Cover Image

Bound for Freedom

Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America

Douglas Flamming (Author)

Available worldwide
READ AN EXCERPT

Paperback, 486 pages
ISBN: 9780520249905
August 2006
$31.95, £23.95
Other Formats Available:
Paul Bontemps decided to move his family to Los Angeles from Louisiana in 1906 on the day he finally submitted to a strictly enforced Southern custom—he stepped off the sidewalk to allow white men who had just insulted him to pass by. Friends of the Bontemps family, like many others beckoning their loved ones West, had written that Los Angeles was "a city called heaven" for people of color. But just how free was Southern California for African Americans?

This splendid history, at once sweeping in its historical reach and intimate in its evocation of everyday life, is the first full account of Los Angeles's black community in the half century before World War II. Filled with moving human drama, it brings alive a time and place largely ignored by historians until now, detailing African American community life and political activism during the city's transformation from small town to sprawling metropolis.

Writing with a novelist's sensitivity to language and drawing from fresh historical research, Douglas Flamming takes us from Reconstruction to the Jim Crow era, through the Great Migration, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the build-up to World War II. Along the way, he offers rich descriptions of the community and its middle-class leadership, the women who were front and center with men in the battle against racism in the American West.

In addition to drawing a vivid portrait of a little-known era, Flamming shows that the history of race in Los Angeles is crucial for our understanding of race in America. The civil rights activism in Los Angeles laid the foundation for critical developments in the second half of the century that continue to influence us to this day.
Acknowledgments
List of Maps
Where We Begin

Part One. Staking a Claim in the West

Arrival
1. Southern Roots, Western Dreams
2. The Conditions of Heaven
3. Claiming Central Avenue
4. Civic Engagement
5. Politics and Patriotism

Part Two. Civil Rights as a Way of Life
6. Fighting Spirit in the Twenties
7. The Business of Race
8. Surging Down Central
9. Responding to the Depression
10. Race and the New Deal Liberalism
Departure

Appendixes and Tables
Notes
Bibliography
Index
Douglas Flamming is Associate Professor of History at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of Creating the Modern South: Millhands and Managers in Dalton, Georgia, 1884–1984 (1992), winner of the Philip Taft Labor History Award.
“[A] stunning, meticulous, and highly accessible history. . . Bound for Freedom will undoubtedly rank as one of the best books about migration, access, power, privilege, the urban West, and race relations in a would-be multiracial metropolis.”—Western Historical Qtly
“A timely book . . . [and] an excellent book.”—Ethnic And Racial Studies
“A masterful and moving account of the black community in Los Angeles during the first half of the 20th century. . . . Urgent and intimate, lively and even endearing.”—Jonathan Kirsch, A Contributing Writer To The Book Review Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Occasionally, one is fortunate enough to read a book that simply had to be written.”—Josh Sides Southern California Qtly
“Densely populated with rich personal detail and provocative interpretation.”—Library Journal

Donald H. Pflueger Local History Award, Historical Society of Southern California

Chapter 1

Southern Roots, Western Dreams

One way to get free is to get gone. Move. Leave someplace bad for someplace better. Americans have always moved incessantly, looking for greener pastures, better jobs, broader opportunities, freer conditions, a place in the sun, a new start. At the turn of the twentieth century, Los Angeles offered all of that, which explains why it lured dream chasers from all over the nation and, indeed, the world. For white midwesterners—the majority of the newcomers during and after the real estate boom of the 1880s—Los Angeles promised freedom from harsh winters and the latest best bet for the big break. For Mexican exiles who surged north during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, Los Angeles offered escape from political violence and economic dislocation. For Japanese immigrants crossing the Pacific, Los Angeles meant opportunities for status and wealth that seemed no longer available in their homeland.

For African Americans, moving to Los Angeles had an even deeper meaning, one rooted in black history. Only free people can move freely, and no one understood this better than slaves and their descendants. Slaves had no legal right to free movement—no right to go where they pleased, when they pleased; no right to stay with family if a master said "sold." Slaves had to carry coinlike metal "passes" from their masters just to walk the roads. Running away from slavery—by law, illegal movement—was usually their only hope for freedom. The Underground Railroad thus attained immense cultural significance for black Americans. So too did the Exodus story. The old Hebrew texts were fundamental to the slaves' outlook on the world: Genesis and Exodus—life, exile, bondage, deliverance.

Freedom from slavery came partly because of the slaves' own mass movement during the Civil War. When the Union Army entered the South, slaves by the tens of thousands flocked to their military camps. This movement prompted a crisis within the army and ultimately prodded white Republicans into thinking that the war might in fact lead to the destruction of slavery in the South. When emancipation became reality in 1865, slaves took to the roads, demonstrating their freedom in the most basic way—they walked the roads to find a better place to live, to search for lost family, or just to stroll down a road because a free person can choose to do that.

After the war, virtually all former slaves remained in the South, because the South, exorcized of slavery, was their promised land. Instead of taking the Red Sea out, they sought to remake Egypt. Dixie was a land they knew. Their roots there stretched back for centuries. Their loved ones lay buried in that earth. The land was good, and they understood how to work it. During Reconstruction, southern blacks became voters and elected officials, and, with their white Republican allies, they sought to turn a land of bondage into a land of freedom. It was an astonishing quest for redemption.

But it did not work out. Reconstruction officially ended in 1877, a half-finished thing, and through the 1880s, black Republicans struggled to maintain a semblance of racial equality. Then, in the 1890s, conditions grew far worse. Through unchecked political violence, southern white Democrats disfranchised black voters. Jim Crow segregation became entrenched in southern life and law. White southerners lynched African Americans to show who was really in control, to show that blacks had no rights that whites were obligated to respect. By the mid-1890s, many Afro-southerners had decided a new Exodus was needed. Concerted out-migration began in a quiet, persistent procession.

Black Los Angeles traces its thickest roots to this unreconstructed South. For Afro-Angelenos, "the South" was more than a place on a map. It represented their history, the essential tragedy of their people. It served as their negative reference point, the ultimate example of what America should not be. With a common heritage encompassing slavery, the failure of Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow, black Angelenos viewed their departure from Dixie as an escape from bondage.

"The West," too, occupied a meaningful place in black Americans' hearts and minds. Through newspapers, magazines, art, political speeches, and dime novels, the Western Ideal had already assumed a powerful position in mainstream American mythology. The ideal held that the American West was a singularly egalitarian place, where opportunity was open to all citizens, regardless of background, lineage, or wealth. The West was the freest part of free America—pure democracy. Naturally, the ideal was largely bunk, but it was widely embraced, and it shaped the behavior and expectations of millions. The Western Ideal inspired many African American dreamers because it promised the equal opportunity they had never found in the East—whether they were in the North or the South. Interesting things were happening for blacks in the West during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Out West, and only out West, African American soldiers manned United States forts—armed black men were protecting the interests of the nation. There were dozens of all-black towns in the West, from Oklahoma to California—tangible symbols of civic freedom and Race enterprise. And finally, blacks were discovering an unusual amount of social and political freedom in the region's growing cities. Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles had only tiny black communities, but the word was that racial conditions there were notably better than they were back East.

Black Los Angeles always had in view both the South and the West. Even those Angelenos who had not moved from Dixie, including the Basses, spoke the language of southern tyranny and western freedom. When Joe Bass, still in Helena, blasted the Montana legislature for turning his state into a colony of the Jim Crow South, he was expressing three fundamental views held by black westerners: that southern race relations were evil; that the Western Ideal promised a better life; and—critically important—that the West was in danger of becoming another South.

At the turn of the century, however, African Americans in Dixie did not know that black westerners were beginning to worry about the southernization of the West. They saw only the opportunity for a kind of freedom that the South refused to offer them. For many, there came a point when their southern dream died and a western one took its place. For three African American families in three southern cities, the choice was not an easy one. They had fared rather well in the New South, but as their hopes for Reconstruction fell to Jim Crow, they began to consider a move to the Far West.

