Building a Community: A Look at African American Institutions in Early Los Angeles

Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department, Central Library,
Members of the Junior NAACP, 1923, Shades of L.A. Collection
Members of the Junior NAACP, [1923]. Shades of L.A. Collection

On this first day of African American Heritage Month, we reflect on the African American community of early Los Angeles. Arriving in the region in search of the California Dream, African American migrants relied on the institutions they created—particularly churches, Black-owned newspapers, and civic organizations—to strengthen their community against the backdrop of racial discrimination.

When California became a U.S. state, Los Angeles had fewer than two thousand residents, with about a dozen of those being African American. A slow trickle of African American migrants arrived in the coming years, and they formed a small network of friends which planted the seed for a budding community. By the late 1880s, Los Angeles was experiencing a real estate boom, and affordable train tickets on newly completed railroad lines brought a greater influx of migrants from across the country to the city. Though escaping the worst violence of the South, Black Angelenos nonetheless faced widespread and often unpredictable discrimination. Churches, Black-owned newspapers, and civic organizations provided a haven from this discrimination and served as a vehicle to organize the African American community.

Churches

The First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church was founded in 1872 at the Spring Street home of Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891). Mason had arrived in California as a slave and, after contesting her slave status with the courts, earned her freedom in 1856. She worked as a nurse-midwife and began investing in real estate. With her considerable wealth, Mason was able to donate land for a FAME Church site and funded its construction. Originally located on a property at Los Angeles and Azusa Streets, in 1902 FAME purchased a lot at Eighth Street and Towne Avenue, where they spent $20,000 to erect a new church building. Proceeds from selling the Azusa Street property went toward paying off the church’s debt. The congregation began offering the Los Angeles Sunday Forum in 1903, which met offsite at the Odd Fellows Hall on 8th Street. Despite its church sponsorship, the Forum meetings were open to all community members regardless of religion, race, or political affiliation. The gathering of people enabled discussion and debate and became an important meeting place for black activists. FAME continues on strong to this day in its current location on Harvard Street in the West Adams neighborhood.

The Second Baptist Church was founded soon after FAME in 1885, moving to its current location along 24th Street in South Los Angeles in 1926. The church was designed by notable African American architect Paul R. Williams and completed in time to host the 1928 NAACP national convention. A February 12, 1909, Los Angeles Times article “Religious life in Los Angeles” by Reverend G. R. Bryant gave an important snapshot of Black churches. There were twelve churches specifically established by and for African Americans. Five were Methodist, four were Baptist, one Presbyterian, one Christian, and one Episcopal. Among the many churches featured was the Wesley Chapel, founded in 1888 and is today it is known as the Wesley United Methodist Church.

Second Baptist Church
Exterior view of Second Baptist Church, located at 2412 Griffith Avenue, the second African-American church in Los Angeles. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Black-owned Newspapers

While churches served as essential social, spiritual, and political headquarters for the early African American community of Los Angeles, Black-owned newspapers were a vehicle to communicate to Black Angelenos and the African American population across the nation. These publications simultaneously denounced local discrimination while promoting Los Angeles as an escape from the violence and hardship of the American South. Newspaper owner and community leader Charlotta Spears Bass noted “The press and the pulpit are the two main centers for the development of community consciousness.”

Bass’ mentor, John J. Neimore, had founded the California Owl newspaper in 1879 (or 1890, depending on the source). Neimore was a former slave from Texas who used his newspaper to provide the local black community with information about jobs, housing, and other relevant happenings. He also aimed to attract more black southerners to Los Angeles, viewing Black-owned newspapers in the West as a new kind of Underground Railroad. Upon Neimore’s death in 1912, Bass took over the newspaper. Bass renamed the publication the California Eagle, and with her husband grew its circulation until 1951, when she sold the newspaper to its city editor, Loren Miller. The publication eventually ceased in 1964 when Miller left to become a Superior Court Judge. While issues of the California Eagle have been preserved, sadly nothing of the original California Owl remains.

Charlotta Bass with newspaper staff
Charlotta Bass with staff of the California Eagle newspaper. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

The Liberator was a monthly magazine established in 1900 by former slave Jefferson Lewis Edmonds. The publication’s stated purpose was “to the cause of good government and the advancement of the American Negro.” Edmonds was a progressive-Republican who promoted causes such as women’s suffrage. Like the California Eagle, the Liberator aimed to attract more African Americans out West. Advertisements from railroad companies promoting “great inducements to the colored people to come to California and settle” could be seen by African American readers throughout the South. The Liberator folded in 1915 after Edmonds passed away. Other short-lived Black-owned newspapers included the New Age Dispatch,The Weekly Observer, The Pacific Defender, and Pacific Enterprise. The California Eagle remained the established news source for many decades. In 1933, Leon H. Washington founded the Los Angeles Sentinel, a weekly newspaper for African American readers, which quickly grew in popularity and today continues to be a staple of the black community in Los Angeles.

Civic Organizations

While the Great Migration (1910-1940) saw a tremendous number of African Americans moving from the South to northern industrial cities, the far West did not offer the same wartime factory jobs. As such, the black population continued to increase in Los Angeles at a slow but steady rate. The 1900 United States Census shows that the African-American population of Los Angeles was 2,131 out of an overall population of 102,479. By 1910 the African-American population of the city of Los Angeles had increased to 7,599, out of an overall population of 319,198. Also arriving were white southern migrants who wanted to maintain a Jim Crow racial order. A sense of creeping Jim Crow influence and the local popularity of the racist film The Birth of the Nation, which debuted February 8, 1915, to a large audience in downtown L.A., were some of the factors which led to the establishment of civic organizations focusing on the welfare of Black Angelenos.

