After the Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction period, life for former slaves was almost like a new form of enslavement, particularly with the advent of the Jim Crow Laws.
The class system still pervaded the Southern way of life. The poor white working class found itself in direct competition with those they used to beat or kill at will. There were insufficient jobs for both groups of people. The Klan came into being as a “grassroots” movement to keep Blacks in their place in order to assert their own superiority.
As a way of escaping these incessant, degrading, and harrowing conditions, many former slaves and their children and grandchildren were drawn to the North (to such cities as Detroit, Chicago, and New York) with the promise of jobs that paid well and offered a better way of life.
Others moved west, to the warm, seemingly more inviting, environs of places like California and particularly Los Angeles.
While Los Angeles was still Mexican territory, Blacks faired relatively well. Mexico had abolished slavery decades before America did. That attendant attitude made it possible for the first Black person to become governor of California in 1831. However, when the California territory, subsequent to our “winning” the Mexican-American War, became admitted to the Union as a State in 1850, legislation to restrict the civil rights of Blacks (as well as the Chinese and Native Americans) was immediately put into place.
By the turn of the last century, most Black Angelinos lived in the downtown area known as Brick Block along Spring Street. Black entrepreneurs opened restaurants (such as the famous Coffee and Chop House), hotels, furniture stores, and barber shops (a veritable town hall for the male patrons).
At the same time, around 2000 Black workers were brought to Los Angeles by the Southern Pacific Railroad to break a Mexican-American strike—sparking the beginning of tensions between the two ethnic communities.
As more Blacks owned their own homes and with the establishment of an NAACP branch under the umbrella of W. E. B. DuBois, the Black community grew along Central Avenue. A Black-owned newspaper wrote stories relevant to the new Black Belt neighborhoods, and many jazz and ragtime musicians relocated there from Southern and Eastern states—drawing even more transplants from those locales.
However, as the Hollywood film industry began to flourish, it also created new tensions between Blacks and whites. D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and The Klan fanned the flames. Soon, however, the film industry recognized there was a market for films about and by Blacks. Think of Green Pastures and actors like Dorothy Dandridge, Moms Mabley, and Lena Horne as well as those who filled stereotypes such as Stepin Fetchit Perry and Bojangles. There were shows like Amos and Andy and Beulah. However, transformative actors like Billy Dee Williams, Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Portier got their start about this time as well.
It wasn’t until the Age of Television, though, that audiences began to get a more “enlightened” view of “Black America.” When shows like I, Spy; Julia; and The Bill Cosby Show entered our living rooms on a weekly basis, white America was introduced to an honest side of Blacks, more wholesome and different from the scary stereotypes of earlier productions. As a result, the Black community was seen through a different lens. Across the country whites began to see Blacks as being not quite so different from themselves.
Yet before that new perspective took hold, as the Black population grew, the white community felt threatened and enacted restrictive housing covenants (an issue which also affected scores of other ethnic minorities about which I have written in earlier articles). Where the Black population could live became very limited.
It was because of the new freeway system that the suburbs came into being in Los Angeles. Many wealthier whites moved to the Valley (but worked downtown) while Blacks and Latinos were precluded from becoming their neighbors. Many Blacks moved to Pacoima in the East San Fernando Valley and to Venice on the Westside. Because of red-lining practices, many realtors steered Black home-seekers to Antelope Valley and the Mojave Desert. The more affluent among them, however, sometimes interpreted this policy as an opportunity to move in order to escape their stultifying and dangerous neighborhoods. In the meantime, the poorer, blue-collar families were, for the most part, confined to the more “ghettoized” environs of South Central LA.
The Great Black Migration of the pre-WWII decade witnessed movement to Los Angeles (and other cities out West) from the North and the South as jobs became more scarce and less promising in those previously attractive regions. People found a greater sense of community, though, as they gathered together in the new Black churches (it is still frequently said that “the most segregated day of the week in America is Sunday”).
What transpired during World War II in California greatly impacted minority populations as well. As Japanese-Americans were uprooted from and stripped of their homes, businesses, and farms and forcefully relocated to internment camps across the country (one of the most famous is Manzanar in the Owens Valley in northern California), overcrowded Black neighborhoods benefitted because they could now spread out. Many moved into Little Tokyo in downtown LA and for a while the area was nicknamed Bronzeville. Little New Orleans, inhabited mostly by transplanted Creoles from Louisiana, became known as Sugar Hill.
Violent wars in the African nations of Eritrea and Somalia drove many of their residents to Los Angeles (and Washington, D. C.). Jamaican and Belizeans came in droves when the immigration cap was lifted—many of whom settled in Compton, Windsor Hills, and the Valley.
As the Black population was expanding in a variety of directions, a white gang, the Spook Hunters, emerged. Its goal was to terrorize and scare away this “menace.” It is because of such racist groups that Blacks began to form gangs of their own in order to protect themselves. Some of these gangs disappeared while others evolved into what became the Crips, Bloods, and Pirus—often fighting among themselves for turf rights but also focusing on retaliation against “white marauders.”
