Death on the Ferry: The Alton Collier Story
On April 27th, 1946, Coronado African American resident Alton Collier boarded an 8 pm ferry to meet up with friends in San Diego. A targeted racist attack on board ended in his death.
Alton Collier’s Early Life
Alton Collier was born in his parent’s sharecropper farmhouse just outside of Luling, Texas, in 1920. Alton was among the nine Collier children who divided their time between working in the cotton fields and attending school in segregated Jim Crow Luling.
When Alton was eight years old, his father Rufus died of pellagra, a debilitating disease caused by a vitamin deficiency due to malnutrition. Pellagra had quietly killed thousands of impoverished rural southerners in the same period. Alton dropped out of school after sixth grade to help his widowed mother on the farm and to care for his younger siblings.
In 1940 Alton left Luling and traveled south to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he began work as a construction laborer for the Brown and Root Company, who were building the new Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi. Alton’s childhood sweetheart, Georgia Mae Clack, followed Alton down to Corpus Christi and they married in 1942. While Alton worked at Brown and Root, Georgia was likely employed as a domestic worker with one of the Navy families in Corpus Christi.
The Move to Coronado
In 1945 Georgia and Alton Collier moved to Coronado, where Georgia (and possibly Alton) began work as live-in domestic staff for Navy Capt. Herbert A. Jones (ret.) and his wife Ethelyn at their home at 727 Alameda Blvd. Conflicting reports have Alton working at either the Jones residence or a local Coronado Hotel, but confirm that he resided at 727 Alameda Blvd.
The Jones family were well known and respected in Coronado. Capt. Jones (ret.) and his wife Ethelyn lost their only son, war hero Ensign Herbert C. Jones, during the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Ensign Jones was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1942 for his bravery in action on that fateful day.
April 27, 1946 - The Ferry Incident
In the early evening of Saturday, April 27th, 1946, Alton Collier kissed his wife Georgia outside the Jones residence at 727 Alameda Blvd. and set out on the one mile walk to the ferry landing. Alton was looking forward to a night on the town with his friends in San Diego and would be returning home on a late night ferry sometime around midnight. Alton arrived at the ferry landing around 8 pm and after paying for his ticket, climbed up the stairs to the pedestrian seating area with the other passengers as a steady flow of cars pulled aboard the ferry into their allotted positions.
Alton had boarded the “Coronado,” one of four auto-ferries in operation between Coronado and San Diego at the time, and comprised an important lifeline for Coronado prior to the arrival the Coronado bridge. On Saturday evenings like this, the ferries provided an easy connection to the clubs, bars and nightlife across the bay, and were a popular option for military personnel based at the local NAS North Island base.
The bottom level of The Coronado was exclusively reserved for cars, while the mezzanine deck was meant for pedestrian passengers. This level had a central enclosed seating area with outdoor terrace decks on the port and starboard sides of the vessel which extended to the outer edges of the ferry and were about twelve to fifteen feet above the water. The top level was reserved for crew, and had two opposing Captain’s bridges or wheelhouses at the bow and the stern.
According to Coronado and San Diego news accounts of the incident, approximately 30 passengers boarded this ferry with Alton Collier and were mostly Navy personnel, including two officers. Two of these sailors were 19 year old Freddie Leroy Johnson and 19 year old Otis Reed Gilbert, both Naval Reservists, and like Alton Collier, also from Texas.
Johnson and Gilbert had met while deployed on the USS Leedstown, and the two native Texans had become close friends. The USS Leedstown was decommissioned in Seattle, Washington, in March of 1947. The two men were soon transferred to San Diego attached to the USS Charles Badger and were stationed at NAS North Island as they awaited their next deployment.
Local news reports indicated that The Coronado departed the Ferry Landing at approximately 8:20 pm. Soon after departure, Alton Collier became engaged in a heated argument with Johnson and Gilbert, and at some point Alton Collier drew a knife and slashed Johnson on the arm and shoulder. It was then reported that Gilbert confronted Collier with two boat hooks which police say prompted Collier to leap over the fifteen foot high railing into the Bay. Collier was reportedly to have screamed for help after he hit the water. The Coronado briefly stopped and an unmanned life boat was placed into the water. Then, inexplicably, the Coronado proceeded on its way to San Diego to drop its passengers. After reports of the incident reached Coronado, a number of police lined the shore in case Collier made it ashore, but he never did. Naval crash boats and Coast Guard boats joined in the search the following day.