The local chapter Afro-American Council (AAC) was the first long-standing civil rights organization in Los Angeles. Founded in 1898, the national organization focused on enacting federal anti-lynching laws and combating African American disenfranchisement. Notably, most of the Council’s leaders and delegates were blue-collar workers and small-time entrepreneurs, and women were welcomed as equal members. The California state delegation met regularly to discuss national and regional matters and to endorse political candidates. Factionalism and lack of funding led to the 1908 collapse of the national organization, although several Los Angeles Times articles suggest the state delegation continued to meet in Pasadena for a few more years.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed in 1909, with a Los Angeles chapter established in 1914. The first meeting place was the home of Drs. John and Vada Somerville, both USC School of Dentistry graduates and community activists. The Somervilles went on to open the Somerville Hotel in 1928, which hosted that year’s NAACP national convention (and later, as the Dunbar Hotel, became a focal point for the African American community in the 1930s and 1940s). The NAACP had become the major player in local civil rights activism by the 1920s and pursued lawsuits against residential and public facilities segregation.

N.A.A.C.P. Exec. Board meeting
A meeting of the Los Angeles Chapter, N.A.A.C.P. Executive Board in 1923. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

A notable case against the Los Angeles Playground Commission was championed by activist and NAACP co-founder Betty Hill. City-owned swimming pools operating under the Commission restricted access to African American residents to one day per week—often the day before the pools were cleaned. The NAACP had already suffered defeat in a previous bathhouse lawsuit, but Hill remained determined. With moral support from the NAACP and two pro-bono lawyers, Hill helped resident Ethel Prioleau file suit against the Commission. After dozens of court sessions, in February 1931 a judge ruled that racial discrimination by the Playground Commission was illegal. The Commission wanted to appeal, and it was up to the City Council to allow them. Hill found an ally in Councilman E. Snapper Ingram, who led the 8-6 vote against appealing the judge’s decision. A 1935 Los Angeles Sentinel article recalled the case and lauded the efforts of Hill, the NAACP, and Councilman Ingram, calling him a “friend of the people.”

Group of African American women church members
Activist and co-founder Los Angeles NAACP chapter Betty Hill stands at the far left among women church members, [ca 1955]. Shades of L.A. Collection

Another notable organization was the Los Angeles Urban League, which was founded in 1921 through a merger with a women’s club called the Tuskegee Industrial Welfare League and the National Urban League. The group’s focus was improved black employment opportunities and aid to the poor. As a result, the Urban League was well-positioned to assist the African American community during the Great Depression. Los Angeles Sentinel articles throughout the 1930s advertised job openings and job fairs to help community members with vocational guidance.

Central Avenue and Community Growth

A great many of the churches, Black-owned newspapers, and civic organizations were located on and around Central Avenue. Due to discrimination and racial housing covenants, African Americans were essentially locked out of the Westside. Black-owned businesses and residences congregated on the Eastside and moved south along Central Avenue. By the 1920s, this area was becoming the heart of African American Los Angeles. Also located along Central Avenue were professional offices, theaters, and nightclubs, which became the epicenter of the city’s jazz scene.

Street scene, Central Avenue
A street scene of Central Avenue, [1939]. Photo credit: Fred William Carter, Security Pacific National Bank Collection

The African American population greatly increased during the period called the Second Great Migration (mid-1940s-1970). Defense industry jobs attracted workers during World War II. The churches, Black-owned newspapers, and civic organizations established in the early years provided support to newly arriving African Americans. These institutions played major roles in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The Second Baptist Church, for example, was the West Coast home of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who delivered a series of sermons there between 1956 and 1968. These bedrock institutions supported the African American community through the tumultuous events of the late 1960s and were a foundation for future Black political power, exemplified by politicians like City Councilman and Mayor Tom Bradley, Councilman Gilbert W. Lindsay, County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, and LAUSD President, City Councilwoman and Library Commissioner Rita Walters.

Female war worker
Los Angeles airplane factory war worker poses with the airplane she is helping build, [ca 1940]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Further Reading


Notable Southern Californians in Black History
Johnson, Robert Lee

Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities

African Americans in Los Angeles
Stanford, Karin L.

Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era
Jefferson, Alison R.

Jefferson brings to life the stories of the Southern California leisure destinations that African Americans created and patronized during the nation’s Jim Crow era, illustrating the desire to achieve the California Dream amid the struggle of confronting racism and discrimination at public recreation sites. As the 2020 winner of the Los Angeles City Historical Society’s Miriam Matthews Ethnic History Award for exceptional contributions to the greater understanding and awareness of Los Angeles history, the book highlights overlooked local stories which were central to the nationwide fight for opening public spaces for all Americans.


Making Black Los Angeles: Class, Gender, and Community, 1850-1917
Campbell, Marne L

Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America
Flamming, Douglas

City of Promise: Race & Historical Change in Los Angeles

L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles From the Great Depression to the Present
Sides, Josh

Forty Years: Memoirs From the Pages of a Newspaper
Bass, Charlotta A.

The Negro in Los Angeles
Bond, J. Max


 

 

 

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