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Historic Resources Associated with African Americans in Los Angeles

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Liberty School Front (north) and west elevations, view looking southeast
Photo by J. Daniel Pezzoni, courtesy of North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office

The Historic Resources associated with African Americans in Los Angeles, a multiple property submission was accepted in the National Register of Historic Places on February 4, 2009 due to the historic importance of the African American community in Los Angeles, California. Since the earliest days of the Los Angeles pueblo, African Americans have been a vital presence in the city. Over this period, the African American community in Los Angeles was shaped and reshaped by successive streams of migration. 

From 1890 to 1915, Los Angeles was a destination for a “quiet” migration of southern African Americans with middleclass outlooks and ambitions, the largest group coming from Texas, New Orleans, Atlanta and Shreveport. These early newcomers quickly founded the institutions of the community-newspapers, businesses, clubs, and churches and laid claim to Central Avenue as the center of their community. The overall African American population was small at this time, reaching only 15,579 by 1920, and the “Great Migration” of the rural southern African Americans to the northern states during the 1920’s largely bypassed Los Angeles.  It was during the 1930’s that black migration changed in character, when nearly 25,000 blacks arrived in Los Angeles, many from poorer backgrounds, hailing mostly from Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans. The newcomers clashed with the established middle class of the community, but soon found common cause with fellow newcomers, and established their own churches and social networks. At the same time, the African American middle class was experiencing its own divisions between an older, established leadership and a new generation of activists. By this point, the size of the Los Angeles African American community eclipsed all other cities in the West-the population reached 63,744 in 1940, compared to only 5,000 in San Francisco, 8,500 in Oakland and 8,000 in Denver, and 4,000 in Seattle.

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Liberty School interior, combined classrooms
Photo by J. Daniel Pezzoni, courtesy of North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office

For Los Angeles, the true “Great Migration” decade was the 1940s;  spurred by World War II and the burgeoning defense industry. African American migration reached unprecedented levels; over 140,000 arrived in Los Angeles County in the 1940s alone, outpacing that of all major northern and western cities from 1940 to 1970, jumping from 63,700 to 763,000 people. African Americans were now a much more visible presence in the city, and constituted a diverse group in terms of class, culture, politics, and religion. With its growing magnitude and complexity, the African American community would ultimately redirect the course of not only Los Angeles history but also for the state and nation. Los Angeles elected the first African American state assemblyman, it became a leader in jazz, and it emerged as a key player in the national civil rights movement.

Between the 1890s and 1958, African American settlement patterns in Los Angeles underwent several distinct phases. Central Avenue was the hub for much of this period. The African American community existed within racially and ethnically mixed areas.  African Americans co-mingled with whites, Latinos, Asians, and other ethnic groups and it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that the Central Avenue area transitioned from multiracial to nearly all African American.  Ironically, the highest segregation levels occurred after federal civil rights measures and court decisions had outlawed housing discrimination.

In the first phase of settlement from roughly 1890 to 1900, African Americans clustered in the downtown area around what became known as the “Brick Block.” It was located near property owned by the important African American pioneer Biddy Mason. A former slave, Mason had arrived in Los Angeles in the 1860s. After accumulating some modest savings, she purchased several cheap parcels on Spring Street, which appreciated enormously in value. A testament to Mason’s leadership role in the community, she hosted the first meetings of the First AME Church at her house. African American-owned businesses soon grew around the “Brick Block.” Beginning in 1888 with Frank Blackburn’s “coffee and chop house” and followed by G.W. Hawkins’ furniture store, Reeves and McLaughlin’s furniture store, Clisby and Henderson’s grocery, J.R. Walker’s restaurant, Ramsey’s barbershop, and a two-story hotel-restaurant owned by A.J. Jones.  Before long this nascent African American community pushed southward a few blocks down san Pedro Street, and hit Skid Row at 5th Street-anathema to middle-class minded African American business owners.  Seeking to grow their community away from a street with a reputation for drunks, they leapfrogged over 5th Street and east onto Central Avenue.  This marked the beginning of Central Avenue’s ascendance as the center of African American life in Los Angeles.  

