Sunnyhills.

Say that word in Milpitas, and you’re likely to evoke a slew of memories.

Back in the day, the Sunnyhills neighborhood was where it all happened. It was a hub of activity and progress, a kind of engine that set the wheels of a small, still relatively unknown town in motion.

When Ford Motor Company moved its operations from Richmond to Milpitas in 1954, no one could have foreseen the tremendous growth and evolution that would result.

Ben Gross was the very first African-American elected to serve as a bargainer for the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 560. As many Ford workers were leaving behind their homes in Richmond to work in Milpitas, a great deal of planning was called for. Gross was appointed to serve as Chair of a Housing Committee, and devoted himself to ensuring a smooth transition and adequate housing for all workers.

Roughly 250 African-Americans would be coming out to Milpitas. This was a big issue, as at the time African-Americans were typically segregated in their own neighborhoods and housing. Gross, who would go on to become the first African-American mayor of Milpitas (as well as one of the first in California), played a tremendous role in catapulting the vision of the Sunnyhills development toward a reality, which, once realized, deeply shaped and contributed to the area’s blooming landscape.

America’s ugly history of racism left a large imprint on Gross’s spirit at an early age. When he was 3 years old, living in Arkansas in the 1920s, his father made a deal with a white farmer. The elder Gross offered to pick all the cotton in the man’s field in exchange for the man’s donkey. The man agreed, and the deal was set. Mr. Gross spent days of back-breaking labor clearing out the cotton. When he was done, he took the donkey home. Soon, there was a knock on the door. It was the farmer, demanding that he give the donkey back.

An argument ensued. The farmer shot Ben Gross’s father dead.

Preserving Memories

Known as one of America’s first integrated communities, Sunnyhills was a place where one could see a black family and a white family living next door to one another in harmony — something that was still considered unusual during the 1950s.

Milpitas resident Donnie Eiland, standing in Albert Augustine Park in the Sunnyhills neighborhood, recalled the time he spent growing up in the Sunnyhills Neighborhood as a special one, marked by community and interconnectedness: “This place was magical. It really was,” said Eiland, his eyes scanning the many homes lining the quiet streets.

Eiland’s family moved to Milpitas in 1960, before he was born, onto a street called Valmy. Back then, Milpitas was really starting to grow and develop. Eiland recalled playing outside and looking over his house’s fence to see Milpitas High School being constructed. That was back in 1967.

They stayed in that house until 1974, then moved out to Walnut Green Acres behind Thomas Russell Middle School, an area bursting with walnut trees.

Eiland, who has so many great memories from his time spent growing up in Sunnyhills, has never lost his fascination with the neighborhood. His love of Sunnyhills, along with his sincere interest in people and stories, recently set him off on a journey: He’s currently producing a documentary to capture the stories behind how the Sunnyhills neighborhood came to be, and all that’s transpired there over the years.

He began shooting the documentary this past January, though his intention to do so stretches back a decade. Eiland’s cousin, Inga Eiland (of Ice Dreamed Films), who lives in Los Angeles, has been taking trips out to Milpitas with a crew in tow, to shoot interviews and footage of the neighborhood.

“I started collecting footage 10 years ago, but it never really got off the ground. Then I connected with my cousin on Facebook about 6 years ago. I found out she was a filmmaker, and told her that one day, I would need her services,” said Eiland. “So recently, I called her up and said, ‘Okay it’s time.'”

Milpitas resident Henry Nichols, who grew up in Sunnyhills just down the street from Eiland, has also been helping out with the production. Eiland refers to Nichols as the project’s Historian, since he knows so much about the community’s history.

“My parents moved into a brand new house, which was unheard of back in the fifties for anyone of color,” said Nichols.

 

 

Shooting the documentary. L to R: Inga Eiland, Donnie Eiland, Rich Lavigne, and Henry Nichols

Back to Where it All Began

Back in January, Eiland flew Ben Gross’ son, Benjamin Gross, Jr., out from Minnesota to take part in the documentary. During his stay, Benjamin spoke at a couple of community events to share fascinating stories about his father, who passed away in 2012, and what it was like to grow up in Sunnyhills.

The memories flowed with force.

He spoke of bomb shelter-digging parties, which took place on Sunnyhills grounds. He spoke of his father’s work as a Civil Rights leader, and how he had relationships with prominent figures from the Civil Rights movement, like the Black Panthers. The Panthers actually dropped in to the Sunnyhills neighborhood on occasion and crashed in the Gross’ garage, which had been converted into a family room, complete with a pool table, washer, dryer, and desk. Benjamin’s older sister even became friends with Angela Davis.

