Miss Gertrude Peifer, Mrs. Wilfreda Brackett and Miss Julie McClure
By Maria E Garcia
Last week I wrote about three women who shaped the direction of Neighborhood House from the 1920’s to World War II. The leadership of Mary Snyder, Rebecca Halley and Anita Jones reflected the influence of the newly recognized profession of social work and the progressive era’s spirit of social reform.
There are three more women during the same time period and into the early 1950’s who deserve recognition for their contributions to Neighborhood House and the Logan Heights community.
Miss Gertrude Peifer came to Neighborhood House from Los Angeles where she had done social work with the Mexican population. While in Los Angeles she had also worked for a short period of time with the welfare department. Her educational training at had been at Loyola University. Her employment as director of Neighborhood House placed her in a familiar role. She had been director for six months before she was formally introduced at an annual luncheon.
Pictures of her show a rather matronly and well-dressed woman. Mac Colmenero remembered her driving a 1942 Pontiac coup. News articles from that time quote her as saying that her goal was to make Neighborhood House a clearing house for racial problems and focus on social and educational activities. Like others from that era her plan was to “Americanize” the foreign-born.
A January 22,1942 San Diego Union article quotes her as saying “A settlement House in an alien neighborhood can be a very important factor in bridging the gap between the native Americans (Anglos) and those who are trying to be good citizens of their adopted country.” To her credit she did say and believed that the “Mexican people have a lot to give us culturally.”
She was also very supportive of having Latinos work in the aircraft industry. She recognized that this was an opportunity for the community to work outside of the stereotyped employment. She knew the aircraft industry would also benefit from hiring hard working Mexican workers and that the Mexican workers would benefit from working in this area.
Dr. Armando Rodriguez says she endeared herself to the people in the barrio. She was also the woman that hired the young Armando Rodriguez to coach the boys in the neighborhood. In my interview with Armando he said he would work anytime he could, which means he worked Monday-Friday 5:00 -9:00 PM at Neighborhood House.
Whenever the opportunity came up he would work weekends. At this time he was attending college and needed to take advantage of any work hours that were available. As a child, Armando along with his sister, sold tamales door to door. Working at Neighborhood House was a step up.
Oscar Torres’ family rented one of the apartments from Mrs. Brackett. He described Miss Peifer as follows “she was great” though he does remember that she would come out and “yell at us.” That happened if they were very loud and playing outside after the Neighborhood House had closed. They would then cross the street to Lowell School and play kick ball in the dark. Tono, one of Oscar’s friends, remembers that the boys would climb up on a ladder outside Miss Peifer’s apartment to try to catch her undressing.
Neighborhood House received an eighty dollar gift from the San Diego American Association of Women Club. This money was used to purchase phonograph records, equipment for the cooking class, the wood working shop and arts and crafts material for 175 kids. I write about this because I am amazed at how much could be done with such a limited amount of money.
Miss Peifer also corresponded with boys from the Neighborhood House when they were overseas during the war. In my interview with Frank Peñuelas he remembered her writing about the police harassing the boys during the zoot suit/pachuco riot era. He said her words were “the police are still harassing our boy.” It is interesting that she saw and reported the abuse of police power when the majority community saw the boys as “the problem.”
In 1954, Tati Pena went to Miss Peifer and asked to use Neighborhood House for the first meeting of a new social club “Los Gallos.” Permission was granted and Neighborhood House became the meeting place for most social clubs.
Mrs. Wilfreda Brackett lived two doors down from Neighborhood House in a large two story house. The large building she owned allowed her to rent apartments to others in the community. Mrs. Brackett not only worked at Neighborhood House, she and her family were integrated into the daily lives of the neighborhood. She allowed her children to play with the other children in the community making her acceptance even stronger.
Documents show her title as an assistant to the nurse Miss Mary Hart Taylor. Various people I have interviewed thought Mrs. Brackett was a nurse or even referred to as “la doctora.” News articles refer to her as a city nurse. Whatever her official title was she provided medical support to the Logan Heights community. She had a medical bag and would make “house calls.” She was not trying to pass as a doctor, but because of her work at Neighborhood House it was simply the role the community expected of her.
People did not hesitate to knock on her door at any hour of the day or night and ask for medical advice. Mrs. Brackett was the person Mrs. Margaret Carriedo would take her boys to when they were ill, and the person that diagnosed her son Marcos as being ill from eating too many strawberries.
Irene Mena, a Chicana activist and a Brown Beret, had a very painful wart and was given some purple medicine that “made her well” right away. Mary Garcia said “we went to her home when we were sick.”
The general consensus was that she was a neighbor and a very nice person. Thus it was perfectly alright to knock on her door for medical advice at any time of the day or night. Mrs. Brackett also endeared herself to the community by being a liaison between the community and the Neighborhood House leadership.
She encouraged the celebrations in observation of Cinco de Mayo in the early 1920’s. As written about in the Tortillas’ Army articles Joe Ojeada would name one of his sons Tommy after one of Mrs. Brackett’s son Tommy. Tommy had died in the World War II.
Charlie Brackett, her other son, became a pharmacist and worked at a drug store in Hillcrest. When the plaque was presented to Miss Taylor for her services to Neighborhood House, one of the award presenters was Mary Brackett, daughter of Mrs. Brackett.
Miss Julie McClure is spoken of very highly by the girls who had been assisted by her. She was in charge of the girls programs and lived upstairs at Neighborhood House. Rose Castro remembers that every once in a while she would take the girls upstairs to her living quarters. In the upstairs living quarters you would find several bedrooms and a kitchenette. Miss Peifer also lived upstairs and thus they shared the living quarters.
Like the other women working at Neighborhood House she dressed in a matronly manner complete with “old lady” shoes. All the women have described her as very nice but Rose also remembers that she could have a temper. The girls did see her as a confidante and that you could share a problem with her and it would be kept a secret.
She taught the girls cooking, sewing knitting, and crocheting. Rose remembers knitting a sock. A very long sock. When she took the sock home her mother’s comment was “está muy grandote.” Miss McClure was very much aware of what was going on in the community. She knew which families had the need for a little extra help.
It was an accepted fact that a box of food at Thanksgiving or Christmas would be left at your door if the need was there. It seems that Miss McClure identified those families in need of this extra help and unlike today there were no long lines or forms to complete in order to receive support. The general consensus seems to be that those employees who had daily contact with the kids such as Miss McClure and Coach Pinkerton would develop the list of families in need.
This included the list for the “Ship Parties.” The navy would host a Christmas party with food and presents. The bus would pick up the kids at Neighborhood House and take the kids to the ship hosting the party. I remember attending one of these ship parties when I was about six years old. The two most vivid memories are of the fear of climbing a ship’s ladder and the beautiful baby doll Santa gave me.
Miss McClure encouraged the girls to join the Girl Scouts and was the sponsor of the Lucky 13. The Lucky 13 was a girls social club that was formed at Neighborhood House and also did community service.
The commitment and work of Miss Peifer, Mrs. Brackett and Miss McClure changed the lives of the families that came to Neighborhood House. Some of you may be critical of some of the quotes attributed to them. However equally important is that each of them became respected, well liked and very committed to the people of the Logan Heights community.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.