Out of Texas

William Edgar Easton believed that salvation for blacks lay in the Republican Party. This idea was common among black southerners, for the Republican Party—the party of Lincoln and emancipation—advocated a social order based on the principle of equality for all American citizens. It was biracial party, although its northern wing was predominantly white and its southern predominantly black. It stood in opposition to the Democratic Party, which openly advocated a social order based on white supremacy: whites could be free individuals, Democrats insisted, only if all blacks were subservient to all whites—a caste system. Other issues divided Republicans and Democrats, but for Afro-Texans and other black southerners, the battle between racial equality and white supremacy dominated the agenda.1

William Easton was born in 1861, the second son of Charles F. Easton, a New Yorker with family ties to both New England and the West Indies, and Marie Antoinette Leggett-Easton, a native of Louisiana whose roots stretched to Haiti. Charles was a barber by trade, and Marie kept house. By 1870, the family had moved to Saint Louis; but when Marie died shortly thereafter, Charles and his sons moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Charles, Jr., followed his father into the barbering trade. William, however, was often away from home, attending school at a French Canadian seminary, a New England academy, and a Catholic university. By his early twenties, Easton was a well-educated college graduate with a broad view of the world. In 1883, at the age of twenty-two, he moved south to take a teaching position in Texas. There he was married, and between 1890 and 1899, his wife, Mary, a native Texan, would give birth to four children.2

In Texas, Easton entered the rugged terrain of post-Reconstruction politics. Charlotta Bass, never one to understate a compliment, later wrote that "white politicians feared him because he was a master mind in political strategy." White Democrats probably did fear him, because he was everything they insisted blacks could never be—highly intelligent, politically astute, unmistakably urbane. Easton's complexion was virtually white, and he could have passed as white, but he embraced his African lineage and fought for black civil rights. Gradually his star began to rise in the Republican Party. In the 1880s he was elected commissioner of Fort Bend County, served as a political linchpin in Houston, became secretary of the state's Executive Committee for the Republican Party, and moved to Austin, where he chaired the county Executive Committee. In the mid-1890s he received two patronage positions, the first as a clerk in Galveston's customhouse, the second as a police clerk in San Antonio. By this time he had become a partner in a printing venture and editor of a Race paper, the Texas Blade. He wrote a historical drama, Dessalines: A Dramatic Tale: A Single Chapter from Haiti's History (1893), whose dual themes of racial pride and liberty were intended, as he wrote in the preface, to counter the image of Negro "buffoonery" presented in American theater. As editor of the Blade, Easton was "a fearless advocate and defender" of the Race.3

But as Easton's star was rising, the curtain was falling on black leaders and the Republican Party in Dixie. During the 1890s, Democrats used fraud, intimidation, and disfranchisement laws to rob virtually all blacks of the right to vote. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously—in Williams v. Mississippi (1898)—that poll taxes and literacy tests did not violate the Constitution, the southern GOP was doomed. Northern Republicans had their own crises at home—massive immigration, urban-industrial chaos, labor unrest—and the Radical Republican bloc, which had supported black civil rights, was dying out. A new breed of northern Republicans sought to meet the needs of big business, rather than of southern blacks, and in Congress they found useful allies among southern Democrats. Seizing the moment, Dixie's conservatives wiped out all their opponents. Before 1890, only two of eleven southern states had disfranchisement laws; by 1903, all southern states had them. In a remarkably short period, the black vote in the South went from healthy to dead. The one-party South was born.4

By this time, life had become not just difficult, but dangerous for Texas Republicans. In 1902 and 1903, Texas Democrats passed their state's disfranchisement law, and in 1904 a Republican leader near San Antonio was murdered by Democrats. But by then, the Eastons had gone. William Easton believed that only through electoral politics could Afro-Texans win "freedom from the tyranny imposed upon them by the state." But he saw that "the Lone Star State . . . held the Negro in virtual bondage," so in 1901 he and his family had left San Antonio for Los Angeles. Their new home offered fresh political opportunities, because Southern California was a Republican stronghold. And if William Easton could not save Texas, perhaps he could defend and extend equal rights in California.5

Out of Georgia

George and Annie Beavers had a little home on Humphreys Street in a section of south Atlanta called Mechanicsville. George worked as a laborer at a grocery store for a dollar a day, and Annie took in laundry. They supplemented this with a little backyard economy, growing vegetables and raising chickens. They had three young children: George, Jr., the oldest, born in 1892, and Mary Elmyra and Leroy. George and Annie Beavers believed strongly in education, racial progress, Christian living, and upward mobility for their children. They were members of St. Paul's First African Methodist Episcopal Church, and they taught their children the values of learning and leadership. George Beavers, Jr., later recalled that "my father always took me to . . . any big gathering where there was a discussion of conditions involving our race, and when there [were] noted speakers, bishops, and such characters as Booker T. Washington, and other leaders at the time. My father wanted me to get every benefit possible from hearing inspirational speakers and leaders." The Beavers family might not have been middle class in terms of wealth (George, Jr., later described the family as "poor"), but like many blue-collar African Americans, they were strivers, middle class in spirit and outlook.6

In some ways, Atlanta was right for the Beavers family. Racial conditions were better there than in most southern cities. The economy was growing, and so was the city's black middle class, led by educators and business leaders. Black churches were well established. Several black colleges were clustered near the Beavers home, including Morehouse, Spelman, and Atlanta University, where W.E.B. Du Bois was then teaching. The colleges offered private grade schools, and George Beavers, Jr., attended them. White boosters emphasized the city's business mind-set—"the city too busy to hate"—and promoted a paternalistic approach to race relations in hopes of curbing racial violence.7

Yet the New South was still the South. Public schools were segregated and badly unequal. The state's cumulative poll tax, passed in 1877 (the first in the South), had driven most blacks out of the electorate. Economic constraints were suffocating the black poor. And, in the end, New South boosterism could not stave off racial violence. Lynching, the scourge of the 1890s, hit Atlanta in 1899 with the killing and dismembering of Sam Hose, whose alleged murder of a white neighbor had resulted in mob retaliation. Afterward, Hose's charred hand was hung for display in a downtown store window. Tensions escalated in the early years of the twentieth century and finally exploded in the Atlanta race riot of 1906. During four searing days, white mobs torched black neighborhoods and businesses and murdered more than a dozen African Americans.8

The Beavers family was already in Los Angeles by then, but their exodus from Atlanta three years earlier had been prompted by the "Pittsburgh riot" of 1902. In that case, a black man tried to kill an ex-policeman who had once arrested him, and when he failed, he barricaded himself inside a store in the south Atlanta neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which was only blocks from the Beavers home. Heavily armed, the man shot and killed several of the policemen and bystanders who had surrounded the building. Mobs then descended in force, passing the Beavers house as they went. Finally, the building was burned with the man inside it; but it was difficult for local authorities to stop the violence there. The mob went on to set fire to other black sections of south Atlanta. Late in his life, George, Jr., remembered the scene and how it had prompted his parents to leave. "The excitement of the [white] patrols going back and forth to the site of that incident made quite an impression," he recalled. George and Annie Beavers had seen enough. They decided to leave.9

At the time, black southerners had a tendency to move due north from where they lived: Those who left Florida, the Carolinas, and Virginia usually pushed up the eastern seaboard to New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Black Cleveland became "Alabama North." Blacks near the Mississippi River found a convenient connection to Chicago on the famous Illinois Central Railroad. When Texans moved north they did not go far, migrating in huge numbers to Oklahoma; otherwise, they headed West. But black Georgians moved in all directions and could be found in substantial numbers in almost every large black community, North or West. Part of the reason for this trend lies in Georgia's exceptional railroad connections; rail lines spread from Atlanta in all directions. Relative affluence explains it as well. Black Georgians who were middle class (mostly in Atlanta), and those who were relatively poor but had accumulated some savings, such as the Beavers family, had money enough for tickets, and a wide range of destinations to choose from. Some of them could afford to be selective.10

