Final farewell

Joe Person and his wife, Pearl, during his efforts to get a memorial and street name dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.

Joe Person and his wife, Pearl, during his efforts to get a memorial and street name dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.


Chico lost a greatly respected member of the community May 13 with the passing of Joe Person—civil rights activist, restaurateur, master of the barbecue, college librarian and champion of social justice who worked tirelessly to get both a park memorial and street name changed in honor of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Person, 85, was born and raised in Russell County, Ala., where he met and married his wife, Pearl. Between Russell County and Chico, the couple lived in Chicago for three years, moving there in 1953, right after Joe, a Korean War vet, was discharged from the Army. They later moved to East Chicago, Ind., where their three children, Debbie, Joe Jr. and Johnny—a former Chico Police Department officer—were born.

In 1964 the family moved to Chico, where, he once told this newspaper, many locals were still caught up in a racial divide and lack of acceptance. He said he almost immediately felt the pangs of prejudice when he took his young sons in for a haircut at a barbershop on Third Street. The barber, he said, purposely gave one of his sons a bad haircut and then charged more than his normal rate.

“I was in tears almost,” Person recalled. “He didn’t say, ‘I didn’t want to cut his hair,’ he just messed his hair up.’”

Person said he believed the racial atmosphere in towns like Chico improved in no small part due to the efforts and ultimate sacrifice of King, who was assassinated four years after Person moved here.

That improvement, he said, helped him build successful restaurants, Joe’s Old Fashioned Pit Bar-B-Q, both in Chico and in Oroville. He also worked for the Community Action Agency and as a librarian for Butte College. Pearl was a longtime elementary school teacher.

The struggle to get something named for Martin Luther King was first brought to Joe’s attention by local activist Willie Hyman in February 2004. Hyman had asked for certain city streets—those with historical connections—to be renamed for King. The efforts, though unfruitful, triggered Person’s interest in the matter.

And after years of his lobbying city commissions, along with fundraising and signature gathering, the city finally agreed to rename Whitman Avenue, where it runs from East Park Avenue to East 20th Street, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. Person’s efforts also raised enough money, with a matching city grant, to install a memorial to King at Community Park.

The endeavor led to a bit of a division between Hyman and Person at the time, which never completely healed. But the two men continued to respect each other. Hyman oversees local civil rights organization the Butte Community Coalition.

“I met him when I first came here in 1976,” Hyman said by phone this week. “The coalition respects him and his family. We, of course, are saddened by his passing. He contributed greatly to the community.”

Former City Councilman David Guzzetti called the news “sad but inevitable.”

“He was a gracious man who was always kind and an elder to me,” Guzzetti said. “He was a loving man, husband and father. I first met Joe when I moved here in 1974 when he was a librarian at Butte College.”

Guzzetti, an unapologetic progressive, said he and Person were usually on the same page politically.

“He talked in an earnest, measured way,” he said. “Always looking you in the eye and he’d smile while raising his eyebrows when the communication between us was mutually understood. I was honored to be his trusted friend.”

Former City Manager Tom Lando also recalled Person with fond remembrance.

“Joe was a quiet force in our community,” he said. “He was open to all, and I think he knew everyone. It’s a great family and Pearl is a fixture in Chico.”

Back in 2004, while arguing on behalf of the MLK memorial and street name change, Person told the CN&R: “Dr. King is one of the most recognized men in the 20th century. Trust me, I know. He brought me out of the muck.

“I raised my kids to love everybody. There is so much good in the worst people in the world, so much bad in the best people in the world, so we’ve got no business hating anybody; we should judge people individually.”

He is survived by his wife, Pearl, their three children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Funeral services were held Wednesday (May 20).