Los Angeles is genuinely a product of how the Black population of our city has shaped it. LA can truly be described as not only a melting pot of cultures and their influences but also as a mixed salad of people, proud of, promoting, perpetuating, and protecting the respective heritage of each.
Prominent Black Angelinos
The Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper, a weekly periodical aimed at Black readership, was founded in 1933 by Col. Leon Washington. Later Chester Washington, Jr. (not related) began work for the Sentinel after the Los Angeles Mirror-News (for which he had worked) went out of business. Chester Washington became editor-in-charge and soon formed a corporation which published 13 different newspapers, including The Sentinel which became “a staple of Black life in Los Angeles.” In 1982 Supervisor Kenny Hahn dedicated the former Western Avenue Golf Course in Washington’s honor. It was renamed the Chester L. Washington Golf Course, just one year before he passed away.
In 2004 The Sentinel was purchased by businessman, Danny Bakewell, a man who has exerted his influence in so many ways in the greater Los Angeles area. Always a civil rights advocate, he co-founded the National Black United Fund and became president of The Brotherhood Crusade (it was at one of its concerts that my husband proposed to me). As chair of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (formerly the National Negro Publishers Association), his voice is still heard loud and clear across the face of America as it relates to Black life and its influence.
Yvonne Brathwaite Burke has been prominent in Los Angeles politics her entire life. She is a graduate of Manual Arts High School, UCLA, and USC Law School. Because no law firm would hire a Black person, let alone a Black woman, back in the ‘50s, she opened her own law practice and became a quickly rising star in local and state politics. Serving on the Los Angeles Police Commission, she helped transform how it handled the tensions between the police vs LA’s ethnic minorities.
She served on the noteworthy McCone Commission which analyzed the Watts Riot of 1965—out of which came numerous significant recommendations for long-term easing of ethnic tensions. The rebellion was part of the long, hot summers of the early ‘60s. It was, in a sense, the ugly culmination of decades of hard feelings. It was a manifestation of ill-treatment, broken promises, difficult relationships with the police, unemployment, and indefensible segregated housing laws.
During the immediate aftermath and in the time that ensued, many people rose to the occasion in an effort to mediate and resolve differences. One such person was Rev. Dr. Cecil Murray of the First African-Methodist-Episcopal (AME) Church of LA. He and his church were instrumental in working on reforms.
One important result was the creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital in the heart of Watts. Previously, local residents had had to travel miles to County General Hospital in East LA to receive urgent care or emergency treatment. Ambulances had previously been loath to enter the neighborhoods so medical, let alone police responses, had been notoriously slow.
The King Hospital [later King-Drew (the medical school)] helped moderate attitudes and perceptions. It is now “a one-stop shop for the healthcare needs of patients in South LA.” It provides ambulatory, medical, dental, and mental health services as well as preventive medicine. It has become a state-of-the art facility serving a community that had been previously sorely neglected.
Among root causes of the uprising were high unemployment and poor education delivered by the public schools in the area. These issues were addressed. Other recommendations included a more efficient transportation system, pre-school programs, job training, and access to low-income housing.
The Rev. Dr. Murray and his church were key to the creation of multi-million dollar economic development programs in South Central LA. This led to jobs, housing, and corporate investments to raise the standard of living. A new feeling of self-worth emerged.
Murray’s work became so monumental that both he and his church earned an unparalleled reputation for their vision and accomplishments. The church became such a widely recognized institution that many leaders, including Presidents Bush 41 and Clinton, made “pilgrimages” there to receive the AME seal of approval.
Murray, now on the faculty at USC, continues to assert his influence. He still has “a passion to ensure that the legacy of African American Church leaders of the Civil Rights generation pass on their years of experience, spiritual authority, and political pragmatism, to the next generation.”
Murray worked closely with Brathwaiteand other notable trailblazers to achieve the changes that came out of the McCone Commission report.
Burke became a State Assemblywoman in 1966. She went on to serve on the Board of Supervisors, becoming the first minority woman chair. In 1972 she gained national recognition as she vice-chaired the Democratic National Convention which nominated the progressive George McGovern for President.
After she was elected to Congress, she held a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. During those years she recognized that discrimination had become more subtle and as such she tried to thwart Nixon’s efforts to dilute the effectiveness of President Johnson’s Great Society’s Economic Opportunity Program (EOP). She fought for equal opportunities for minority-owned businesses, using the affirmative action concept as a way of evening the playing field. She fought the Hyde Amendment back in 1977 which prohibited Federal Medicaid funding for abortions—still a hot-button issue in recent years regarding current Federal health programs.
Her daughter, Autumn Burke, is following in her mother’s footsteps. She is eager to enter politics to carry forward a progressive agenda of her own. I think her ambition was meant to be, considering that her mother, elected to the House in 1972, was “the first Congresswoman to give birth [to Autumn] and be granted maternity leave while serving in the House.” Mom and baby even made a cover of an Ebony Magazine issue in 1974.
It is significant that so many of our earlier leaders have passed on their passion to the next generations. Therefore, you must look for my future article dealing with the most recent contributions from the Black community in Los Angeles.