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Chaplain Love recalls era of unfair racial treament in Sonoma County


Love. Where in the world did the family name ?Love? come from?

?That I don?t know,? said Jesse Love, a son of sharecroppers and grandson of slaves, his brow furrowed in thought. The creases smoothed and a 10-megawatt smile lit his face as he added, ?I know it?s not from Africa.?

Wherever it?s from, the name sure fits.

Love, who came to Santa Rosa in 1942 as one of the first African-Americans to settle in the town, is about as benevolent and gracious as a man can be ? despite the way he was treated through much of his 87 years.

The Navy relegated him to cooking for officers at bases and shining their shoes, although he?d hoped to serve at sea as a full-fledged sailor. Institutional bigotry was why, in Santa Rosa in the 1940s and ?50s, a government clerk refused to issue him and his fiancee a marriage license, a landlady evicted him and an ex-Navy colleague who?d opened a burger counter near downtown?s former Greyhound station told him, ?I?m sorry, Love, I can?t serve you.?

?I?ve had some bad experiences,? Love acknowledged, ?some I will never tell.? He could dwell on them and he could despise the people who minimized him because he is black, but that?s not what he chooses to do with the life he considers a God-given gift.

Tears came to his eyes as he said, ?I don?t have any time to ... I just can?t hurt anyone.?

Love is a founding member of Community Baptist Church, a Pearl Harbor survivor, a chaplain for veterans organizations, and former longtime head housekeeper at Sonoma County?s community hospital. Above all, he is a counter of blessings.

He believes the best way to live is to treat everyone with cheer and respect and to trust that the people who hate will one day come around. ?You just have to be patient and do what?s right,? he said at his home in the South Park neighborhood.

His family was dirt poor when he was a kid in Grace, Miss., in the 1920s and the 1930s. His parents, Roosevelt and Irene Love, worked 20 acres as sharecroppers and hoped each year that the sale value of their yield would exceed what they owed to the landowner?s store.

?We accepted the conditions. We had some happy days,? Love said.

He wasn?t quite 18 when in November of 1939 he took what he figured was his one shot at improving his lot and enlisted in the Navy.

He hoped to become a machinist but learned that in the Navy of 1940, blacks were cooks or they were mess attendants. He did the work he was assigned, but also tried to persuade the Navy that he and the other blacks in uniform were capable of more.

?I would always go to my commanding officer and ask if I could become a motor machinist or an electrician. I?d had enough of food handling,? he said.

His requests for expanded duties went nowhere. ?I learned to accept,? he said. ?I took pride in trying to change what I didn?t like, without being court-martialed.?

Love spent most of his Navy years in Hawaii and Santa Rosa. He was working as an attendant to officers at the PBY-2 seaplane base at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese Navy attacked in December 1941 and drew the United States into World War II.

The bomb, torpedo and strafing attack took place all around him. ?It was horrible. The sound,? he recalled. ?I will never be able to explain it. I still have nervousness and I have bad dreams.?

The Navy transferred him in 1942 to Santa Rosa and to the officers? club and bachelor officers? barracks at the former Naval Auxiliary Air Station. Later that year he met Victoria Ruth Pearson, formerly of Alameda, at Courthouse Square.

They married and agreed that Santa Rosa would be their home. Not long after his discharge from the Navy in 1945, Love went to work at Max Barlas? feed store as a warehouseman.

In about 1960, he applied for work as a housekeeper at the county-owned hospital that later would be called Community Hospital and is now Sutter Medical Center. He was hired and worked his way up to manager of the crew of 31 that kept the hospital clean and in good working order.

A widower since Victoria died in 2000, Love stays busy by visiting ailing Community Baptist Church members and officiating at funerals as a chaplain. He also spends time with a dwindling corps of fellow World War II vets. The grandfather of two runs errands all around town in the beloved, blue 1972 Pontiac that he and Victoria bought new in 1972.

?We?ve had a good life,? affirmed the man named Love. ?A good life.?