Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Dr. Vada Somerville, 1885-1972


By, Eleanor Raab, Kyra DiMarco, Fiona Burns, Emily Arrigoni, Victoria Jordan, Asha Ravi, students at Sacred Heart Preparatory High School, Atherton, California

NAACP leader, Dentist, Clubwoman, Suffragist

Dr. Vada Watson-Somerville was born in Pomona, California in 1885. Her mother was Dora Watson MacDonald, a migrant from Arkansas. Dora raised Vada and her six siblings to be ambitious, active citizens. In 1903, Somerville enrolled in the University of Southern California where she was a liberal arts major on scholarship from the Los Angeles Times. In 1906 she left school to work as a bookkeeper and telephone operator for the next six years of her life. She married John Alexander Somerville, USC’s first black graduate, in 1912. Mr. Somerville’s success in the dentistry field and the possibility of him joining the military both contributed to Vada’s return to USC. In 1918, she became the first black woman to graduate from USC and the first black woman in California with a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree. She worked with her husband until her retirement from dentistry in 1933, after which she participated in organizations advocating for civil rights.

After Somerville retired from dentistry, she and her husband devoted their life to social work, particularly focusing on advocating for African-American and women’s rights. In 1927, Somerville opened Hotel Somerville, which became a hub for educated, African-American intellectuals focused on the current state of social inequality of black men and women in racially segregated America. Furthermore, Hotel Somerville became the headquarters for the local branch of the NAACP National Convention. She was also directly involved with local movements for women’s suffrage. She was a highly instrumental player on the executive committee of the League of Women Voters and also participated in the Los Angeles County Conference on Community Relations.

Dr. Vada Somerville contributed significantly to her community in the Los Angeles area. She established the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority at the University. In her later years, Somerville continued to participate in organizations that aimed to help African American women. Organizations she was involved with during her later years included: the Los Angeles chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, established by Mary McLeod Bethune, the Pilgrim House Community Center, which provided medical care to African-American war veterans, and the Stevens House, a dormitory for people of color at the University of California, Los Angeles. She was also an active participant in the USC Dental Half-Century Club and the Los Angeles Chapter of Links, Inc. In 1932 she served as a hostess for the Haitian Olympic team when they visited Los Angeles and in 1952 she served as president for the Links club. She passed away in 1972 at the age of 87.


1) Delilah L. Beasley, The Negro Trail Blazers of California (Los Angeles: Kessinger Publishers, 1919).

2) The Crisis, 80:9 (September 18, 1973), p. 312. Accessed online at

3) “Hostess for the Olympic Team,” Los Angeles Public Library, accessed online at

4) “Somerville Place: John and Vada Somerville,” USC Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, 2013, accessed online at

5) "Vada Watson Somerville," Notable Black American Women, accessed online in the Biography in Context Database, 2002

6) Lawrence B. de Graaf, Kevin Mulroy, and Quintard Taylor, eds., Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California (Autry Museum of Western Heritage: University of Seattle Press, 2001).

7) “Women’s Council for Better Community Relations,” University of Southern California Library Photo, January 29, 1952, accessed online at

Images of Dr. Vada Somerville:

Photograph of John Somerville and his wife,Vada, in formal attire. The couple were graduates of the U.S.C. School of Dentistry and practiced dentistry in Los Angeles. In 1914, the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP was organized at a meeting in their home. Somerville built the Somerville Hotel at 4225 Central Avenue in 1928; the following year the building was renamed the Dunbar Hotel. [John] Somerville also served on the Los Angeles City Police Commission.

( more pictures are available through this link

W. E. B. Du Bois with Lillian Evanti and Vada Somerville, Los Angeles, 1947. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

“Hostess for the Haitian Olympic Team,” 1932

“Women’s Council for Better Community Relations,” University of Southern California Library, January 29, 1952, accessed online at


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