Oldest African-American in Orange County says Secret to Long Life Is ‘Soul Food and Hard Work’


“Soul food and hard work is keeping me here,” says Warren Bussey with a laugh. The 103-year-old Santa Ana resident recently received a certificate of recognition from the city as a belated birthday present. The oldest African-American alive in Orange County today is one of about 500 or so locals above the century mark. “How am I able to live so long a life and my health allows me to get up and get around?” he asks. “I just feel that the man got me here for some kind of reason.”

The centenarian walks briskly without the slightest hunch before taking a seat in the front yard of his home. Bussey’s sharp memories serve as a portal to OC’s black past, having lived in the county since 1946. He speaks in loud booms, slowed only by pensive pauses when recounting a rich life that began on Nov. 21, 1913, in Bobo, a small town near Tenaha, Texas. There, Bussey’s parents worked the farmland they owned there while raising a family of 12. (Longevity runs in Bussey’s blood; both his mother and grandmother lived past 100.)

But Bussey left Bobo behind for Dallas when he was called into service for World War II. He completed basic training and became a marksman at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, at a time when the United States Army still segregated its soldiers by color. But one day, while working as an instructor on the rifle range, Bussey’s hands and feet froze from the cold. The frostbite proved serious enough to land him in the hospital. The Army transferred Bussey to George Air Force Base in Victorville, California, then to a hospital in Palm Springs when his injuries didn’t fully heal.

When WWII ended in 1945, Bussey earned an honorable discharge and returned to civilian life. “I had a brother living in Fullerton, and I came out and stayed with him until around 1946,” Bussey recalls. In the 2009 book A Different Shade of Orange: Voices of Orange County, California, Black Pioneers, Bussey described Fullerton as having been more prejudiced than East Texas. Back in those days, the city had few black residents, all of whom lived on East Truslow Avenue, including Bussey.

Neighboring Brea was worse. Not only did a housing covenant prevent blacks from renting and owning property, but Brea was also a “Sundown Town,” where blacks were expected to leave the city before dusk—or else. “I think that was a bad deal because I feel everybody should have a right to go, come and stay wherever and whenever they want,” Bussey says. “I just tried to stay out of that area.”

Santa Ana seemed more welcoming; its proximity to the Tustin and El Toro Marine bases made it OC’s small chocolate city. Bussey moved there in 1947; with help from the GI Bill, he put a $600 down payment on a home. The following year, he and a friend started Bussey Maintenance, a janitorial-services company. But the city was no stranger to racism throughout the 1950s and ’60s. “When I was going in and out of these people’s homes for work, at that time, blacks had to go in through the back door,” Bussey recalls. “Downtown, we’d go in the stores and . . . cafés down there [through] the back door.”

Click here to read more