Anglo-Saxon whiteness received.

Still, the Los Angeles County Clerck perceived Perez's blood should not be blended with non-whites.

"I think the clerk in this case, wasn’t necessarily going by color. She understood, for purposes of marriage that go back to the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, that Mexican Americans would be treated as white.” - Robin A. Lenhardt

The couple didn't back down; Perez hired Attorney Daniel G. Marshall and filed a petition to California Supreme Court for an original writ of mandate to compel the issuance of the marriage license. Perez and Davis were both Catholics and wanted a Catholic marriage with a mass.

“They could have gone to another jurisdiction to marry because California, unlike Virginia, did not penalize people who left to get married. They did not want to exercise that option.” - Robin A. Lenhardt

Based on the record of Stanford Law School regarding the Perez v. Sharp case. The petitioners argued that if the Catholic church was willing to marry them, despite their racial differences, then all the more, the court should respect their rights to practice religion.

Atty. Marshal used such reasoning to the court, stating the anti-miscegenation law in the case of Perez and Davis was unconstitutional as it was violating their First Amendmentment rights.

"Petitioners contend that the statutes in question are unconstitutional on the grounds that they prohibit the free exercise of their religion and deny to them the right to participate fully in the sacraments of that religion. They are members of the Roman Catholic Church. They maintain that since the church has no rule forbidding marriages between Negroes and Caucasians, they are entitled to receive the sacrament of matrimony."
" The provision of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States that Congress shall make no law "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" is encompassed in the concept of liberty in the Fourteenth Amendment. State legislatures are therefore no more competent than Congress to enact such a law."

With such a clever and compelling argument, the final ruling was delivered by Justice Roger Traynor; it was four (4) out of three (3) and was in favor of Perez.

Apart from the right to exercise one's religion, the justices believed that anti-miscegenation law was too vague in determining a person's race.

"[In summary] we hold that sections 60 and 69 are not only too vague and uncertain to be enforceable regulations of a fundamental right, but that they violate the equal protection of the laws clause of the United States Constitution by impairing the right of individuals to marry on the basis of race alone and by arbitrarily and unreasonably discriminating against certain racial groups."

Justice Carter, who supported the decision, believed that the anti-miscegenation law was a "product of ignorance, prejudice, and intolerance."

"This decision is in harmony with the declarations contained in the Declaration of Independence which are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and reaffirmed by the Charter of the United Nations, that all human beings have equal rights regardless of race, color or creed, and that the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness is inalienable and may not be infringed because of race, color or creed. To say that these statutes may stand in the face of the concept of liberty and equality embraced within the ambit of the above-mentioned fundamental law is to make of that concept an empty, hollow mockery." - Justice Carter

On October 1, 1948, the California Supreme Court issued an opinion holding the state's anti-miscegenation law unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Los Angeles County issued Perez and Davis a marriage license and neither contested nor appealed the Supreme Court's decision.

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The Voice Magazine, published in November 18, 1948(Source: Library of Congress)

Perez and Davis underwent several legal challenges just to prove that love knows no race. The decision for Perez v. Sharp was monumental. It paved the way for all interracial couples to marry whomever they choose, not just in California but also in the entire United States of America.

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I am a PR officer and a professional journalist with a master's degree in international development. I write history, geopolitics, food, and culture. Since I am a member of the API community, I make sure to highlight our stories to promote diversity and create awareness for cultural understanding.

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