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Perez vs. Sharp

Ended Miscegenation Laws in California

Photo courtesy of Free-Photos & Pixabay.com.

In 1948, Andrea Perez, a Mexican American woman, age 24, and Sylvester Davis, an African American man and World War II veteran employed at Lockheed, age 26, filed a lawsuit against then Los Angeles County Clerk W. G. Sharp (Perez vs. Sharp, October 1, 1948). Almost a year earlier, they sought a marriage license from the Los Angeles County Clerk’s Office, but were denied because Perez was racially classified as "white" and Davis as "negro." At the time, under California state law, no marriage license could be issued between a "white" person and "negro" person.

Seventeen years earlier, in 1931, another couple, Solvador Roldan, a Filipino man, and Marjorie Rogers, a British white woman, had also been denied a marriage license in Los Angeles County due to race. California law prohibited marriage between persons classified as "white" and anyone classified as "negro," "mulatto," or "Mongolian." There was some confusion, however, as to whether Filipinos were classified as "Mongolian race" (specifically prohibited from marrying whites) or "Malay race" (not specifically prohibited from marrying whites). In the case of Roldan and Rogers, the Los Angeles County Clerk denied their marriage license application on the grounds that Roldan was of the "Mongolian race." The couple subsequently went to court, arguing that Roldan was of the "Malay race," not "Mongolian race." Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Walter Gates ruled in their favor, allowing the couple to be legally married. The county appealed the decision, but the California Court of Appeal agreed that Roldan was of the "Malay race," thus allowed to marry a white person. The California Supreme Court declined to hear further appeal, allowing lower court decisions to stand. Because this was unacceptable to the powers at the time, the California legislature amended the law to include a prohibition of marriage between whites and people of the "Malay race." The amended law was signed in 1933 by Governor James Rolph.

As for Perez and Davis, their legal complaint brought a new argument. Because they were both Catholic and the church was willing to marry them, the state was denying their right to participate in one of the sacraments of their religion, the sacrament of marriage. They were being denied the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. Their case made its way to the California Supreme Court which ultimately agreed with the couple and overturned California’s 98-year-old miscegenation laws. California became the first state in the 20th century to repeal these laws (at least nine other states had already done so before the end of the 1800s). This decision came 19 years before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all remaining miscegenation laws across the nation in Loving v. Virginia.

Also see: Interracial Marriage in Los Angeles County.