George and Annie Beavers decided on Los Angeles, one of the most expensive and difficult places to go. The route from Atlanta to the West Coast was not a direct one, train tickets were expensive—train fare for a family of five would have cost about two hundred dollars at the time—and the distance of two thousand miles was daunting. From what George and Annie had heard, however, the move would be worth the effort and expense. Some of their friends had already moved to Los Angeles, and the letters they sent back described the "splendid conditions that existed" in Southern California. Los Angeles, they said, was like a "new heaven to the people, particularly our people." If you feel "burdened from racial segregation and discrimination," their friends said, then Los Angeles was the place to move. George and Annie Beavers believed it, and that is the message they passed on to their children. As George, Jr., later recalled, his family moved to Los Angeles "in quest of full citizenship rights and better living conditions."11

Out of Louisiana

The Atlanta riot of 1906 stunned the black South and hastened the exodus of the middle class. If it could happen in Atlanta, it could happen anywhere—and signs of black affluence only seemed to incite a deeper hatred among rioting whites. The long arm of anxiety reached all the way from Atlanta to Alexandria, Louisiana, and into the home of Paul and Maria Bontemps. Even before the riot, Maria Bontemps wanted out of Louisiana. With increasing frequency, she and her mother, Sarah Pembrooke, had tried to convince Paul to leave Dixie. The Bontempses and Pembrookes were well-established Creole families that had long been prosperous in central Louisiana. Paul earned a good living as a brick mason and, on occasion, as a trumpet player in a New Orleans band. He had married well: the Pembrookes were successful in business and had status in the community; Maria had been a schoolteacher. In Alexandria, Paul had built a spacious two-story home off of Lee Street, a desirable thoroughfare. When Atlanta burned in 1906, Paul was building another home on a newly acquired lot. He was settling in.12

Creoles were an important group in Louisiana. Historically, they were neither white nor black, but something in between. Creoles were light-skinned descendants of long-ago unions among French, Spanish, Native Americans, and African people. They had a language of their own, a French derivation called patois, which they spoke in addition to English. No one could say for certain what the exact formula for a Creole was, but they were a group set apart. In the antebellum era, Creoles had seldom been enslaved. They were free people of color—hommes de couleur libre—well educated and known for their skills in the building trades. They were also Catholic, which further distanced them from dark-skinned Louisianans, who were usually Protestant.

By the time the plagues of the 1890s had passed, however, Creole status had changed for the worse. Racial configurations that had always been subtle and complex grew increasingly stark. Whites now dictated that all people of color, regardless of complexion or heritage, were, by law, black people. And all blacks were now subject to segregation laws. The goal was to create a caste system in which blacks might rise a little, but never to the level of whites. Successful Creoles, resistant to Jim Crow treatment, were becoming targets of violence. That was what worried Maria Bontemps. She and Paul had two children, a son named Arna, who was four years old in 1906, and a younger daughter, Ruby. Maria wanted them to receive a good education, but they would not get one in Alexandria. And what would happen to her and the children if her proud and prosperous husband fell into the hands of jealous whites? If Paul were killed, would Arna be next?

Paul Bontemps changed his mind about the merits of Alexandria almost overnight. The Atlanta riot had planted a seed of doubt in his mind, and Maria cultivated it. But what finally moved him—quickly—was a chance encounter on a sidewalk. One night, while he was walking home along the storefronts downtown, two drunk white men came stumbling out of a bar and almost bumped into him. One of them said, "Let's run over the nigger!" In that moment, what Paul Bontemps wanted to do clashed with what he did. What he wanted to do was teach those men a lesson. What he did was to keep his mouth shut, lower his eyes, and step off of the sidewalk. For a black man to hit a white man—or even to speak harshly to white men—was to invite a lynch mob or a house burning. Paul Bontemps made it home that night in one piece, but he knew there would be a next time, and he could not live with that kind of subordination.

In the South, informal racial mores were enforced with deadly seriousness. These customs demanded that blacks step off the sidewalk when a white person approached, look at the ground when they talked to a white person, and hold their tongue when insulted by a white person. Then there was language. Whites, regardless of age, called black adults "boy" or "girl," or, in more generous moments, "uncle" or "aunt." White folks never called blacks by their last name—a privilege granted to whites only—and never afforded blacks the title of "Mr." or "Mrs." Black adults had to call white boys "Mr." and white girls "Miss." Affluent blacks knew their homes were at risk, and that fire departments would be unavailable to them in moments of crisis. All levels of government accepted or cultivated this culture of caste. For Paul Bontemps, it was not formal segregation laws but this larger culture of subordination that severed his ties with the South. He had cowed to white supremacy for the sake of himself and his family. Leaving a widow with children to raise was no kind of valor. But what kind of life would it be if a respectable, affluent citizen had to shuffle aside for drunken antagonists just to stay alive? Maria's view suddenly made sense.

They had heard good things about California from people they trusted. Sarah Pembrooke had received a letter from a friend who had moved to Los Angeles. Her friend referred to it as "a city called heaven." Paul had family and friends there, too. They sent him letters, extolling the virtues of Los Angeles, as well as San Francisco and Oakland, and praising the weather and the wages. He received a letter from a relative who was making good as a musician on the West Coast, and who urged him to come join the band. All of the letters emphasized California's good schools, which were open to all. Paul bought a ticket that would take him first to Los Angeles, then on to San Francisco. He intended to scout out the West Coast, but he never made it to the Bay Area.

Los Angeles captured him immediately. The climate, the openness, the demand for brick masons, the inexpensive real estate. He sent for his extended family: Maria and the children, Maria's parents, and Maria's sister. They met him in Los Angeles at the Southern Pacific depot. By the time they arrived, Paul had already purchased a home. Young Arna, who would become one the most talented writers of his generation, grew up in a household devoted to the idea that moving west was the key to black freedom. "My parents," he wrote later in life, "were always anxious to put the South (and the past) as far behind as possible."13

Migration Stories

In these three migration stories—typical enough for black Los Angeles—the families were city people, and they were middle class in outlook and ambition. They could afford to take their entire families on a long, expensive journey to California. And the journey was long. Even for the Eastons, living in the middle of Texas, it was slightly farther to Los Angeles than to Chicago. From Atlanta the distance to Los Angeles was three times that to Chicago, and from New Orleans, the distance to Chicago—920 miles—would leave westbound travelers still east of El Paso, not even halfway to L.A. And of course, train rides of this duration cost more. But perhaps the extra distance and expense were a blessing. Considering the circumstances, it probably was best to put the South as far behind as possible.

If Jim Crow had given these families a sinister push, Los Angeles provided a hopeful pull. Letters describing the city as "heaven" sent the essential, trustworthy message about the place. Los Angeles Race papers did their share as well: John Neimore's Eagle encouraged black emigration from the South; Jefferson Lewis Edmonds's Liberator said that southern blacks "will find no race problem in Los Angeles, only prosperity"; and Frederick Madison Roberts's New Age heralded the city's opportunities for African Americans, insisting that "this is the city after all." White Los Angeles also helped some. The Los Angeles Times occasionally encouraged black migration from Dixie, and the Southern Pacific Railroad recruited some black workers in Texas, some of whom probably relocated to Los Angeles. But most southern blacks who moved to the city, like the Beavers and Bontemps families, relied on information from friends and family.14

There is one final, important point regarding these migration stories. Consider how each was preserved: William Easton's story comes from his friend Charlotta Bass, who related it in her 1960 autobiography. The next was related by George Beavers, Jr., in an oral history he gave in 1982, at age ninety-one, having lived a successful life as a businessman and civic leader in Los Angeles. The story of the Bontemps family found its way into print many decades later in the writings of Arna Bontemps. These stories had staying power. They were told and retold over the decades, handed down like heirlooms. People who move to seek freedom keep their stories alive: the Hebrews who left Egypt, the Irish who left the famine, the African Americans who left Dixie. Such stories link older tragedies and dashed hopes with the promise and vision of a new life. Most Americans have similar stories, imprinted in their memories by family and community. These migration narratives place individual and family lives in context and often connect them to a broader story—the story of a people.

