It is impossible to fly in or out of Los Angeles International Airport, traipse through downtown, drive through some of the wealthiest and most prominent enclaves in Southern California without experiencing a bit of Black history. Prominent heroes, including the city’s first African American judge, politicians, an architect, and philanthropist-landowners, not only left their signature on the City of Angels, but also left a legacy on the nation.
And women figure prominently in that history.
Downtown at 333 S. Spring St., home to the Broadway Spring Center, the Biddy Mason Memorial honors Biddy Mason (1818-1891), the first Black woman to own property in downtown L.A. Mason was born a slave in Hancock County, Ga., and remained enslaved until her master moved here, bringing his slaves with him.
Although California was technically a free state at that time, many slave owners ignored the law, including Robert Smith, Mason’s owner. However, when Mason learned the law, she took Smith to court and won hers and her daughters’ freedom.
To support her family, she worked as a nurse and midwife. By 1866, Mason had saved up enough money to purchase 10 acres of land on Spring Street, where she built rental units for businesses and ran an orphanage from her home. She became known as “Grandma Mason” because of her care for her community. The philanthropist generously donated to charity, provided food and shelter to people of all races in poverty, and visited inmates.
In 1872, she and her son-in-law, Charles Owens, founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME), the first Black church in the city. FAME currently boasts more than 19,000 members and is one of the most socially active ministries in the city.
While Mason founded the church, the current building in the West Adams district was designed by architect Paul R. Williams (1894-1980). Despite the difficulties of becoming an architect under a law that would not even allow him to live in many of the neighborhoods where he designed homes, in 1921 Williams was licensed to practice in California, and over time, was licensed in
Washington, D.C., New York, Tennessee and Nevada.
Williams was the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and, in 1957, was the first African American to become a Fellow of the AIA. This is a title given to architects who have made outstanding contributions in the profession. At home, Williams was known as “Architect of the Stars.” Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, Brentwood and West Los Angeles were among the neighborhoods where he created homes. In addition, he was the first Black architect to design a major public building, when in 1945 he designed a unit of the Los Angeles General Hospital. He also designed the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
Williams produced more than 3,000 projects worldwide. Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to national committees. Internationally, his work can be found in Colombia, Canada and Jamaica. Some of his most famous work includes the restoration of the Beverly Hills Hotel from 1947-1951, the Los Angeles International Airport theme building (1960) and the 28th Street YMCA in Los Angeles.
The Broadway Federal Bank in the Midtown Shopping Center on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles is another of the many projects Williams designed.
Broadway Federal Bank was founded in 1946 by Dr. Henry Claude Hudson (1886-1989) and several other people who saw the need for conventional loans specifically for minority consumers who were regularly ignored by existing banks.
Hudson served as president of the company and chairman of the board of directors until 1972. In addition, he was significantly active in the NAACP and known to his L.A. contemporaries as “Mr. NAACP.”
Prior to moving to Los Angeles, Hudson was president of the first branch of the NAACP in Shreveport, La. Within a year of moving to the city, he was elected president of the Los Angeles branch. During those years, he was a key figure in fighting to desegregate the beaches and establishing the Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital, which is currently the Martin Luther King Jr. Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center.
Hudson received several honors recognizing his efforts. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors named a comprehensive health center after him, and awarded him the city’s Distinguished Service Medal in 1976. An auditorium in the MLK hospital was also named in his honor.
Heading north a little less than 5 miles from the MLK Ambulatory Care facility on Compton Avenue, you’ll reach the August F. Hawkins Natural Park. Both the park and Augustus Hawkins High School in the same area are named after the first Black politician west of the Mississippi River elected to the House of Representatives.
Hawkins (1907-2007) began his political career in the California Assembly, after winning a pivotal election in 1932.
In that contest, he bested Frederick Roberts, the first known man of African American descent elected to the state Assembly. Roberts was also the great grandson of Sally Hemings, a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson, who also bore several of his children.
In Congress, Hawkins introduced a fair housing act, a fair employment practices act, and other legislation for low-cost housing and disability insurance. In 1963, with the endorsement of President John F. Kennedy during his primary election campaign, Hawkins was elected to the 88th Congress. He was instrumental in helping push through civil rights legislation, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1965, a federal agency established to prevent discrimination in the workplace. Alongside his civil rights efforts, Hawkins authored the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, setting standards for the juvenile justice system and issued certain protections to minors. In addition, Hawkins sponsored the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 to increase and protect the rights of employed women. He retired in 1991 after serving in the 101st Congress.
Two miles south of Hawkins Natural Park, at Central Avenue and 41st Street, a furniture shop sits next to an appliance store and few people know that those stores, in the South L.A. area, were once home to the California Eagle, one of the oldest African American newspapers in Los Angeles.