The second phase of settlement converged on Central Avenue between 8th and 20th Streets. By 1915, the African American owned California Eagle newspaper was referring to Central Avenue as the “Black belt of the city.” Previously populated by Mexicans, Anglos, Asians and Europeans, the effort to create an African-American enclave in Los Angeles was a conscious one, spearheaded by the numerous African American-owned businesses, churches, and other enterprises—one pivotal business leader was Sidney P. Dones, who in 1914 opened the Sidney P. Dones Company at 8th Street and Central, which offered real estate, insurance and legal services. Next door was the California Eagle. Other African American owned businesses clustered along Central Avenue between 8th and 12th streets. Home ownership among African Americans moving into the neighborhood swiftly followed.

By the late 1920’s Central Avenue and 41st Street was the new heart of African American Los Angeles.  At this intersection three significant structures stood as signs of the growth of the African American community.  These included the Somerset Hotel, the Hudson-Liddell Building, and the Golden State Mutual Insurance Building.  These enterprises drew black settlement down and around the Avenue. During the 1930s the African American population of Los Angeles continued to climb, with most newcomers settling in the Central Avenue vicinity.  In 1930, approximately 17,500 African American lived in the area, over the next decade nearly 25,000 blacks would join them. An exodus of non-blacks from the vicinity, as repatriation depleted the Mexican and Philipino population, while white working-class residents were drawn to new suburban developments with Federal Housing Administration Assistance.

The 1940s was a watershed decade for Central Avenue.  The tremendous influx of African American migrants during and after World War II put major strains on the community---during the war years, 50,000 newcomers settled in and around the Avenue, with more arriving after the war. Despite the jump in population, the racial boundaries held firm around the community. Housing in the community felt the strain and rooms were rented out and families doubled up. In the face of massive housing shortages during the war, many African American newcomers also settled in little Tokyo, in housing once occupied by Japanese residents who were removed to the internment camps in 1942.  Ultimately 70,000 African American lived in Little Tokyo during the war, though the area was meant to accommodate only 30,000. Beyond Central Avenue, African Americans settled in other pockets of the city. With the most notable located on the Eastside.  The Furlong Tract was a small African American neighborhood between 50th and 55th Streets, Alameda and Long beach Avenue. The Furlong tract’s 51st Street School, built in 1910, was the first all-African American school in Los Angeles. It was destroyed by fire in 1922 and rebuilt as the Holmes Avenue Elementary School.  The Long Beach earthquake of 1933 destroyed many structures in the area, precipitating an exodus.  In the 1940s, the neighborhood was razed to make way for the Pueblo del Rio public housing project.

Watts was another important area. Located seven miles south of downtown, Watts had its origins as a labor camp of the Pacific Electric railway.  It soon emerged as a prominent settlement of working-class African Americans, Mexicans, Germans, Italians, Greeks, Jews, and Japanese.  By 1920, African Americans comprised 14 percent of the local population. Several notable African Americans lived in Watts during their youth, including Arna Bontemps, Tom Bradley, Charles Mingus, Buddy Collette, and Chico Hamilton.  Closer to downtown, Boyle Heights and the West Temple section were also areas of African American settlement. Boyle Heights had a diverse population of Jews, Mexicans, Japanese, and smaller numbers of Russian Molokans, Italians, Armenians, and African Americans. 

A few notable early black settlements also took root in the Westside, defying the racial barrier. The West Adams/West Jefferson section was the most important of these. Eventually, only wealthy African Americans could afford to live on the exclusive area within West Adams known as “Sugar Hill” at the northeast corner. In 1938, African Americans finally broke the color line when businessman Norman Houston purchased a house on Sugar Hill.  He waited three years to move in, fearing a backlash from his white neighbors.  Once he did, other members of the African American elites soon followed including film stars Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniels, J.A. Somerville, businessman Horace Clark, and activist Betty Hill.

In the 1950s, the identity of the area south of downtown transitioned from multiethnic/multiracial Eastside to nearly all-African American. African American settlement at this period experienced a third major shift.  Middle-class African Americans began moving out of the Central Avenue vicinity into contiguous neighborhoods to the west and south. While this movement represented the hard-won civil rights struggles and the improving prospects of some African American, it also had a depleting effect on the Central Avenue community. As such, it set off yet another transformation of Central Avenue, ending its reign as a center of African American life in Los Angeles, which was now relocating westward. This movement expanded the boundaries of African American settlement in Los Angeles to what became commonly known as “South Central". Within this large area were the African American neighborhoods of Avalon, South Vermont, and Watts, and the unincorporated communities of Florence, Westmont and Willowbrook. In the 1950s the African Americans who settled here were both blue-collar and professionals.  Working wives, many employed in clerical jobs, allowed the blue-collar families to afford to live here. A small number of African Americans settled in the outer suburbs of Los Angeles by 1960, including Pasadena, Monrovia, Altameda, Santa Monica, and Pomona.