Black Migrations Great and Small, North and West

The history of black migration in the United States embodies vivid and familiar images. Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. The slaves' rush to the Union Army camps. The "Exodusters" of 1877 building communities in Kansas. The recurrent "Back to Africa" movements. And, mostly, the Great Migration of World War I. Less familiar is the quieter migration that took place between roughly 1890 and 1915. The emigration of black southerners during this period is usually referred to, following Du Bois's idea about Race leaders, as the migration of the Talented Tenth—of the more educated, ambitious, and affluent African Americans. Emigrants were the teachers, newspaper editors, ministers, businesspeople, and other professionals who constituted the upper echelons of black society, as well as those with less social status who had upward mobility in mind, such as the Beavers family. The Talented Tenth migration did not have the look or feel of a mass movement. There was a certain urgency in each departure, but the out-migration proceeded without fanfare.

During this migration, blacks who moved North filtered into small, loosely knit communities that were, in large part, middle class. A small number of northern blacks were professionals, and some others owned businesses (which, in contrast to those of a later era, catered mostly to white customers), but most worked in the usual urban service jobs open to them: as porters, domestics, and custodians. Northern blacks could vote. There was some racial segregation, but there were no black ghettos to speak of, and white bigotry appeared muted, partly because blacks constituted such a small percentage of the population and were not really competitors for "white" jobs. Northern whites were more concerned about the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. White fear of black people, and the discrimination against blacks that stemmed from it, has often been correlated with the quantity of black people in the vicinity. Before 1915, black northerners were not numerous enough to set off white alarms. Black communities were small and orderly, and the Talented Tenth migration simply blended into them.

In the West, the Talented Tenth migration created black communities where they had scarcely existed before. In 1900, not a single city in the trans-Missouri West (excluding Texas) had a black population exceeding four thousand. The black populations of Denver, Los Angeles, Oakland, Omaha, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Spokane combined barely topped ten thousand. Blacks were scattered into neighborhoods of whites and, sometimes, ethnic Mexicans and Asians. Blacks in the West could vote, and schools were usually integrated. There was racial prejudice, but the worst aspects of Jim Crow were largely absent. Home ownership was generally higher in the West than in the North, but black communities in the North and West were similar before the First World War. Then they went separate ways.

When war erupted in Europe in 1914, it created an enormous demand for American industrial goods, even as it cut off the usual supply of European immigrant labor. Northern factories faced a drastic labor shortage. Desperate for workers, northern industrialists opened their doors to blacks. Companies recruited in Dixie, Race papers such as the Chicago Defender implored southern blacks to move north, and African Americans everywhere exchanged letters and gossip to sort things out. By war's end in 1918, an estimated five hundred thousand black southerners had flocked to the nation's industrial heartland—to Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. The sheer number of blacks on the move, and the visibility of so much dark skin in what had been overwhelmingly white cities, stunned the people of the urban North, white and black alike.15

Whites panicked at the sight of so many blacks on the streets and in the factories. They erected residential boundaries, through violence and law, to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods, thereby penning the migrants into black-only districts that proved to be embryonic ghettos. Immigrant workers resisted the intrusion of blacks into workplaces and unions. Deadly race riots in East Saint Louis, Illinois, in 1917 and Chicago in 1919 were the worst manifestations of the North's racial tensions. Older black residents in these cities also resented the newcomers who had, from the "old settlers'" point of view, wrecked a good thing. They had overwhelmed the region's small, stable black communities, and their very presence had sparked a white backlash. Yet large numbers of blacks meant something new and good as well: political clout. And now there existed a black clientele large enough to support black-owned businesses. The black communities of Chicago and Cleveland, despite the overcrowding and attendant poverty, offered the newcomers better jobs, better schools, and greater safety than they had ever had down South. And a certain pride emerged from living in a community that was virtually a city within a city.

This Great Migration bypassed the American West. In wartime Los Angeles, the black population grew at the same rate as it had been growing since the late 1880s—steady and sure. Even in places where labor shortages opened industrial jobs to newcomers, there was no obvious surge in black migration. In the urban West, a quieter "Modest Migration" continued.

Ralph Bunche, who would one day become one of Los Angeles's most famous African Americans, arrived as a teenager in 1917, just as the United States was entering the war. His arrival had nothing to do with a wartime boom, nor was he from the South. Bunche was born in Detroit in 1904, but his family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1915, hoping that the dry climate would help his ailing mother regain her health. It did not, and by 1917 both his mother and father had died. Instead of going back to Detroit, Ralph's grandmother took him to Los Angeles. She had sisters there who told her it was a good place, where her grandson could get a good education. So, at the very moment that the Great Migration was creating a large black community in Ralph's hometown, Lucy Taylor Johnson took him to Los Angeles. She moved into a mostly white neighborhood, where Ralph entered the public schools and the black community. In 1922 he graduated valedictorian from Jefferson High School, which was then predominantly white, and later began his studies at the Southern Branch of the University of California, which soon became UCLA. He went on to earn his Ph.D. at Harvard.16

Enola L. Atterway, a Texan who graduated from Texas College in Tyler in 1907 and shortly thereafter married Albert Chism, left Texas for Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband, where she became a leader in the black community, helping to organize a Colored Methodist Episcopal church and serving in the State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. She and Albert moved to Los Angeles in 1918, apparently attracted by the prosperity of the city and its growing black population. Enola Chism immersed herself in community service and politics and also succeeded in the food-service business, becoming, according to one account, "one of the most efficient cateresses in the west."17

In Shreveport, Louisiana, Nyanza and Hattie Helena Hawkins were as affluent as a black family could be in northern Louisiana in the late 1910s. They had a fine two-story home. Nyanza owned a successful pharmacy, invested widely in real estate, and bought two large touring cars—sleek, six-seat convertibles—with which he operated a shuttle service in northern Louisiana. Shreveport had a reputation as a tough town for blacks, but the Hawkins family, like others who were part of Shreveport's black middle class, had carved out a bit of prosperity.18

Increasingly, however, local whites came to resent Nyanza's wealth. What's more, he had a reputation for being outspoken about his rights, and as one black resident of Shreveport later recalled, "Old whitey didn't like that. And that is the reason Nyanza Hawkins is no longer a resident of this town." There were other concerns. Hattie wanted their children to receive a good education, but there were no good schools for them in Shreveport. And the very light complexion of their youngest son, Augustus ("Gus"), became problematic. For example, Gus was sometimes mistaken for white on streetcars. As he later recalled, "The streetcar that we used had signs that separated the blacks from the whites, and invariably when I would get on a streetcar and sit in the seat, they would move the signs so that I would be in the white section so as to protect me as a white child. But it caused me a problem, because one might have thought that I had deliberately adjusted to this in defiance of the law, and many times little incidents would occur." His parents feared that, as Gus grew older, such incidents "might lead to more serious problems." For all these reasons, they left Shreveport.19

On the advice of an old Shreveport friend who had moved to Denver, they moved to Colorado. But one frigid winter was enough to send them looking for warmth. Hattie, the more outgoing and perhaps more influential of the parents, had earlier taken a trip to Los Angeles to visit some of her friends who had moved there from Shreveport. A "little Shreveport" community was developing in Los Angeles. So the Hawkins family moved to Los Angeles, arriving shortly after the war. Nyanza set up a little shop near the corner of 12th Street and Central Avenue, selling cigarettes, soft drinks, and sundries, and Hattie became a fixture in the local community. Gus settled in to school, made friends, and did well.20

These wartime stories differ from the standard Great Migration narratives: The newcomers were not poor, and the wartime rush to the North did not directly affect their decisions to move. They were very much like the Beavers and Bontemps families. The Chism and Hawkins families never even considered moving north. They went west to Phoenix and Denver before settling in Los Angeles. Lucy Taylor Johnson was in Albuquerque when the Great Migration began. Many blacks back East would have said that Detroit in 1917 was offering the sort of economic opportunities young Ralph Bunche would soon need. But in her view, Ralph's future was different, and African Americans in Southern California would not have questioned her judgment.

