Fresno civil rights activist Jesse McDonald Jr. dies at age 90

Jesse McDonald Jr.
Jesse McDonald Jr. Courtesy photo

Jesse McDonald Jr., a longtime Fresno civil rights activist, the first African American member of the Fresno County Planning Commission and a co-founder of the African American Historical & Cultural Museum of the San Joaquin Valley, died Friday in Fresno at the age of 90.

Mr. McDonald was born in February 1926 to Jesse McDonald, a plastering contractor, and his evangelist wife, Ruth, after the family migrated from Mississippi to California. After graduating from Edison High School in 1943, he performed as a jazz drummer with a band on a USO tour around the country, earning acclaim from critics as “one of the fastest left-handed drummers in the country,” according to a 1971 biography published in the local newsletter Grapevine. He later met and married his first wife, Lulla Hampton, and in 1944 the pair had a daughter, Wyoma. Mr. McDonald also graduated from Fresno City College and from Moler Barber College, and owned and operated Omega Barber Shop in west Fresno for about 30 years.

In 1965, he was elected to the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission, serving for a time as vice president of that group. He made history in August 1966 when he was appointed to the Fresno County Planning Commission, becoming the first African American to serve on the panel.

Mr. McDonald was involved for years in local Democratic party politics. He was elected to the Fresno County Democratic Central Committee in 1956, and in 1960 was a member of a local minorities steering committee for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. In June 1968, on the day of the California Democratic primary, Mr. McDonald met in Los Angeles with President Kennedy’s younger brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was making his own presidential bid. Later that night, Kennedy was shot by an assassin after giving a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel.

In the 1960s, Mr. McDonald participated in a number of civil rights activities, including marching with United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez and walking in a 1968 Poor Peoples March to Sacramento.

He also had his own political aspirations, running an unsuccessful 1971 campaign for a seat on the Fresno County Board of Education. In 1983, Mr. McDonald came in fourth in a field of 10 candidates on the ballot for Fresno City Council District 3, a seat that was won by Les Kimber.

Outside of politics, Mr. McDonald was active with the Carter American Methodist Episcopal Church; Alpha Chi Pi Omega, a fraternity and sorority for the hair and beauty industry; the Fresno branch of the NAACP, for which he served as vice president; and the Elks Council, including a term as ruler of Fresno Council 119 and an appointment as a special assistant on legislative affairs to the California state Elks president in 1971.

Mr. McDonald’s first wife, Lulla, died in 1981. He was remarried in 1987 to the former Juanita Finley.

Throughout his life, Mr. McDonald maintained his love of both education and music, Juanita McDonald said. He graduated with honors from Fresno State in 1973 at the age of 46. “He would always try to get everyone he met to go to school or stay in school,” she said. And he kept a set of drums in their home until just a few years ago.

“When his first wife died, he started going to church again,” Mrs. McDonald said. She added that she used to take her five sons to Mr. McDonald’s barber shop for haircuts, but it wasn’t until he began regularly attending church in 1982 that they saw each other socially, dating for five years before they were wed. “He had a house and a job and a car, and I had a house and a job and a car,” Mrs. McDonald recalled. “And of course, he was very handsome.”

In the late 1960s, he began a second career with the state Employment Development Department, eventually rising to the rank of supervisor before retiring in 1992. “But even after he started working for the state, he was still cutting hair on the weekends,” Mrs. McDonald said. And in later years, “people would come up and say, ‘I remember you, you used to cut my hair,’ ” she said. “He knew everybody and their cousins and their uncles” from the barber shop.

Mr. McDonald’s only surviving sibling, his older sister John Ora Calhoun, remembered him as “always having something funny to say” growing up. “He was the baby of the family, so he got by with a lot of stuff that the rest of couldn’t get away with,” she said.

His daughter, Wyoma McDonald Lewis, died in September 2015. He was also preceded in death by another daughter who died in infancy; two brothers, Stanley McDonald Sr. and Charles McDonald; and two sisters, Mayter Alexander and Edna Dillard.

After retiring from the state, Mr. McDonald served several terms on the Fresno County grand jury between 1992 and 2003.

In the early 1980s, Mr. McDonald and his longtime friend, Jack Kelley, visited a friend of Kelley’s in Tulare who had a room full of historical photos and memorabilia. On the drive back to Fresno, the two discussed the prospects of starting a museum to showcase African American culture and history. With Kelley collecting photos and artifacts and Mr. McDonald helping to raise money, the pair established the African American Historical & Cultural Museum of the San Joaquin Valley in Fresno, according to museum curator and historian Gregory Melancon. The museum is at 1857 Fulton St. in Fresno.

“Once the museum was established, Mr. McDonald was on the board and always instrumental in anything Mr. Kelley did at the museum,” Melancon said. In February 2010, as part of a Black History Month celebration, the museum inducted Mr. McDonald into its Hall of Fame.

“I always thought he was a great role model as I was coming up,” said Melancon, who recalled helping distribute pamphlets and other material for Mr. McDonald during his 1983 City Council election campaign. “He had a successful business and was always well-dressed, an he was always a good friend of my mom and our family.”

Jesse McDonald Jr.

  • Born: Feb. 6, 1926
  • Died: March 18, 2016
  • Home: Fresno
  • Occupation: Retired barber, supervisor for state Employment Development Department
  • Survivors: Wife Juanita McDonald of Fresno; sister John Ora Calhoun of Fresno; two grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; numerous nieces and nephews
  • Services: Visitation 1 to 8 p.m. March 31, Jesse E. Cooley Jr. Funeral Service chapel, 1830 S. Fruit Ave., Fresno; service 11 a.m. April 1 at the Cooley chapel