Benjamin, who was the youngest of three kids, recalled his dad being out a lot: “He had meetings every night, or there were people over at our house,” said Benjamin, who remembered nights when policy decisions got made over drinks and barbecue, while all the children ran and played in the background.

“It was mostly men back then making the decisions. But we can’t forget my mother was feisty, too,” said Benjamin. “I remember her dragging me with her to court one time for some reason. And at court, the judge admonished her for wearing pants, said it was an insult to the judicial system. And my mother said to him, ‘Beg your honor, Judge, you go stand outside on the steps with an open dress and feel the draft that comes up between your legs. And then let’s have this discussion.'”

 

 

The neighborhood of Sunnyhills today.

Sunnyhills…and The Soviet Union?  

In the late fifties, the breakthrough activity at Sunnyhills caught the attention of one Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union from 1958 to 1964.

In ’59, he’d met with then-Vice President Richard Nixon to help fulfill a “cultural agreement”, signed in an effort to promote a deeper understanding of one another’s countries.

Vice President Nixon and Khrushchev engaged in what was called “The Kitchen Debate.” This took place at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, where a “model kitchen” was set up. The talk often grew tense, as both men went back and forth on communism, capitalism, and other areas in which they differed. At that time, the Cold War was happening.

“The day before Vice President Nixon was going to fly to Moscow to open the ceremonies and show them the housing display, he called upon America…telling them to go down on their knees, turn toward the east, and pray for the Soviet Union to allow its Jewish citizens to be able to leave the Soviet Union,” Benjamin Gross explained.

“Khrushchev felt insulted,” he added. “…There was one thing that really shook up people in America here. That’s when Khrushchev looked him in the eye and asked Nixon, ‘What is the difference between how you treat your negroes and how we treat our Jewish citizens?'”

Khrushchev also commented on the absence of integrated neighborhoods in our country.

When Ben Gross (senior) heard this, well…he knew he was bearing witness to an opportunity.

After Nixon’s trip to Moscow, Khrushchev got to work on planning an unrelated trip to the United States. Benjamin recalled how word got around that Khrushchev was planning on making a stop at Milpitas’ Ford Motor Plant, to get a glimpse of how they ran their notably efficient assembly line. At the time, Khrushchev had been toying with the idea of starting an assembly plant in Russia.

After the Kitchen Debate, Ben Gross (senior) had been in constant contact with Walter Reuther (President of the UAW), and asked that Reuther extend an invitation to Khrushchev to visit Sunnyhills. Gross wanted the Soviet leader to see an integrated community with his own eyes.

Khrushchev accepted and, once in Milpitas, made a special stop.

The Grosses threw a barbecue in the backyard to welcome the Premier. Khrushchev, his son, and five other officials came out to their Sunnyhills home. A visit to five different homes in the neighborhood was also set up, so that Khrushchev could witness the integrated neighborhood in action.

The event was not disclosed to the media. In fact, Russian security officials confiscated Benjamin’s camera, which is why no photos of the Premier’s visit exist.

A Run-in with the Law…Outside Milpitas City Boundaries

Despite Sunnyhills’ diverse and progressive nature, racism was still apparent in the region.

The year was 1969. At 19 years old, Benjamin was out driving a car that his dad had purchased for him a couple months prior.

While driving through San Jose, Benjamin was pulled over by a police officer. They had run the license plate and found outstanding warrants, due to an unpaid parking ticket. Benjamin knew he hadn’t been the one to acquire the ticket; it most likely belonged to the car’s previous owner. Regardless, Benjamin was arrested and taken to the county jail.

“Over a parking ticket, I got strip-searched and…felt a finger where no finger should ever go. They were trying to look for drugs or weapons,” said Benjamin.

Bail was set at $140.

Benjamin was allowed one phone call. Since his dad was out of town, he called a friend of the family…none other than beloved Milpitas Police Chief James Murray.

Upon hearing about Benjamin’s parking ticket debacle, Chief Murray told him he’d be sending an officer out to post bail for him.

The day was Friday. Saturday, Sunday, and Monday went by without a word.

On Tuesday, Benjamin appeared in court. Realizing that they had the wrong person, the judge ordered that he be released.

Benjamin went to get his wallet, car keys, and clothes. He was also handed $140. The exact amount of money it would’ve cost to cover his bail.

He looked over at the desk sergeant, who was sitting on the other side of a sheet of bullet-proofed glass. Asked him what the money was for.

Without hesitation, the sergeant delivered these words: “That’s what happens when you get too uppity, boy.”

It seemed they didn’t appreciate the fact that Benjamin had friends in high places. Him calling a Police Chief in a neighboring city to come out to San Jose and post his bail had infuriated them. So they’d kept the bail money and made Benjamin unnecessarily spend four nights in jail.

Upon being released, Benjamin informed his father and Chief Murray about what had happened.