Black migration to Los Angeles was a selective process. Industrial jobs were not the magnet. Nor did Race papers such as the Eagle encourage black southerners to move west with the same urgency that the Chicago Defender advised them to move north. Black migrants to Los Angeles were less interested in the factory wages available in the North than they were the generally good conditions in Southern California. Most of the migrants were city people, by birth and upbringing, and most arrived with some savings. They even took pride in their decision. As George Beavers, Jr., later recalled, "When people were ready to move from the South to come out West, we were getting the best of the lot, because it took a certain amount of income and vision to be able to do that, to be able to move so far West and start over again."21

City People

In the traditional Great Migration narrative, the "rural southerner" arrives in Chicago utterly unprepared for the maw of the industrial city. Observers at the time of the migration, and many historians since, have highlighted this farm-to-factory scenario. Whether it has been overblown—and it probably has—it is true that black southerners were overwhelmingly rural. As late as 1910, fully 75 percent lived in the countryside, so in a random exodus, three in four would have been from farms and rural hamlets. But the migrations were not random, as the narratives for Los Angeles indicate. Most black migrants to Los Angeles hailed from the urban South. The trend highlights the selective nature of the westward migration, as well as the chain-migration links between Los Angeles and several key southern cities.

Statistics culled from the federal government's draft registration records for World War I strengthen this point. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the government required men between the ages of twenty-one and forty-one to register for the draft; the men who registered had to list their exact place of birth. The records for Los Angeles indicate that, at the time, the black community was still overwhelmingly a migrant one: more than 90 percent of the black Angelenos who registered had been born elsewhere. A hefty majority—73 percent—had been born in the South. Two-thirds of these southern migrants—66 percent—had been born in towns or cities.22

Of these, Texans represented the largest group—no surprise. The surprise is how "urban" the Texas migrants were: more than three quarters of them—76 percent—were city born. San Antonio was the main contributor, but other cities stood out as well: Austin, Galveston, Beaumont, and Dallas. (Houston scarcely made the list in the draft-registration data, even though it would later develop a strong connection to black Los Angeles.)

Two other big cities besides San Antonio dominated the overall sample: New Orleans and Atlanta. Among the black men who had arrived in Los Angeles between the late 1880s and the First World War, one in five—fully 21 percent—had been born in Atlanta, New Orleans, or San Antonio. In Louisiana, about 15 percent of the men were born in Shreveport, which helps explain the Hawkinses' connections in Los Angeles. The point of embarkation for the Bontemps family, Alexandria, also popped up in the data. In Georgia, Atlanta was almost the whole story.

So black Los Angeles grew steadily, a community filled largely with middle-class families from the urban South. Most newcomers were already accustomed to the rhythms and demands urban life and to the service jobs available to them in the city. If they faced a new challenge, it was demographic: the populations of Asians, ethnic Mexicans, European immigrants, and rural whites from the Midwest were larger than they were accustomed to. But black southerners seemed rather pleased with the diversity, perhaps because it offered a welcome relief from the stark racial lines of the Jim Crow South. Without much difficulty or conflict, then, black migrants filtered into Los Angeles.

God's Country

When the newly minted Harvard Law School graduate Hugh Macbeth visited Los Angeles in 1913, he wrote to his wife back East: "Come and dwell in God's country." In both his language and enthusiasm, Macbeth was only echoing sentiments that had been voiced by black newcomers since the Boom. A "city called heaven." "God's country." These were words that spoke to the history and longings of an oppressed people, and at the turn of the twentieth century, such optimism was neither inappropriate nor misleading.

Parents who desired good schools for their children generally found them in Los Angeles. There were the painful experiences one might expect: middle-class black children learning what the word nigger meant; white playmates sadly saying their parents would no longer allow them to be friends with colored kids; dark-complexioned African Americans jousting with lighter-complexioned ones; occasional race prejudice from a classmate or teacher. But the migration narratives that mention these problems do not dwell on them, emphasizing instead the generally favorable environment—good teachers and warm friendships, or at least tolerance, among the different racial and ethnic groups. The student bodies of all schools were mostly white, simply because of the city's demographics, but no school barred colored students. The local school board was slow to hire African American teachers, but as the new century progressed, it did, and these instructors, who taught mix-race, majority-white classes, were important role models.

Arna Bontemps recalled that white teachers initially viewed him skeptically, assuming his skin color reflected a certain slowness, but that they soon saw the light and pushed his progress. Laura Elizabeth Adams, born in Los Angeles, found that white teachers appreciated her writing skills and encouraged her to excel. Nelson White, whose father had narrowly escaped lynching in Texas, won a high school architectural contest. The Matthews family, having arrived with small children from Pensacola in 1907, saw son Charles become a lawyer and daughter Miriam become the city's first black librarian. Hattie and Nyanza Hawkins's oldest son received his M.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.23

Opportunities for home ownership also were ample. In 1910, a striking 36 percent of Los Angeles's black families owned their homes. Few cities in the North or Midwest had black home-ownership rates of even 10 percent, and none exceeded 15 percent. Most southern states had rates similar to the North, if slightly higher. Even in the West, where rates of black home ownership were higher, not all cities rated well: only one in five blacks in Denver owned a home, and San Francisco scarcely had a percentage for this at all. In Los Angeles, the middle-class nature of black migration underlay its home-ownership trend. As one local resident recalled, "Many had come to Los Angeles with ready cash."24

Housing stock in Los Angeles was more than plentiful; it was nice. After W.E.B. Du Bois toured the city in 1913, he told readers of the Crisis that black Angelenos were "without doubt the most beautifully housed group of colored people in the United States." As proof, Du Bois blanketed the Crisis with photographs of Los Angeles homes. Many homes were lovely, especially compared with what blacks were accustomed to back East. The city's bungalows and Spanish-style stuccos fit nicely with the climate, which made just about any house look good. And the lawns were an embarrassment of green, accompanied by palm trees, yuccas, jacarandas, and an endless variety of flowering plants and vines.25

Jobs, although not particularly good ones, were also plentiful. The black community, like the city itself, witnessed painful bouts of unemployment between the Boom and World War I, but these were few and brief. The city's economy was able to absorb hundreds of thousands of new workers, including most blacks. Wages were better than in the South, too. All told, then, the structure of opportunities fit what most black migrants to Los Angeles were looking for: good schools, nice homes, tolerable work at decent wages, and a more tolerant racial climate.

