Sutro Baths was a test case for civil rights laws

In the summer of 1897, a young African American man filed a lawsuit against the former mayor of San Francisco Adolph Sutro – it was the first case to test California’s recent civil right law. On several occasions, John Harris had been refused entry into the Sutro Baths because of his race. At the time, Sutro Bath was the world largest public indoor swimming establishment – which is now just ruins located in the Lands End district of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Sutro Baths circa 1896
Sutro Baths circa 1896

In his suit, John Harris invoked the Dibble Civil Rights Act, which had only become law earlier that year. The law stated that all citizens “of every color or race whatsoever” were entitled access to “all places of public accommodation or amusement.”

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Harris sued Sutro for violating his rights. Sutro, who’s only defense was that admitting African Americans would be “bad for business,” lost the case. Although Harris sued for $10,000, he was awarded just $100 in damages and the management of Sutro continue to disregard the law, however, Harris’ suit inspired others across the state and served as a precursor to the national Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Today, you can see the remains of Sutro Baths by visiting the Lands End District of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The visitor center overlooks what was once Sutro Baths and includes numerous interpretive exhibits. You can access the ruins of Sutro Baths via a short trail which descends down from the visitor center parking lot. Once at the bottom, be sure to explore the sea cave next to the ruins.

Sutro Baths Ruins (Chimani)
Sutro Baths Ruins (Chimani)

The best features of Lands End is the view of the ocean. Much like all of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, this section is an urban oasis, and one of the best spots to view the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco.

If you do visit the Land End District, be sure to take a hike along the Coastal Trail. Although its full length is 8.8 miles, you can access a shorter section of the trail from the Lands End Visitor Center. Along the way, you’ll see iconic views such as Mile Rock Overlook and the popular Labyrinth (technically called Lands End Point).

If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco or are on your way to Muir Woods, we recommend a late afternoon visiting the ruins of Sutro Baths, a walk along the Coastal Trail, and stop at the Visitor Center to learn about the conflicted history of early civil rights events in California.

Mile Rock Overlook in the Lands End District of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Mile Rock Overlook in the Lands End District of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Lands End Point (aka Labyrinth) in the Lands End District of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Lands End Point (aka Labyrinth) in the Lands End District of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

 

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