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Black couple rented to a Chinese American family when nobody would. Now, they're donating $5M to Black community.?

The Dongs are selling the home their family rented and eventually bought from Gus Thompson, a former slave, and his wife, Emma. The Dongs will donate the proceeds to Black students.
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In 1939, the Dongs, a Chinese American family in Coronado, California, found themselves unable to rent a house amid racially restrictive housing laws that favored white buyers and renters.

Emma and Gus Thompson, a Black entrepreneurial couple in town, allowed the family to rent and eventually buy their Coronado property when nobody else would. Now, to thank the Thompsons for helping them get a toehold in American society, the Dongs are donating $5 million to Black college students using proceeds from the sale of the house.?

“It may enable some kids to go and flourish in college that might not have been able to otherwise,” Janice Dong, 86, said about the plan to sell the family home they later purchased, as well as an adjacent property.

The Dong family will also work to have San Diego State University’s Black Resource Center named after Emma and Gus, who was born into slavery in Kentucky.?

Lloyd Dong Jr., 81, said the Thompsons gave their family a start with the land, and it is time for them to do the same for others.

“Without them, we would not have the education and everything else,” Lloyd Dong Jr. said.?

A Dong family photo from 1955. From top left: Lloyd Jr., Lloyd Sr. and Ron Dong. From bottom left, Jackie, Margaret and Jeanette Dong.
A Dong family photo from 1955. From top left: Lloyd Jr., Lloyd Sr. and Ron Dong. From bottom left, Jackie, Margaret and Jeanette Dong. Courtesy Dong Family

“Without [The Thompsons], we would not have the education and everything else,” Lloyd Dong, Jr. said.

The Dong family’s Coronado properties include the Thompsons’ original home at 832 C Ave. and an eight-unit apartment complex next door. Family members estimate the combined value to be worth $8 million. Lloyd Dong Jr. and his older brother, Ron Dong, plan to donate their portions — $5 million.?

Amid the backdrop of a national conversation about reparations, this isn’t a story about atonement and repair, said Kevin Ashley, a Coronado historian. The Thompsons’ gesture was a transaction with no strings attached; the Dongs didn’t have anything to pay back.

Instead, Ashley said, the story is about honoring and recognizing the enduring impact of one family’s will to help another get ahead. As the country continues to debate the merits and logistics of reparations for its history of chattel slavery, the Dong family’s decision to give back to the Black community could serve as an example, he said.

Ron Dong and his wife, Janice Dong, are both retired teachers who believe that education can change lives.

“It’s just exactly what’s appropriate,” Ron Dong, 86, said about their donation.?

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Unity in the margins of society

The Dong family’s roots in California date back to the late 19th century. Lloyd Dong Sr. was a farmer in the Central Valley before he moved to Coronado to become a gardener. He? worked on the land six days a week, according to his son Ron. On the seventh day, he did extra work to allow his American-born children to attend schools, build careers and invest in real estate.?

In this chapter of their lives, when Lloyd Jr. and Ron Dong are thinking about their legacies, memories bubble to the surface of people in their past who changed the trajectory of their lives. In 1939, Gus and Emma Thompson gave the Dong family a place to stay, a promise to sell them the land and a chance to build a better life.?

Gus Thompson in 1947.
Gus Thompson in 1947.Courtesy Kevin Ashley

It was a?time in Coronado, a resort city known for its opulent hotel and white sand beaches on the San Diego Bay peninsula, when people living on the margins of society found it difficult to live within city limits. Racially restrictive housing covenants prohibited immigrants and people of color from renting and buying in Coronado.

“I think that when we talk about racism generally in California, and especially in places like San Diego and L.A., people think because there was no slavery in California, that racism didn’t exist,” said Jo Von M. McCalester, a Howard University political science professor who grew up in San Diego. “But it doesn’t mean that groups and individuals didn’t understand their places within the society.”

“[The Dongs] are saying, ‘Look at all you guys fighting about reparations. We’re giving this all back to the Black community.'"

Kevin Ashley, a Coronado historian.

At the time, the only place for minorities and immigrants to stay in Coronado was Gus Thompson’s boarding house on the upper level of their barn. This didn’t happen by chance. Thompson had traveled from Kentucky to California to work at the Hotel Del Coronado. He built the house and barn on C Avenue in 1895, before the city’s racial housing covenants took effect making him exempt from the restrictions. Thompson converted his barn into a boarding house for the vulnerable.?

Gus Thompson owned and operated a livery stable and boarding house on the property.
Gus Thompson owned and operated a livery stable and boarding house on the property. Courtesy Kevin Ashley

Gus Thompson’s initiative shows a spirit of defiance and a resolve to help others, said Ballinger Gardner Kemp, his great-grandson.?

The Dong and Thompson families were on the same side of history. They were people trying to make it in a land that didn’t see them as full citizens. It wasn’t abnormal then to have marginalized individuals living together and supporting one another, McCalester said.?

“It was just something understood that marginalized people in San Diego had to rely very heavily on one another,” she said.

In 1955, Emma Thompson sold the Coronado home and the barn next door to the Dongs, who became the first Chinese American family to purchase real estate in Coronado, said Ashley, the Coronado historian.?

The Dong family lived in the house at 832 C Ave. and in 1957 replaced the barn with an apartment complex. Ron Dong became a high school teacher and Lloyd Dong Jr. became a jack of many trades, including a tax preparer. The brothers moved away from Coronado to different parts of California and managed the properties on C Avenue from afar.?

The Dong family owns the single-family home at 832 C Ave. and the apartment complex next door.
The Dong family owns the single-family home at 832 C Ave. and the apartment complex next door.Google

Memories of the Thompsons mostly faded away until the Dong brothers started making plans for their Coronado properties. They lived comfortably and had no children. Upkeep of the properties, which they did themselves, felt increasingly difficult.?

“It’s time,” said Janice Dong, Ron’s wife, about their decision to sell the Coronado properties. “We want to give back.”?

In 2022, Ashley contacted the Dongs after researching Black history in Coronado and asked the fateful question: Do you remember the Thompsons?

Holding a mirror up to society

The Dong family’s decision to donate to SDSU’s Black Resource Center coincides with California lawmakers’ introduction of 14 reparations bills to address some of the state’s legacy of racial discrimination. The bills are based on recommendations from the state’s Reparations Task Force, formed in 2020 amid a national racial reckoning and questions about why California, a historically free state, would lead the reparations effort.

“There’s plenty that California has to account for. In big and small ways, we need to reckon with this.”

Don Tamaki, a member of the California Reparations Task Force.

California entered the union as a free state, but its legacy of racial discrimination is often overlooked, said Don Tamaki, a member of the California Reparations Task Force.?

“There’s plenty that California has to account for,” Tamaki said, citing histories of local governments seizing properties and restricting access to housing and health care. “In big and small ways, we need to reckon with this.”

The debate on reparations is emotionally charged and mired with questions of accountability, budgetary constraint and arguments to let bygones be bygones. Most people don’t think descendants of enslaved people should be paid back, according to a Pew Research survey.?

“I think they understand how one family’s sacrifice can shape the lives of so many,” said McCalester, the Howard University professor. “I think that’s where reparations have to come from.”

In these families’ intersecting stories, the spirit of rebellion endures. Back then, the Thompsons thumbed their noses at racism by renting and selling to the Dongs. In 2024, the Dongs are doing something similar.?

The Dong family decision holds up a mirror to society to take a deeper look, said Ashley.

“They are saying, ‘Look at all you guys fighting about reparations. We’re giving this all back to the Black community,’” he added.

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