General Otis and the Times

Another thing black Angelenos liked about their new home was the Los Angeles Times and its owner, General Harrison Gray Otis, an aggressive Lincoln Republican and vicious opponent of organized labor.26 Vilified by labor and Democrats—both advocates of white supremacy—Otis was popular among African Americans. Like most turn-of-the-century Republicans, he supported big business and limited government, but in racial matters he remained an old-school Reconstruction Republican. His Times blasted southern Democrats, criticized local racists, and insisted that American freedom must be color blind.27 In 1903, John Neimore's Eagle said of Otis, "He has treated the Brother in Black with considerate judgment, moderation and even handed justice, his contention being that all men are created equal and that no man should be discriminated against because of his color or previous condition."28

Otis's views were evident in 1901, when President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him in the White House—an event that ignited a firestorm of protest among white southerners, including charges of treason by the Atlanta Constitution. A Times editorial denounced these "fits of apoplexy" in the South:

As to the action of the President in inviting an intelligent and cultured man, with negro blood in his veins, to sit as a guest at his table, it is really absurd to see the amount of 'tommy-rot' that has been belched forth on the subject by some of the fire-eating southern editors. The act was simply one of courtesy, paid by one distinguished gentleman to another, in which the question of the color of either one's skin did not enter. . . . Which is the truer gentleman, Booker T. Washington . . . or the overwrought southern editor who makes a swaggering and brutal attack upon Mr. Washington and his race because they are "niggers"? Can any sensible, unprejudiced, fair-minded man find more than one candid answer to this question?29

More broadly, the Times asked,

Is it not about time that this absurd, illogical, unreasonable and unjust discrimination against a man because he happens to have a dark skin should be dropped? Such a sentiment might be explicable, and to a certain extent excusable, in an old-fashioned empire, where class distinctions are strictly drawn, and where the population is homogeneous; but here, in this land of liberty and equality, with a population composed of people from every corner of the globe, with skins varying in color from that of the fair-haired Scandinavians to the coal-black negro, how preposterous it is to ostracize a man simply because his hide happens to be of a different color from ours. It would be about as reasonable to boycott a girl because she has red hair.30

Touching on the biggest racial bugaboo of all, the Times added, "As to the fearful danger of miscegenation, regarding which the southern papers give vent to such terrible howls, we might suggest that some white women—even southern women—might do much worse than to have Booker Washington for a spouse."31

An editorial against "Race Prejudice" in 1905 continued to advocate for equal rights, for Jews as well as blacks. "One of the leading social clubs" had divided over the acceptance of Jewish members, the editorial reported, and then added, "One may expect sentiments of this kind among the ignorant peasants of Russia and other European countries, but it is certainly strange to find them cropping out in a cosmopolitan and cultured city like Los Angeles, the population of which is drawn from every State in the Union, and from almost every political subdivision of the world." As to bigotry against blacks, "We find there prevails in Los Angeles, to an unexpectedly large extent, a feeling against the negro race." Instead of race prejudice, the Times concluded, "we should be willing and happy to welcome all sorts and conditions of men, so that they are men, not mongrels. . . . The axiom should not need stating that there are good, bad, and indifferent Jews and negroes, as well as white men, in some of whom the whiteness is a very thin coat of whitewash."32

In 1909, the Times celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the "Great Emancipator's" birth with a special "Lincoln Centenary Number," which, in addition to its tributes to Lincoln, highlighted "Negro achievement in this Southland." It was loaded with photos of black homes and businesses, as well as favorable biographical sketches, and the Times allowed black leaders to write their own articles about their community. Afro-Angelenos offered glowing accounts of their financial, institutional, and spiritual progress and linked their success with that of the city itself. In effect, black Angelenos wrote the first brief history of African Americans in Los Angeles. It was a tale of finding opportunities and overcoming obstacles, a tale of a people on the rise in the West.33

The introduction to the section on black Los Angeles was penned by John Steven McGroarty. Editorialist for the Times, McGroarty would soon gain fame through his Mission Play, which was long performed annually at the San Gabriel Mission. But in 1909 he was not widely known. After he orchestrated the paper's Lincoln centenary edition, however, he became a beloved figure in black Los Angeles. McGroarty introduced the edition with a question: Would Negroes vanish the same way American Indians were vanishing? White Americans, he said, were discussing this question even though they really knew nothing about blacks. "No one seems to think it worth while to ask the negro himself for an answer," he wrote. "The Times, however, does think it worthwhile, and has, accordingly, invited the negro people of Los Angeles and Southern California to speak for themselves." He hoped the edition would bring the races together. Too many whites, he said, saw blacks as "a problem"—a "worse problem" than ever. He urged whites to reconsider their view in light of the local African American community. "If the negroes of Los Angeles and Southern California can be seen as an example of the race," he concluded, "it would seem from their own indisputable facts that the 'negro problem' is a thing that has no existence."34

There was no "negro problem": McGroarty stated it bluntly at a time when scientists were claiming that people of African descent were biologically inferior; when the federal government was ignoring lynching; when African Americans were portrayed in most newspapers only as criminals. From this perspective McGroarty's sentiments were broad-minded, and black Angelenos read them that way. But, when read another way, McGroarty's words reflected the depth of race prejudice in Los Angeles. White readers had to be told that black voices were worth listening to. They equated Negroes with poverty, crime, and social unrest. In having to correct them at such an elementary level, McGroarty spoke volumes about white racial attitudes.

The Times itself could be unfaithful to the cause, offering the occasional "darkie" cartoon, as well as articles, letters, and poetry demeaning to the Race. Otis's calls for equality sometimes smacked of political self-interest; whenever black leaders explored political options outside the Republican fold, or voiced pro-union sentiments, they took a hit from the Times. But Race editors could give as good as they got. Angry at the Times, Joe Bass once roared, "The white man's paper cannot be depended upon, from Gen. Otis down." Still, Otis's Times and political agenda were a breath of fresh air to black Angelenos, who were keenly aware of the editorial policies of the southern dailies. As a Times editorial proclaimed in 1901, "Here in California there is little . . . antipathy to the negro, except among some of the old-time southerners who have settled here. In fact, California may be regarded as the paradise of the colored man, both climatically and socially."35

The Western Ideal

At the turn of the twentieth century, blacks in Los Angeles spoke of the South as a kind of anti-America—the ultimate example of what the rest of the nation should not become—and idealized the West as both a place and a metaphor. They rapidly adopted the region's booster rhetoric and sought to use mainstream notions of western opportunity to promote their civil rights campaigns. Editors of the Los Angeles Race papers trumpeted the West—their West, their California—as a unique place in which equal opportunity for black Americans really stood a chance. California and the West represented an ideal diametrically opposed to Jim Crow. Optimistic but not naive, black leaders understood the difference between rhetoric and reality. They pushed the Western Ideal because they saw in it the best opportunity for their own freedom, and because they saw that creeping southernism could undermine it. From their perspective, blacks had to be vigilant: the free West had to be protected from the precedent of the South.36

The earliest black newspapers in Los Angeles—published during the Boom—had already begun to draw regional distinctions. In 1888, the Weekly Observer expressed its mission of "conveying reliable information of the resources of Southern California to the people of the East." The Observer claimed, "With regard to Los Angeles and the condition of its colored citizens, there is no place in the United States where moral and intelligent colored people are treated with more respect than they are in Los Angeles, by all classes." In 1889, the local Western News continued the theme when it highlighted "the amazing progress of the Negro in the Western country."37

By the early years of the new century, the Los Angeles community had begun to attract the attention of national black journals, and whenever they had the chance, local Race leaders offered their versions of the Western Ideal for a national audience. Robert C. Owens, wealthy descendant of Ellen Mason and Charles Owens, had his moment in 1905 when the Colored American Magazine profiled him as "the richest Negro west of Chicago." In an article he wrote for the magazine, Owens, like so many boosters before and after him, urged sluggards to stay away: "It is truly hoped that no colored man who does not want to pursue an industrious life will come to California, for they are as undesired here as they are anywhere in this great nation." The migrants whom Owens had in mind would be the beneficiaries of a western political system far removed from the realities of the South. "Colored men . . . who want to better their condition and enjoy every political right as American citizens should come to the golden West."38

