Nearly a century ago, racial tensions forced Mesa’s black residents to live at the city’s northern edge and establish a separate society with their own churches and stores.
Even Mesa’s swimming pool was whites-only, forcing black children to swim in a canal.
But the residents of the Washington Park neighborhood came to have something by 1929 that even Mesa’s white residents took note of — Dr. Lucius Alston.
The city’s first black doctor initially practiced from his two-story bungalow whose chandeliers made it known as “house of lights.”
The house remained a prominent feature until the doctor’s death in 1958. It fell into disrepair and was nearly torn down a few years ago to make way for affordable housing.
Finally, the Alston House’s significance has been recognized by joining the National Register of Historic Places. It’s only the 25th property in Mesa with that distinction.
Few people outside of the neighborhood know about the doctor or his home, said Di-Ann Hunter, who worked across the street from the house for 20 years at the Washington Activity Center. But she said the historic designation has been a source of pride in the community and that interest in the site has grown.
“It’s like a jewel that’s been hidden for many years,” Hunter said. “Since it’s been on the registry, a lot of people are coming around and driving by, and admiring.”
Mesa restored the home a year ago and leases it to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Committee and the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens. The groups plan to begin using the house on a regular basis this fall, promoting civil rights while offering social services, legal clinics and hosting community events.
Attorney Phil Austin lived three doors from the Alston House during part of his childhood and said the restored house can be a center to help boost one of Mesa’s poorest areas.
“It’s not just a historic monument,” said Austin, president of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens. “We see it to be a lifeblood for the community, to enhance the community and the residents of the community.”
The area will also get a boost in the next year as the adjacent Escobedo Neighborhood’s dilapidated housing will be torn down to make way for new housing. And this summer, the Washington Activity Center will become the site of classes offered by Edu-Prize charter school.
The Alston House, 435 N. Pima St., is northeast of the intersection of Center Street and University Drive.
Research by Mesa indicates Alston was one of just 805 black doctors in the U.S. in 1930. He treated blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans — and white people who would line up at his door in the middle of the night because they didn’t want it known a black doctor treated them.
Some patients were embarrassed at the diseases they contracted and sought treatment for, said John Goodie, a founding member of Mesa’s MLK committee. But other accounts show some white patients were convinced Alston was the best doctor in town.
Alston’s widow, Velma, remained in the home after his death. She and their son, Lucius Jr., have since died. Lucius Jr.’s daughter gave the house to the East Valley Habitat for Humanity in 2001, and it likely would have been torn down had Mesa not acquired the home in 2007.
Despite Alston’s legacy, many details of his life are elusive. Those who worked to preserve the house haven’t been successful in contacting the doctor’s granddaughter or other relatives, Goodie said.
“We have tried and tried, but we have not been able to come up with any photographs of him,” Goodie said. “Everything’s kind of far removed.”
Organizers are still working to tell the story of the home, the doctor and the people who lived in the neighborhood through the decades. Hunter said there are still leads that will be followed, like finding a photo of Velma Alston.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten much of that information,” she said. “But we will get it.”
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