The City of Milpitas will pay tribute Saturday to former Mayor Ben F. Gross, the civil rights and union leader who in the 1960s became one of the first African-American mayors in California.
The event is planned at 12 p.m. Feb. 23 at Barbara Lee Senior Center, 40 N. Milpitas Blvd.
Gross died Aug. 13 in Detroit at age 91. He was one of the first black city council members in Santa Clara County when he was elected in Milpitas in 1962. He served a term as mayor starting in 1966 and he was on the council until 1971.
According to historians and BlackPast.org, Gross was born and raised in McGehee, Arkansas, in 1921. In Arkansas, he lived under Jim Crow Laws - legal segregation - and picked cotton during the Great Depression.
"He was inspired to oppose racial discrimination after being restricted from entering the downstairs area of a theater with a white friend and forced instead to sit upstairs," according to BlackPast.org.
During his senior year at Lake Village Central High in Lake Village, Arkansas, Gross led a successful protest against discrimination and segregation in the school.
"In 1948, Gross left Arkansas for the first time when he was inducted into the U.S. Army," according to BlackPast.org. "After his discharge a year later, he moved to Richmond, California, and went to work for the Ford Motor Company. In this capacity, he joined UAW Local 560 and immediately became active in union politics. In 1950 he became the first African American elected to Local 560's bargaining committee. In that capacity he was responsible for handling grievances at Ford's Richmond plant."
Gross was appointed as Local 560's housing committee chairman in 1954, and he was responsible for making sure that Local 560 workers - regardless of race - had comfortable and affordable housing when Ford relocated its plant from Richmond to Milpitas in 1955.
"To ensure that goal, Gross and other union leaders created the Sunnyhills cooperative development, the first planned interracial community in America sponsored by a labor union," according to BlackPast.org.
The Sunnyhills housing became one of the first integrated neighborhoods in Santa Clara County.
"That was the only unit of houses in California and, I imagine, in the United States where blacks and whites could move in on the same basis," Gross said in a 1992 interview with the San Jose Mercury News.
According to U.S. Census data from 1960, Milpitas was 94 percent white, with 6,179 white residents and 277 blacks.
In Milpitas, Gross' term as mayor to the City Council earned him national attention with a full-page photo in Life Magazine on Oct. 13, 1967, which appeared with an article on black mayors, according to the Mercury News.
He was also featured in Jet magazine, where local newspaper publisher Morton Levine said he didn't get elected because of his race, but "because he has the ability to lead the city," the Mercury News reported in an obituary.
The Ford factory closed in 1984 and was converted into a shopping mall, "The Great Mall of the Bay Area," which opened in 1994.
The City of Milpitas is promoting the Saturday event with fliers that state:
"Celebrate our community's history and pay tribute to Milpitas' former Mayor, Ben Gross, whose time in Milpitas changed the face of both Milpitas and the Nation!
"Mr. Gross was the first African-American mayor west of the Mississippi, was instrumental in the founding of Sunnyhills Neighborhood and was a respected leader in the United Autoworkers Union. Enjoy words in honor of Ben's work and life, live music, and light refreshments at this important event."
The event is sponsored by Crowne Plaza San Jose-Silicon Valley and the City of Milpitas.