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Bound for Freedom Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America

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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 i