Charlotta Bass (1880-1969) was managing editor and owner of the paper from 1912 to 1951. In her news stories, Bass tackled issues such as police brutality, discriminatory hiring practices and other civil rights issues. In addition to her journalism work, Bass was active in her community and set up organizations such as the Industrial Business Council, which fought discrimination in the workplace and encouraged entrepreneurship in the Black community. She also established the Home Protective Association to challenge restrictive housing covenants in all-White neighborhoods. After retiring from the California Eagle, Bass entered politics as the first Black woman to run for vice president. In 1952, she ran under the Progressive Party platform on civil and women’s rights, an end to the Korean War, and peace with the Soviet Union. Bass’ slogan during her campaign was, “Win or lose, we win by raising the issues.”
Almena Lomax (1915-2011) was one of Bass’ apprentices. She worked at the California Eagle for two years. Eventually, she founded her own newspaper, The Tribune, which boasted a circulation of about 25,000. Lomax was editor in chief for 20 years. During that time, Lomax traveled to Montgomery, Ala., to cover the Montgomery Bus Boycott and, in the process, met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lomax closed The Tribune and moved to Tuskegee, Ala., to participate in the Civil Rights Movement, and covered stories that were featured in Harper’s magazine and The Nation. In addition, Lomax led protests against “Porgy and Bess” and “Imitation of Life,” movies which she believed were poor portrayals of African Americans.
Lomax won the Wendell L. Willkie Awards for Negro Journalism for her news stories, and was the first Black woman to be accredited by the Motion Picture Academy.
South Los Angeles was also the stomping grounds of philanthropist Eula McClaney (1914-1986), who is best known for her inspiring rags-to-riches story and her generous donations to charity.
She was raised in a sharecropper’s shack on a cotton field in Orion, Ala., and only received a sixth-grade education. However, she eventually moved to Los Angeles and made a fortune investing in real estate. McClaney began with the purchase of a Black-owned motel. She then acquired property all over the city, including in West L.A., Century City, Westwood, Brentwood, Beverly Hills and her 22-room mansion in Holmby Hills. Guides who took tourists through Holmby Hills often mistook McClaney and her daughter to be the help, not believing that a Black woman could own such an estate.
However, McClaney didn’t solely acquire wealth, she was known for her giving spirit. In 1986, she and her daughter, La-Doris McClaney, were honored for a multimillion-dollar gift they donated to 11 charities. McClaney donated to many national organizations, including the United Negro College Fund, the Sickle Cell Research Foundation, the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association. Much of her inspiring story can be read in her autobiography, “God, I Listened.”
In addition to distinguished donating to charities, McClaney also held fundraisers for political campaigns, including that of Mayor Thomas Bradley (1917-1998), Los Angeles’ first Black mayor. Bradley’s career began in the Los Angeles Police Department, where he served as an officer for 21 years and reached the rank of lieutenant, the highest position an African American could hold at that time. While serving on the police force, he took night classes at Southwestern University, and in 1956, Bradley passed the state bar and earned his law degree. He began his political involvement prior to obtaining his law degree; in 1949, he volunteered with the Edward Roybal campaign for City Council.
In time, he was elected to City Council himself, representing the 10th District in 1963. Ten years later, he defeated incumbent Samuel Yorty and was elected mayor. Bradley was widely recognized for opening City Hall and city commissions to women, minorities and the disabled. During his five terms, Bradley helped Los Angeles become the second largest city in the nation, surpassing Chicago. He is credited with changing the downtown skyline by encouraging business to invest downtown instead of the suburbs. In addition, he brought the 1984 Summer Olympics to Los Angeles and ensured the city’s financial benefit. It was the most financially successful Olympic Games, with a $215 million surplus.
The LAX terminal for international flights was renamed the Tom Bradley International Terminal in his memory.
Bradley was not the only noted African American to graduate from Southwestern Law School. Judge Vaino Hassan Spencer (1920-present), the first Black female judge in California, is also a graduate.
Spencer was also the third Black woman in California to pass the State Bar exam and the third to open a law practice in Los Angeles.
After graduating from Southwestern Law School, her 46-year career began as the Municipal Court Judge in 1961. She was later appointed to the L.A. County Superior Court. While in this position, she and her fellow presiding judge Joan Dempsey Klein founded the National Association of Women Judges. The organization works to promote women candidates to the bench and encourage equal justice and access to courts for underserved populations. In 1980, Spencer was appointed presiding judge of Division One of the California Court of Appeals, a position she held until her retirement in 2007.
During her career, Spencer received many accolades for her work–the National Association of Business and Professional Women’s Trail Blazer Award in 1985, the Metropolitan News-Enterprise’s Person of the Year Award in 1991 and the Outstanding Jurist Award in 2001.