In his article "California for Colored Folks," published in the same magazine two years later, E.H. Rydall wrote, "Southern California is more adapted for the colored man than any other part of the United States." His reasoning: "The climate of Southern California is distinctively African. . . . this is the sunny southland in which the African thrives." Perhaps Rydall's geographical determinism was a playful twisting of white racial stereotypes about blacks, or perhaps he was completely in earnest, but in either case, his emphasis on the climate and black progress emerged as something of a rhetorical set piece for the city's black journalists. Southerners had long called Dixie "the southland," but here in the Far West was a "sunny southland" of a different order.39

The New Age and Eagle embraced the Western Ideal and saw Los Angeles as its fullest expression. The Basses trumpeted "the mighty march of progress on these Western shores."40 Frederick Roberts's 1915 editorial "For the West" reflected his regional mind-set. That year, both San Francisco and San Diego would hold expositions to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal, and Roberts expected Los Angeles to get its share of tourists as well. He urged his readers to spread the word about their city and region. After all, he said, "A real Westerner, whether by birth or residence, is loyal above all other things, and the expression of Western loyalty has been the making of our fine Western country. This spirit has been so typical of Los Angeles and her people that 'Boosting' has come to be our characteristic." He continued:

[It is] time to renew our Western covenant, to get our Western and civic pride aglow. We are going to be hospitable to the visitors, . . . but we are also going to impress them with our absolute satisfaction with our Western home, our Western people and our Western ways. There will be nothing apologetic about us. There isn't anything South or North or East which we can't duplicate or excel here. . . . Individually and collectively we are doing better than any other equal number of a class of people in the country and there is nothing boastful in saying so, often and loud.

Any black Angeleno, Roberts added, should recognize that "he is living in the best part of the world and that his Race in this section is behind no one else." His concluding proclamation: "California for ours, Los Angeles and Southern California always, and our people here, the best forevermore." The basic creed of any Los Angeles journalist—overdo it—was evident in Roberts's prose, and there was in his "glory of the West" rhetoric a conventional regional defensiveness that placed "Western ways" over "anything South or North or East." But the important point was that local Race editors identified themselves and their community with the region itself.41

Black migrants who arrived unaware of the Western Ideal soon got schooled. Louis G. Robinson, for example, left Georgia for Los Angeles in 1903, carrying only a vague notion that he could improve his situation. Within a short time, "L.G.," as he was commonly known, had become a leader in the community, a home owner, and a proponent of the Western Ideal. In turn-of-the-century Georgia, he had been young and ambitious—the son of a landowning farmer—with a little college education and an entrepreneurial bent. But like many other ambitious black men in the South, his dreams crashed into Jim Crow. Then by chance he met a visitor from the West Coast, a white man, who told him that Los Angeles offered "excellent prospects for young people." Before long, he was on the train west. His biographer later wrote that "no well formulated set of dreams accompanied [Robinson] to California." He became active in politics, soon securing a patronage job as a custodial supervisor, which in turn led to his becoming one of the most prominent men in the black community. In the process, he absorbed the ideal and emphasized the contrast between "southern lawlessness" and "western law," between southern "oppressiveness" and western "hope." Not blind to the race prejudice that existed in Los Angeles, he spoke of "some freedom of opportunity" in the West, which was preferable to the "modified peonage" of the South.42

In 1912, after Robinson had begun to prosper, he returned to Georgia to visit his family. Tellingly, his Georgia-born wife refused to return to the South, not even for a brief visit. L.G. arrived at his parents' home sharply dressed, his pockets filled with money, his talk filled with the Western Ideal. He convinced his family—his parents and all his siblings remaining in Georgia—to leave the South for the West. Without doubt, they were well versed in the ideal before they set foot in Los Angeles.43

Giving voice to the ideal became something of a habit for all black Angelenos. In a 1915 obituary for Dr. Melvin E. Sykes, the city's first African American physician, black attorney G.W. Wickliffe wrote:

Dr Sykes took to himself the advice of a sage who told young men to "go west and grow up with the country." He came west and grew up with Los Angeles, and as Los Angeles grew, he grew; as it acquired, he acquired, until he had accumulated real estate of some proportions and had gained eminence as a physician. When a history is written of the part that colored men took in building up this western country, Dr. Sykes' struggles will stand out to encourage young men of the Race to go as pioneers into a country where they can by their own efforts build a foundation upon which will arise a condition that will be a hope and fulfillment to us all."44

Some years later, Senola Maxwell Reeves wrote the "Schools" column for the Western Dispatch, one of the city's new Race papers. Outlining a plan for "progressive" education in the state, she felt compelled to add, offhandedly, that "as Californians, we indulge ourselves in the thought that California, a state with a splendid history, a great people, magnificent resources; our California, will set the American standard; and therefore that of the world."45 Noah D. Thompson, a black journalist in Los Angeles, raised western black boosterism to new heights and sewed together the fabric of California history, the Western Ideal, and Race progress in a 1924 article titled "California: The Horn of Plenty," published in the Messenger, a national Race journal. In his view, California's admission as a free state in 1850 "was the morning star appearing at the dawn of a new day in the Western Empire, marking the beginning of the end of slavery on this troubled continent." California statehood "precipitated the great Civil War. With the flow of gold and silver from her rich mines, she gave the Union its financial strength to carry on the battle of freedom to a glorious and successful conclusion." To Thompson, the relationship between black freedom and California glory was a lasting one. In Los Angeles and other California cities, he said, "the very stars of heaven spell Opportunity! Opportunity!! for all who care to come and work and work and then work some more to achieve the success that is the reward for efficient work."46

Black leaders in Los Angeles viewed their lives through a regional prism. Promoters in black Los Angeles repeatedly identified their community—and their freedom—with the West. From Robert Owens's "golden West" to Noah Thompson's "new day in the Western Empire," Afro-Angelenos promoted the idea that black freedom hinged on the promise of the region itself. If only the South would leave the West alone.

Postcards

In 1915, a large mob of white people lynched Will Stanley, a black man, in Temple, Texas. Accused of murder, Stanley was being held by local authorities when the mob assembled and demanded that he be released to them. When local authorities complied, the mob dragged Stanley down the street to a tall, thick pole, hanged him by a chain, and set him on fire. In accordance with lynching tradition in America, the local photographer rushed out to take some pictures. Acting fast, or tipped off in advance, the photographer in Temple set up in time to take two pictures of the mob gathering before the murder—hundreds of white folks pressed together in the street, waiting for the prisoner. Later he shot a more conventional photo of the aftermath—the charred semblance of a body, still hanging from the chain, surrounded by people milling about, inspecting their handiwork. As was customary, the photographer turned his negatives into picture postcards, which were sold on the street, locally and in neighboring towns, for a dime a card. Someone in Texas sent the postcards to W.E.B. Du Bois, who published them in the Crisis with the caption, "The crucifixion, at Temple, Texas."47

Hundreds of miles west of Temple, in a community outside of Phoenix, Arizona, lived a young black couple who had also gotten hold of those three postcards. George O. Paris White was a Pullman car porter; his wife, Ella Sarah, had been active in organizing the State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (and therefore would have known Enola Chism). They were the sort of people who regularly read the Crisis. But they did not need a Race journal to know about this lynching. George White had been in Temple that day, perhaps on his Pullman route, perhaps visiting a friend. He was standing on the street when the mob boiled up, and some whites tried to seize him as an added victim. He fled, narrowly escaping.48

Ella Sarah took a plain white envelope, and, in neatly penciled script, she wrote, "Temple Texas Mob Pictures, Aug 1915." She tucked the postcards inside. Before too long, she and George would feel compelled to move farther west. In Arizona, antiblack sentiment was on the rise; whites in the state were adopting a more southern outlook. When George and Ella White considered their situation, it seemed to them that the distance between Phoenix and Temple was steadily closing. So they moved to Los Angeles. George gave up his job on the Pullman line and took a custodial job, not wanting to journey back East anymore, even as an employee. Along with their two young children and their belongings, Ella and George White carried with them the postcards of the Texas lynching. Those haunting images would serve as a reminder of what the South could be and what their new home must never become.49

1. Southern Roots, Western Dreams

1. Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, reissued ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003); George Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (New York: Irvington Publishers, 1971); Lewis, Du Bois: Biography, 373.

