Stephen White Statue

A statue of former U.S. Senator Stephen M. White. Los Angeles Explorers Guild.

Stephen White Statue

At the entrance to Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, a statue of former U.S. Senator Stephen Mallory White looks toward the Los Angeles Harbor he helped to develop. But a dark legacy overshadows his achievements.

Stephen M. White, the Father of San Pedro

As a U.S. Senator in the late 1800s, Stephen Mallory White’s lasting legacy was championing a bill that would open up the development of a deep-water harbor in San Pedro. He was, of course, successful.

Without White’s efforts, San Pedro likely wouldn’t have been developed into the bustling port it is today. Instead, political forces probably would have succumbed to the heavy push by railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington (uncle to Pacific Electric Railway owner Henry Huntington), who really wanted to develop a deep water port in Santa Monica.

Today, a bronze statue honoring White, the man called the Father of San Pedro, stands vigil, looking out over the breakwater toward the busy port that is the result of the man’s legislative efforts. But the statue, which is 120 years old, has only stood at the gateway to San Pedro for the last 32 of those years. Before that, its presence loomed large in Downtown Los Angeles.

A statue of former U.S. Senator Stephen M. White. Los Angeles Explorers Guild.
Statue of Stephen M. White, the Father of San Pedro, standing outside the gates to Cabrillo Beach. Photo from the author’s collection.

The Stephen White Statue Got Around

Stephen White, after a lifetime of political service, died in 1901 at the age of 48. Deaf sculptor Donald Tilden was commissioned to craft White’s likeness in bronze. The result featured White, standing eight feet tall with right arm outstretched as if making an impassioned pronouncement, was installed atop a pedestal of granite and concrete in front of the old County Courthouse (the “Red Sandstone Courthouse” where the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center stands today) in 1908.

When the old courthouse was demolished in 1936 (after it was damaged in the Long Beach earthquake), the Stephen White Statue was moved again. Accounts differ about how many spots the statue occupied in total, but it was installed for a time at the old Hall of Records (at Temple and Broadway) and also at the still-standing Federal Courthouse and U.S. Post Office Building at N. Hill St. and W. 1st St., where his raised right hand pointed toward San Pedro.

Stephen White Statue in front of the Federal Courthouse and U.S. Post Office Building, sometime in the 1940s. Photo from the Los Angeles Library Photo Collection, Herman J. Schultheis Collection.

But for much of the statue’s residence in Downtown Los Angeles (as early as 1937), officials from the city of San Pedro had been petitioning the City of Los Angeles and the State of California to move the statue from Downtown to its the San Pedro area, where they felt it belonged.

So when the statue was removed from its Downtown perch and stashed in a storage yard while the Metro was being built in 1988, the port politicians took the opportunity to act.

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Since it was unknown how long the statue would be in storage, and it would have to be had to be moved again, the County Board of Supervisors approved a motion to relocate the Stephen White Statue to its current home in San Pedro. He’s stood there since February 23, 1989.

As the final line of the plaque mounted on the front of the statue states:

“This statue of Stephen M. White has been relocated to its just and final resting place overlooking the federal breakwater through the efforts of the county, city, and port of Los Angeles.”

But there are some, such as Superior Court Judge Michael L. Stern, who think that the statue should be removed all together.

The Dark Legacy of Stephen M. White

As a young man, Stephen White was an ambitious politician. He was elected as the Los Angeles District Attorney in 1882. From there he jumped to State Senator in 1886, during which served as Lieutenant Governor, before being the first native Californian chosen as a U.S. Senator, serving from 1893 through 1899.

But before his political success, he had a few failures. Although remembered as a Democrat, during his third try at L.A. District Attorney in 1879, he ran as a member of the populist Workingmen’s Party. This group was founded to oppose the post-railroad Chinese labor presence in California.

The party was rather successful in the 1878 election cycle, and this gave them the numbers necessary to re-draft California’s state constitution, primarily rallying against “cheap Chinese labor” and denying Chinese citizens the right to vote. All this ire towards the Chinese paved the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a federal law that was based on a person’s Chinese ancestry — not citizenship.

When the act was challenged in the Supreme Court, White, in his role as California Lieutenant Governor, co-wrote an appellate brief loaded with verbiage right out of the Workingmen’s Party handbook. This brief was instrumental in swaying the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the act’s prohibition against re-entry to the U.S. for anyone of Chinese ancestry who had traveled overseas, despite previous assurances they would be allowed to return.

Stephen M. White’s Tarnished Image

The Stephen White Statue honors the man for his service to both California and Los Angeles. It stands in San Pedro in honor of his role in making the Los Angeles Harbor what it is today. At his funeral, one of his eulogizers said, “He leaves behind a light which will shine for ages to come.”

But White’s strong anti-Chinese views and his use of legal knowledge to support the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that disrupted the lives of generations of Chinese Americans, will continue to cast a dark shadow on his once-shining image.

This has resulted in a call for the removal of the Stephen White Statue in San Pedro, so don’t be surprised if one day there’s nothing but an empty concrete plinth in front of the entrance to Cabrillo Beach.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Exclusion Act remained the law until it was repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943, 61 years after it was first passed.

Stephen M. White’s grave marker at the White Family plot on the grounds of Calvary Cemetery. Photo from the author’s collection.

Header image: Stephen White Statue. Photo from the author’s collection.

Stephen M. White Statue

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Tom Fassbender is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. When not exploring Los Angeles, he’s been known to enjoy a cup of coffee or two. You can find him at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


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