The first account of this incident appeared in the San Diego Union on April 29th:
Back at the small staff quarters room at 727 Alameda Blvd, Georgia Collier had a sleepless night. Alton had not made it home as agreed, which was not like him. Her heart sank when she learned that there had been an incident aboard the ferry the previous night involving a Black man. She rushed to the Police Station and soon learned there had been an incident and that a Black man had jumped overboard into the water and was missing. She was asked if she could identify a pair of damaged eyeglasses that were found on the deck of the boat. They were Alton’s. She knew Alton couldn’t swim, and in the moment knew that her husband was gone.
Mrs. Collier immediately suspected foul play and demanded the Coronado Police investigate the case. She must have been in a terrible state of trauma as she was forced to travel by ferry to meet with the police in San Diego. To her shock and dismay, both cities claimed they lacked jurisdiction to conduct an investigation as the “accident” happened in a “no-mans land” in the middle of the Bay between the two jurisdictions. There was nothing they could do.
After six days of inaction from police and Alton’s body still missing, Georgia Collier called upon the law office of highly respected African American lawyer Walter Gordon in his Los Angeles office on May 3rd. Gordon quickly assembled a team of two lawyers to travel to San Diego and assist Ms. Collier in her efforts to press for an investigate into the matter.
The Body is Found
On May 4th, a week after the incident, Alton Collier’s body washed ashore on North Island, Coronado. The San Diego Union printed the story below on May 5th, and referring to Collier as the “suspect.”
In that story, Coronado Police Chief June Jordan suggested that there were several points to the story from the two young sailors, Johnson and Gilbert, that “lacked clarification.” He requested that any witnesses who had information to contact the Coronado Police Department.
On the day the body was discovered, autopsy surgeon Dr F. E. Toomey conducted the initial autopsy of Alton Collier and determined the cause of death to be “drowning.” San Diego Coroner Chester Gunn announced that a Coroner’s Inquest would take place the following week.
Several days later the weekly Coronado Journal provided further confirmation of the upcoming inquest and other important facts related to the case, including the fact that Otis Reed Gilbert was being held in the Navy brig pending the completion of the investigation being conducted by the Coronado Police Department.
Despite the small point noted by the Coronado Police Chief that lacked clarification, and that Gilbert was in the brig, the dominant narrative of this tragic case in both the weekly newspaper in Coronado and the major dailies in San Diego was the same. The real “suspect” was a Black man who was involved in a scuffle on board the ferry at night and had slashed a sailor. When this slashing assailant was confronted, he vaulted over the railing of the ferry, falling nearly fifteen feet into the bay and drowned.
At no point did any of these newspapers ever attempt to humanize Alton Collier. The papers never mentioned Alton had a loving wife named Georgia Collier. Her voice in this story would have helped concerned citizens understand what kind of person Alton really was. She would have explained that it was not like her mild-mannered and bespectacled husband to attack anyone. She could have explained that her husband could not swim, and would never be so foolish as to leap to a certain death. Her voice did not fit with the established narrative.
The Black Press sheds new light, describing a racist attack and cover-up
The case was covered by the Black Press quite differently. The most prominent article appeared soon after the two lawyers from Walter Gordon’s Los Angeles law office had returned to Los Angeles from their time in San Diego and Coronado. Gordon had dispatched two seasoned African American lawyers to San Diego, Roger Q. Mason and former US Army Capt. Everette M. Porter, a Los Angeles lawyer who had just recently returned to civilian life after three and a half years in the South Pacific during WWII. Mason was a member of the bar from Dallas, Texas and the head of investigations for the Gordon firm. Capt. Porter’s unique status as a war veteran and former officer would have been helpful in gathering information in a case involving military personnel, while Mr. Mason’s Texan roots would have also been helpful in a case where all involved were Texans.
Porter and Mason shared their disturbing findings with Charlotta Bass, the influential owner and editor of Southern California’s largest African American weekly newspaper, The California Eagle. The remarkable Charlotta Bass had been a staunch defender of Civil Rights in California for decades and would later become the first African American woman to run for Vice-President of the United States (in 1952 she was part of the Progressive Party ticket).
The following headline story of the Collier case appeared on the front page of the Eagle. It certainly presents an alternative narrative of the incident.
The story made clear that Collier was targeted by his race by the sailors who taunted Collier and pursued him as he tried to avoid confrontation by moving to another part of the ferry. Once cornered Collier is said to have defended himself with a knife and slashed one of his attackers. Other sailors sounded the alarm and surrounded Collier. At no time did the two Naval officers on board and the Ferry operators intervene. One sailor is said to have then used a grappling hook to knock Collier overboard, who screamed for help as he was falling into the Bay. The boat stopped briefly and unloaded a life raft, and then continued on its way to San Diego.
