In 1970, Santa Rosa native Margaret Trafficante was living in the large Parkmerced residential development near San Francisco State College and liking it well enough, but for one thing.
It was clear to the politically active 1942 graduate of Santa Rosa High School that the owner of Parkmerced was denying rentals to African-American applicants. She and her husband, Paul Trafficante, and a small group of neighbors, filed a lawsuit that would go to the U.S. Supreme Court and become a landmark test of the fair-housing provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Margaret Trafficante told a newspaper reporter in the midst of the Parkmerced residents’ successful legal battle that because of the landlord’s exclusionary rental practices, “We were isolated from the richness of living with non-white people.”
Trafficante, a member of a pioneer Sonoma County family who returned to Windsor about 30 years ago, died July 24 at age 91.
Prior to her retirement, she worked for a number of years as administrative assistant to KRCB radio and TV chief Nancy Dobbs. Fresh from high school, she’d been an employee of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. — the same firm that built Parkmerced and that she would ultimately help force to rent to African-Americans and other racial minorities.
Daughter Anita Trafficante of Marin County said her mother was always proud, but humble, to have helped advance the cause of fair housing.
“Her fierceness when it came to her beliefs in what’s right was unmatched,” said the resident of Forest Knolls. “She was an extraordinary woman, full of love, generosity, strength, humor and kindness.”
The former Margaret Griffith grew up in a house right behind her family’s Gilmore gas station on Santa Rosa’s Mendocino Avenue. The station long ago made way for the Eggen & Lance Mortuary, whose staff, as it happens, is now handling the funeral arrangements.
She graduated from Santa Rosa High during World War II and moved to San Francisco, where a couple of aunts employed by Metropolitan Life helped her get a job with the company.
One night after the war she was at a San Francisco movie theater and was charmed by the laugh of a fellow patron, Paul Trafficante.
They spoke, and he walked her home. On Dec. 22, 1954, they married. They moved into Parkmerced and started their family there.
Fourteen years later, the Vietnam War was in full fury and many Americans opposed it and demanded civil rights protections. In the fall of 1968, Paul Trafficante demonstrated his support of a historic strike by students at nearby San Francisco State College.
Not long afterward, the Trafficantes were notified by Parkmerced management their lease would not be renewed. The couple alleged they were being punished for a political stand. Metropolitan Life backed off.
In 1970, the Trafficantes and a few neighbors challenged the landlord’s rental practices, which they viewed as discriminatory. Many others living in Parkmerced did not appreciate their quest for integration; Anita Trafficante remembers being told by certain neighbors she and her brother were no longer welcome to visit.
Paul Trafficante became head of the newly formed Committee of Parkmerced Residents Committed to Open Occupancy. Margaret Trafficante was the secretary, responsible for media interviews and community outreach.
The group pressed Metropolitan Life to fulfill its legal responsibility of fair treatment for all potential tenants. In August 1970, the Trafficantes and the others filed suit in federal court, alleging discriminatory housing practices.
Early the next year, Judge Robert Schnake dismissed the lawsuit, Trafficante v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., on the grounds the Trafficantes and other white plaintiffs had not been denied the right to rent at Parkmerced, so they could not sue for alleged discrimination.
The group appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Late in 1972, the justices unanimously overturned the federal court’s dismissal of the lawsuit.
The matter returned to Schnake’s court. A trial date had been set when, in July 1973, a telephone call informed Margaret Trafficante that Metropolitan Life wanted to settle.
The settlement produced a mandate that Parkmerced, at that time owned by another company, would comply with an affirmative action plan administered by the federal court.
“At last,” Paul Trafficante said at the time, “it can truly be said that Parkmerced is open to all.”
“Since then,” said daughter Anita Trafficante, “the decision has been used to defend others suing on behalf of those treated unfairly in areas such as job discrimination, handicapped rights and even endangered species.”
Paul and Margaret Trafficante divorced in the late 1970s. Paul Trafficante lived in the Parkmerced apartment until his death in 2001. In 1985, Margaret Trafficante moved to Windsor.
Anita Trafficante said though her mother considered the fair housing victory important, “her love of family was what she treasured most. She gave her love unconditionally as mother and grandmother, aunt and friend.”
Margaret Trafficante is survived also by a son, Milan, of Sacramento, three grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
A celebration of her life will be held Aug. 20. For details, email Margaret.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and email@example.com.