The San Jose Mercury News wrote an article up about it, and news of what happened spread throughout the region.

“People were outraged,” said Benjamin. “And it really led to change in the department.”

The Legacy of Sunnyhills

For Donnie Eiland, making this Sunnyhills documentary means getting the opportunity to cross an item off his bucket list.

Once Eiland completes the documentary, he hopes to premiere it at Century Theater at the Great Mall, as well as submit it to film festivals.

“We’d love for the world to know about Sunnyhills,” said Eiland. “This is something I’ve been wanting to put out there for a long time.”

For so many who grew up in Sunnyhills, their childhoods were marked by a deep sense of purpose, inclusion, and transformation. That magical time in history will never again be replicated.

But there are memories.

And there’s the legacy that has been built, and has reverberated beyond Milpitas and into the world, setting the stage for a more peaceful, integrated society.

We still have a ways to go. But at least we’re moving forward, and in the right direction.

“This has given me an empowerment…that no matter where I go, I have Sunnyhills behind me,” said Benjamin. “I have Milpitas behind me. I have that solid foundation where I can be bold and brave, and know I can change the world and make a difference, every day. With every relationship…and every person.”

One of the things his father liked to say — in regard to the Civil Rights Movement, which helped take down the barriers that were keeping black people from registering to vote — still stands out in Benjamin’s mind:

“I started life picking cotton. I ended picking presidents.”

 

 

 

 

Rhoda Shapiro
Rhoda Shapiro works as a journalist and media consultant in the Bay Area. She has written for both the Tri-City Voice and the Mercury News, and is the founder of Chi Media Company, which works with nonprofit organizations to elevate their marketing and communication platforms. Rhoda is also an author; her first book will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in mid-2019. Her YouTube channel, which features practices in yoga, meditation, and women’s empowerment, has amassed thousands of subscribers. Rhoda is The Milpitas Beat’s founder.

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Comments (17)

  1. I loved hearing Ben relate these stories and more! I’m excited about the documentary. Thanks for this great article!

  2. You should interview my mom. She grew up on valmy street too. (Camacho family) now she lives in sunny hills apartments for 40 year now! Anna Camacho

      1. My family has been in Milpitas since 1957. We’ve lived on Callan St, Diel and Greathouse Drives. Although my father Henry, the first black barber in Milpitas, did not work at the Ford plant, his brother did. The proud history of Milpitas still includes members of the Ward family, my mother Willie Bell, 95 years, a former operating room nurse at SC Valley Medical center, my brother Don, my son John and me. Sunnyhills for Life.

  3. Thank you for this little piece of history on Sunnyhills. Milpitas as a whole was such a wonderful place to call home. I grew up in the neighborhood of Starlite Homes (1964-2005) off Abbott Avenue and had so many friends in Sunnyhills. Since Donnie Eiland has started this documentary and interviewed so many current and former Milpitas Residents, I am learning more and more about the awesome place I was fortunate enough to call home. Thank you Milpitas Beat and a very special thanks to Donnie Eiland.

  4. I lived on Cortez and had no idea of the racial issues at that time. This was a great article and much needed history of our neighborhoods.

    Sunnyhills!!!!

  5. I was captivated by this article as I learned some unknown history to myself, whom has grown up in Milpitas. I too grew up in the Sunnyhils area and had and uave friends from numerous cultural backgrounds and felt like color was ever an issue. I’m proud to have been apart of such a supporting, nuturing community. I’m proud and look forward to what is to come of this documentary. So very proud of you Uncle Donnie!

  6. This is quite an historical and informative article of the Sunnyhills of years past. The pride and courage of the folks that shared their trials and tribulations with the community members of Milpitas. I found it interesting and yet sad and feel sure this was also enlightening to your readership.
    Thank you for taking the time to write this article about the Sunnyhills of yesteryear.
    PS, Carmen Montano, (Milpitas Council Member) is a long time resident who lived in Sunnyhills and became involved with the neighborhood residents issues and concerns. Although in a political sense, certainly she and Bob Pecot got the attention of the then Mayor and Council Members.

  7. Us LaVignes are nations deep, but yes most of us started in Sunnyhills! Coehlo St!! So very proud to see my uncles Ricky LaVigne and Henry Nichols on the article pictures. They like my father in Heaven are OG Sunnyhills

  8. Awwww much appreciated, my father Lance LaVigne Sr was a Sunnyhills historian and he did tell me Black Panther stories. Daddy was proud to be involved in the Black Panther movement. That’s two of my uncles Ricky LaVigne and Henry Nichols featured in this article pictures. Thank you Donnie.

  9. Thank you for such a beautiful article. I grew up in Sunnyhills as well, lived on Dixon Road.

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