There is another important mention of a Black press account of the Alton Collier case in Cristin McVey’s illuminating 2004 doctoral dissertation at UC San Diego, entitled Traces of Black San Diego, 1890-1950. In it she describes of coming across a newspaper clipping about the Alton Collier case from the leading San Diego Black Newspaper The Light House which shed important light on the brave efforts of the San Diego Black community who demanded justice for Alton Collier.
“One disturbing clipping describes an incident of racial violence and an attempt by those who committed the act to cover up the incident. The article announces the formation of a citizens committee to investigate the death of Alton Collier, whose body was fished out of the bay a week earlier. The young man had been traveling by ferry from Coronado to San Diego on Saturday, April 27, 1946, when four white sailors began to taunt him. When Collier attempted to diffuse the situation by moving to another seat on the ferry, one of the sailors followed Collier and began to attack him. A fight ensued. One assailant struck Collier with a reef hook, and with the help of the other sailors, Collier’s body was thrown overboard. No report was made to his wife, who was told that her husband had jumped off the ferry.”
- Dr. Cristin McVey, from Traces of Black San Diego, 1890-1950
The Investigation Ends and a Widow continues her fight for Justice
On May 16th, the San Diego Evening Tribune reported that the Coroner’s Jury made their final determination that the death was by accidental drowning, effectively closing the case.
Georgia Collier brought the body of her husband Alton Collier back to Luling, Texas, where he was buried and returned to Coronado.
On May 21st, Otis Reed Gilbert and Freddie Leroy Johnson were added to the roster of the USS Riley, and departed San Diego. Shortly thereafter they were released from the US Naval Reserves, and both were back in Texas by August of that year.
Soon after arriving back in Texas, on August 18th, Otis Reed Gilbert married Maretta Collier, whose surname bizarrely matched that of the man he allegedly just months earlier had knocked off a ferry to his death.
In April of 1947, a year after her husband’s death, Georgia Mae Collier, filed suit in San Diego Superior Court, suing Otis Reed Gilbert and Freddie Leroy Johnson, as well as the San Diego Electric Railway Co. which operated the Coronado-San Diego Ferry.
This article was the last known news account on the life and death of Alton Collier and the efforts of his wife to get justice. There is no record of whether the lawsuit by Georgia Collier was successful.
Georgia Mae Collier moved to Los Angeles and remarried. She passed away in Torrance, California in 1988 at the age of 66.
Otis Reed Gilbert committed suicide at age 31. He was found with a gun in one hand and a court letter next to his body detailing a restraining order from his wife as part of a divorce proceeding.
In 1969, the Coronado Bridge was completed, and on August 2nd James Haugh, President of The San Diego and Coronado Ferry Company, officially ended the 83 year era of the auto ferry between Coronado and San Diego, and decommissioned the Coronado.
Reckoning with the Past
Alton Collier’s life was taken on April 27, 1946 in an act of targeted racist violence. The perpetrators of his murder never faced criminal charges.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) between the years 1877-1950, 4,400 African Americans were lynched as part of an ongoing campaign of racial terror against African Americans in this country. According to EJI, “of all lynchings committed after 1900, only 1 percent resulted in a lyncher being convicted of a criminal offense.” In addition, EJI’s “research confirms that many victims of terror lynchings were murdered without being accused of any crime; they were killed for minor social transgressions or for demanding basic rights and fair treatment.”
While Alton Collier’s death does not fit the commonly understood characteristic of a racist lynching involving a rope and a tree, it is worthy of examination. Mr. Collier was targeted and ultimately lost his life because of his color and for defending himself. All African American men in that period of American history, particularly those like Alton Collier from rural “Jim Crow” South, knew very well that if you ever looked or said something that caused offense to a white person, or happened to be randomly caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could be the victim of racial violence, including lynching.
Alton would have also been taught and learned firsthand in Texas that if he fought back against any white man, particularly a group of white men, he would be risking his life. He would have likely recognized in their voices that these boys on the ferry were Texans or Southerners, who had grown being taught those same rules. The fact that Alton fought back only further confirms that he believed he was in grave danger and had no choice but to fight back.
We do not know if the two sailors intended to kill Alton Collier when they began their altercation with him, but it certainly ended up that way. Alton Collier, instead of falling from a tree with a rope around his neck, fell from a boat into the sea.
This tragic story did not happen in a rural Texas backwater. It happened here, to a Coronado resident, just a few hundred yards from shore.
Kevin Ashley, Coronado, April 27, 2023