Vada Watson Somerville (1885-1972)
DDS 1918 University of Southern California
Vada Watson was a telephone operator and bookkeeper when she married John Somerville, a dentist. With his encouragement, she became the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Southern California School of Dentistry. After ten years in practice together, problems arose when many patients preferred her over him. Somerville chose the marriage over her practice and left dentistry in 1930 to work towards improving civil rights in Los Angeles.
Civil Rights Power Couple
The Somervilles were keenly aware of racial inequalities. They used their professional status to work for social change and civil rights for African Americans in Los Angeles. In 1913, they formed the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Their home was a focal point for civil rights activity.
Because Los Angeles hotels were segregated, the Somervilles built a deluxe hotel for visiting African Americans. In 1928, they hosted the national convention of the NAACP. Unfortunately, the stock market crash forced them to sell the building. Renamed the Dunbar Hotel, it hosted visiting black entertainers and was a center of cultural life for decades.
Somerville worked for social reform in numerous ways. In the 1940s, she helped create Stevens House, a multiracial dorm at UCLA to promote interracial understanding. In 1952, Somerville and other members of the Women’s Council for Better Community Relations met with Los Angeles’ Mayor Bowron.