Cultural enlightenment was an integral part of the early Black community in Los Angeles.
As citizens arrived and began to move their lives beyond subsidence, they added learning the arts to their agenda.
In 1903, for example, The Women’s Progressive Club was formed, and was the first such organization created for and by Black women. The group was devoted to the study of Victorian authors, African culture and the code of California.
According to Bette Yarbrough Cox in her book, “Central Avenue–Its Rise and Fall 1890-c.1955),” from 1920 to 1930, there was an influx of professional-class African Americans into the City of Angels that included a plethora of performers and music teachers.
These individuals were given a cultural platform that was grounded in the church and a number of organizations created to showcase and encourage the development of artistic skills.
Cox wrote that the violin was the instrument of choice during those early days, and among the violinists of note were Herbert Atwell Rose, Johnny Mitchell, Lawrence Lassiter and Eddie Smith.
Smith preferred ragtime music, and played throughout Europe, especially in France.
The women included Victoria Rice and Bessie Dones, the premiere violinist of the day. Dones was also a popular music teacher who would go on to teach dozens of young people.
Another cultural foundation in L.A., the Phys-Art-Lit-Mor Club, was founded in 1913 by some of the most prominent women of the time, including pioneering dentist Vada Somerville. The club was created as a self-improvement organization focused on the study of physical culture, art, literature and moral philosophy. The group was noted for its fashion shows, civic activities such as purchasing Victory Loan bonds during World War I, and the giving of scholarships as late as 2001.
In the dance world, Willie Covan, was considered the creme de la creme and served as a coach for most of the motion picture dancers, including Gene Kelly.
In the community, Lauretta Butler taught dance, and produced a series of Kiddie’s Minstrels that made her famous. Many of her students would later star on stage and in movies in the USA and abroad, noted Cox.
One of the most noted performers of the time, A.C. Bilbrew, was an orator, singer, actor and accompanist for the Hall Jubilee Singers, who were among the first quartets organized at the time.
Born in 1888 in Washington, Ark., she attended Texas College in Tyler, Texas, and studied piano at the USC School of Music. In 1923, she became the first Black soloist to appear on the radio.
Additionally, Bilbrew who organized pageants and other musical events, also pulled together an all-Black chorus that performed in the 1929 film, “Hearts of Dixie.”
Notable about this movie, was that it was the first all-Black-cast, talkies musical to reach the big screen. It is an idealized Hollywood look at African American life on rural Southern plantation, and among its stars were noted Black actors Clarence Muse, Mildred Washington, Gertrude Howard, Zack Williams and the controversial Stepin’ Fetchit.
In the 1950s, Bilbrew wrote a song that chronicled a highly-charged event of the time. Called “The Death of Emmett Till,” it was recorded by The Ramparts (Scatman Crothers) and released in 1956.
shortly after the lynching took place. While a handful of radio stations dared to play it, the song did not become very popular because most stations in the nation simply did not have the “guts” to play it.
Muse himself was a noted cultural icon in early Los Angeles history.
Born in 1899, Muse was one of the first Black students to earn a degree in international law from the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Penn., in 1911. He is credited with more than 140 movie acting credits that ranged from a starring role in “Hearts of Dixie” to a supporting role in the “Black Stallion” in 1979, the year he died.
But this Baltimore, Md., native was not simply an actor, he was a screenwriter. He co-wrote “Way Down South” with Langston Hughes; co-wrote the hit song “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”; helped score six movies; and directed plays for the Federal Theatre Project. He was also an activist, who pushed for the inclusion of Blacks in Hollywood, but did not rely solely on knocking on the door. Instead he also helped create doors through his independent projects.
Perhaps one of the key cultural figures in early Los Angeles history is known nationally as “the dean” of African American composers.
William Grant Still, who was born May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Miss., was the first Black composer to have a symphony of his performed by a leading major orchestra company; (“Symphony No. 1,” 1931, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra); the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, (Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1936); and the first Black to have an opera performed on national television. In 1949, his opera “Troubled Island” became the first such work by an African American, performed by a major company (the New York City Opera).
Still moved to Los Angeles in the early 1930s, and worked in Hollywood doing musical arrangements for films such as “Pennies from Heaven” starring Bing Crosby and Madge Evans and “Lost Horizon,” which featured Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt and Sam Jaffe.
He did this along with working on his classical music compositions, and lived in the city until his death in 1978.
Our Authors Study Club (OASC), another seminal organization responsible for promoting cultural development within the Black community, was formed in 1945 by Vassie Davis Wright and a group of United States postal workers. The organization was a chartered member of Carter G. Woodson’s Association or the Study of African American Life and History.
OASC became the official sponsor of Black History Month programs in the city of Los Angeles in 1949, and the next year helped the first mayor in L.A., Fletcher Bowron, proclaim Negro History week.
The OASC, which was instrumental in getting African American history classes taught in the Dorsey and Manual Arts Community Adults schools, today continues in its role as a driving force encouraging the study of our history in Los Angeles.