2. Beasley, Negro, 258-59; Vivian, "American Guide," 2-3; Bass, Forty, 33-35; U.S. Census ms., 1920, Los Angeles City, Precinct 514, ED 341, p. 3A.

3. Rice, Negro, 93; Bass, Forty, 33; Beasley, Negro, 258-59; Vivian, "American Guide," 2 ("fearless:); Robert J. Fehrenbach, "William Edgar Easton's Dessalines: A Nineteenth-Century Drama of Black Pride," CLA Journal 19 (1975): 75-89.

4. Kousser, Shaping, chap. 1; Hall et al., Oxford, 932; C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), and The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955).

5. Rice, Negro; Kousser, Shaping; Beasley, Negro, 258; Bass, Forty, 33 (quotes).

6. Beavers oral history (UCLA), 1-3.

7. Doyle, New; Bayor, Race; Hunter, 'Joy; Gary M. Pomerantz, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: A Saga of Race and Family (New York: Penguin Books, 1996).

8. Doyle, New; Bayor, Race; Jonathan W. McLeod, Workers and Workplace Dynamics in Reconstruction-Era Atlanta: A Case Study (Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, 1989); Kousser, Shaping; Lewis, Du Bois: Biography, 226.

9. Beavers oral history (UCLA), 3; Franklin M. Garrett, Atlanta and Environs: A Chronicle of Its People and Events, vol. 2 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing, 1954), 423-34; Hunter, 'Joy, 47, 49.

10. Gottlieb, Making; Grossman, Land; Kimberley L. Phillips, Alabama North: African-American Migrants, Community, and Working-Class Activism in Cleveland, 1915-45 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000).

11. Beavers oral history (UCLA), 1-3; Atlanta Independent, April 22, 2905.

12. This and subsequent paragraphs based on Bontemps, "Why I Returned," 1-10; also see Bontemps, "The Awakening"; Jones, Renaissance; Flamming, "Westerner"; Bontemps oral history (Shockley).

13. Arna Bontemps to Verna Arvey, Dec. 29, 1941, Still-Arvey Collection, University of Arkansas, cited in Madison and Smith, "Introducing Harold Bruce Forsythe," 3, Forsythe Papers, HEH.

14. Bass, Forty, 12; NA, July 23, 1915; Fisher, "History," 174, citing Liberator, January 1904; LAT, Sept. 29, 1888; de Graaf, "City," 330; Taylor, Search, 207.

15. See, among many others, Grossman, Land; Spear, Chicago; Gottlieb, Making; Kusmer, Ghetto; Trotter, ed, Great.

16. Ralph Bunche obituary in the New York Times Obituary Index, vol. 2, 1969-78, (New York: New York Times, n.d.), 5-6; Charles Matthews oral history.

17. Dir., 89.

18. Hawkins oral history (Vasquez), 1-8.

19. Ibid., 8-12. Shreveport resident quoted in unpublished ms., Hawkins collection, UCLA.

20. Hawkins oral history (Vasquez), 15-16.

21. Beavers oral history (UCLA).

22. The national conscription law passed for World War I required all males ages twenty-one to thirty-five—U.S. citizens or not—to register at their neighborhood draft board or face stiff penalties. Registrants wrote in information about themselves on a thick, preprinted card, about the size of a large note card. If they were illiterate, a draft board volunteer asked them the questions and the registrants signed with an X. Besides the obvious information—name, age, address—the registration cards required information on exact place of birth. Only the cards used for the first draft registration (there were two other, smaller ones) asked this question.

This information on place of birth forms the basis of my migration analysis. Race was a question all registrants were asked about, but there was more. The top right corner of each card was marked off by a diagonal dotted line, forming a triangle in the corner. Small print within the triangle instructed draft board clerks to tear off that corner if the registrant was "of African descent"—creating a simple method for the draft board to find, avoid, or segregate black registrants. The registration cards for every city or county in the United States are preserved in their original boxes at the National Archives, Southeastern branch, Carrollton, Georgia. The cards from all draft boards in Los Angeles were filed together alphabetically. Seeking a 5 percent sample of the entire city of Los Angeles, I estimated the number of cards per box and the number of boxes for the city and then calculated the number of cards I needed to use from each box, which equaled one card for each inch of cards packed in any given box. The number of cards in my sample—fifty-five hundred—did approximate a 5 percent sample and contained registration cards for nearly five hundred African Americans, a slight over sample. I defined "the South" as the former Confederate states and used 1890 census figures to determine if someone's birthplace was rural or urban. The census definition for "urban" at that time was an incorporated place with a population of 2,500 or more; by that standard, most Americans lived in rural places until 1920.

23. Bontemps oral history (Shockley); Adams, Dark; Charles Matthews oral history; Miriam Matthews oral history; Hawkins interview (Flamming); on Nelson White, see SLA, photo S-000-339, and Marilyn White oral history.

24. Bond, "Negro," 77; BC, Negro, 473.

25. Du Bois, "Colored," 193; numerous photographs in SLA, and the Miriam Matthews collection, AAHM.

26. Gottlieb and Wolt, Thinking, pt. 1; Pitt and Pitt, Los Angeles, 371; Stimson, Rise.

27. LAT, "The Constitutional Amendments," Oct. 31, 1886, "The Solid South," Nov. 17, 1888, and "Colored Men for the Police Force," April 3, 1889.

28. CE, Sept. 5, 1903.

29. LAT, Oct. 21, 1901, sec. 1, p. 8.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. LAT, April 30, 1905, sec. 2, p. 4.

33. LAT, Feb. 9, 1909, sec. 2 (advertisement promoting special edition); Feb. 12, 1909 (the Lincoln Centenary Number; section 3 covers black Los Angeles).

34. LAT, Feb. 12, 1909, sec. 3, p. 1. On extinction theories, see Frederickson, Black, and Lewis, Du Bois: Biography; on the Mission Play, see Pitt and Pitt, Los Angeles, 319, and Deverell and Flamming, "Race," 123-24.

35. CE, March 13, 1915. LAT, Oct. 21, 1901, sec. 1, p. 8.

36. Deverell and Flamming, "Race," 117-43.

37. Weekly Observer, Oct. 20, 1888; Western News, Nov. 16, 1889.

38. F.H. Crumbly, "A Los Angeles Citizen," Colored American Magazine 9 (Sept. 1905): 482-85.

39. E.H. Rydall, "California for Colored Folks," Colored American Magazine 12 (May 1907): 386.

40. CE, Dec. 17, 1921; see also Nov. 23, 1918.

41. NA, March 25, 1915; see also Oct. 9, 1914.

42. Scruggs, Man, 58, chaps. 4-5.

43. Ibid., 61, 62.

44. NA, July 23, 1915.

45. Western Dispatch, Oct. 6, 1921.

46. Thompson, "Horn," 215, 220.

47. Crisis, Jan. 1916, 145.

48. Marilyn White oral history. The granddaughter of George and Ella, Marilyn White, found the lynching postcards in the top dresser drawer of her father when she was a young girl. When she asked her father, Ela Nelson White, what they were, he could barely answer through tears. The photos had been passed to him by his parents. If he knew the full story of his father's ordeal, he spared Marilyn the details of that experience, which remain unknown.

49. Marilyn White oral history; original envelope and postcards of Temple mob in Marilyn White's possession; lynching postcard in SLA photo no. A-006-826.1.

Save 30%

Add source code 15W5487 to get your discount at checkout.
Cannot be combined with any other offers.

Join UC Press


Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more