Throughout this history, black settlement was restricted by a variety of tactics designed to keep African Americans out of all-white neighborhoods---one of the most used tools of segregation was the restrictive covenant, used widely in Los Angeles and cities nationally from 1900 to 1948.  This was a legal clause written into a property deed, which dictated that the owner could only sell or rent the house to “Caucasians.” Homeowners “protective associations” promoted segregation as well, as did private developers. The final and most long-lasting mechanism of residential segregation was white violence and intimidation. By the postwar years, African Americans had become the most intensely segregated of all nonwhite groups in Los Angeles, ironically, after the courts had declared certain race restrictions unconstitutional.

African Americans also faced discrimination in hiring. From 1900 to 1940 African Americans worked mostly as service workers and general laborers.  One third of African American males worked as janitors, porters, waiters, or house servants. Others worked as chauffeurs, garbage collectors and street sweepers. African American women were employed predominately as domestic workers, though up to 1920 fewer African American woman had to work in L.A. compared to other cities, thanks mainly to higher wages earned by husbands and their middle-class outlooks. There were some exceptions to these broad trends: a small number of African American professionals and businessmen found a foothold in Los Angeles. During the war African Americans entered industrial jobs in significant numbers, thanks to manpower shortages and Executive Order 8802 (1941), which prohibited discrimination in wartime defense industries.  While many were laid off at the end of World War II, some found a permanent foothold in industry, especially in the steel, rubber and the food industries. Organized labor, at first hostile to desegregation, began to open up in the 1930s with the Congress of Industrial Organizations promoting racial equality.

The African American community did find social support in African American owned newspapers, businesses, and the churches.  Political involvement, aside from voting, saw a turning point in 1918, when the first African American was elected to the California state assembly. Organizations and clubs including the Urban League and   National Association for the Advancement of Colored people, provided a critical method of civic engagement.  It was the Civil Rights movement, acting locally, that brought Shelly v. Kraemer to the Supreme Court, which started when the West Adams Heights Improvement Association filed a lawsuit contending that the white homeowners who sold their homes (to businessman Norman Houston and other elite African Americans) violated the racial covenant on the property. When this case made it to the Supreme Court in 1948, Loren Miller argued the case along with Thurgood Marshall.  The Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants could not be enforced by the state, because the enforcement of the covenant would require the state to implement a discriminatory action.

Culturally, many talented African Americans came to Los Angeles due to the film industry. Central Avenue is famous for its role in the development of West Coast jazz.  During the 1940s, gospel trios and quartets gained popularity and had a major influence in the development of Rhythm & Blues vocal groups—the most innovative of these groups in Los Angeles was the Three Sons of Thunder, formed in 1941.  Mass choirs rose, replacing quartets in gospel music, with the most important being the Wings over Jordan Choir, organized by the Reverend Glen T. Settles.  Jazz clubs abounded on Central Avenue.  The work of Samuel brown, the first African American music teacher in the Los Angeles public school system (he taught at Jefferson 1936-1961) was a major influence on the up and coming jazz musicians of Los Angeles. The origin of jazz in Los Angeles has been attributed to a number of musicians who moved there from New Orleans and formed social dance bands.  Nightclubs became the physical manifestation of jazz music, and these were mainly located along Central Avenue from Little Tokyo to Watts, Club Alabam, the Apex Club, the Downbeat, the Flame and the Casablanca are the names of some of these clubs. Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie brought a new form of jazz-bebop—from New York to Los Angeles. The film and radio industry also brought fame to some black entertainers, including Clarence Muse, Nina McKinney, Ethel Waters, Hattie McDaniel and others. The period of integration in the motion picture industry began in 1949. Broadcasts on radio featured such African American artists as bandleader Duke Ellington and singer Paul Robeson.  In the 1950s African American radio fueled the popularity of rock-and-roll and was instrumental in lowering cultural barriers between African Americans and whites.  The pioneers in African American broadcasting in Los Angeles were Forest Perkins and Reverend Clayton Russell, who bought time on white-owned radio stations in the late 1930s.

Read the full file on The Historic Resources associated with African Americans in Los Angeles (pdf 9,000 kb)

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