Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall (59905)

Quick and little, he darted up the steps with big news that couldn’t wait: “Moma, is it true? Is it true? Are the Bennetts really moving to Baldwin Hills?” She winked and nodded yes: “That’s right. James and Alice are moving to Baldwin Hills…the house is on ‘Don’ something or other.”

“Wow! Are they rich, moma?” She looked down from slicing potatoes: “Not that I know. They’ve worked a long time to move up. You study hard in school—that’s what you do. Then one day you can move to Baldwin Hills, too.”

Shortly after World War II, a wave of southern African Americans had migrated west in search of a better life; that kitchen scenario some 50 years ago was at the height of a second, local migration just across town—roughly 10 miles from Central Avenue to La Cienega Boulevard. It wasn’t the first time that Black families had moved from their original eastside enclave. Once referred to as the “Black Box” (Washington Boulevard south to Slauson Avenue, and Alameda Street west to Main Street), this was the only area in town where Black Angelinos were allowed to live prior to 1948. Restrictive housing covenants and vigilante groups made sure certain neighborhoods remained “White-only.” Banks would not issue westside home loans to African Americans. Realtors, by law, were required to sell to Blacks only homes on the eastside.

Before the integration of Baldwin Hills, however, Black Angelinos had been fervently on the move. In an amazing leap for a community just a decade or so removed from the privations of Southern racism, Black families had become newly minted within the Los Angeles middle class and began to settle in Sugar Hill. That’s the historic region of Los Angeles extending west from present-day North University Park (Figueroa Street and Adams Boulevard), on through West Adams and culminating amid some of the city’s most stately mansions and manicured compounds.

Between the 1890s and the late 1950s, African American settlement patterns in Los Angeles underwent several distinct phases. Central Avenue was the hub for much of this period, though the Black community as a whole did reside within racially and ethnically mixed areas, often in East Los Angeles and also in Compton, despite resistance from White homeowners.

The 1940s were considered a watershed period for Central Avenue. During the war years, about 50,000 newcomers settled in and around the Avenue, with more arriving each year. Despite this jump in population, racial boundaries held firm around the community. Housing in the community felt the strain and rooms were rented out and, much like today’s Latino residents, some families doubled up to make ends meet. Black families also settled in Little Tokyo which once extended east of Alameda Street and bordering Boyle Heights. These houses were once occupied by Japanese residents who were removed to the internment camps in 1942, so, with space available, up to 70,000 African Americans—an astonishing number for such a small part of town developed to house only 30,000 people—crammed into Little Tokyo during the war.

The Furlong Tract was a small Black neighborhood in South Los Angeles between 50th and 55th streets, Alameda Street and Long Beach Avenue. In the early 1940s, 51st Street School (now Holmes Avenue Elementary School), built in 1910, would become the city’s first all-Black School. Roughly six miles south in Watts, African Americans found residences among other working-class ethnic groups, including Mexican, Italian, Jewish and a few Japanese households.

African Americans accounted for only two percent of the Los Angeles population in 1920 (about 20,000 people), but nearly half of those families owned their home despite obstacles in place to discourage working-class families from moving west of Main Street or south of Slauson Avenue. Large groups of African Americans had begun to migrate from west Texas, New Orleans and as far away as Atlanta, Ga. with hopes of upward mobility.

By 1945, the Black population began to outgrow the densely populated Central Avenue Corridor. These residents constituted the manufacturing workforce from the post-World War II migration west; at that time, Los Angeles offered a portal to a middle-class income as the elusive dream of social mobility became closer to reality. As early as 1917, the Supreme Court ruling of Buchanan v. Warley declared municipally mandated racial zoning unconstitutional, but that decision dealt only with legal statutes leaving the door open for alternative agreements such as restrictive housing covenants which served to perpetuate residential segregation on private properties. For instance, in 1920’s Compton White homeowners guarded their community against prospective Black residents by introducing various restrictions such as revoking a realtor’s license for integrating the neighborhood, and the Federal Housing Administration flatly denied—as a mater of policy—loans in areas not covered by covenants. Wording used to highlight restrictions were found in property deeds, supposedly to maintain “respectability of the home.”

Today in South L.A., signs for “You Buy, We Fry” fish markets or “You Need No Teeth to Eat My Beef” barbecue restaurants catering to Southern palates have been replaced by Mexican mariscos and Salvadoran pupuserias. In the historic Central Avenue Jazz corridor, where music legends once played and stayed at the Dunbar Hotel at 43rd Street, botanicas nearby sell folk and herbal remedies from Latin America. As late as the 1990s, Black residents made up roughly half the population in South Los Angeles. Today, Latinos account for about two-thirds of the residents. A review of the 2010 U.S. Census found that, in the 20 or so square miles southwest of downtown from the 10 Freeway to the 105 Freeway and as far west as Inglewood, there are 80,000 fewer Blacks than there were in 1990.

“This is a huge pivotal shift, as important as any other population change or migration we’ve had in the city,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State Los Angeles. Despite the population boom, cultural shift and language barrier, Blacks and Latinos continue to forge a working relationship in South Los Angeles.

“To some extent there is always unity and there is always tension because there is competition for dwindling resources,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, executive director of Community Coalition, a group that has worked in South Los Angeles for decades. Harris-Dawson told the New York Times last year that the Latino population is just the latest migration into the “core” of Los Angeles, wishing to advance itself the same way that African Americans did decades prior. “People can live together and not see things through the lens of race most of the time, because at some point everyone is getting frustrated by the same problems.”

Decades before the cultural shift, African Americans found steady work during World War II primarily because Los Angeles had been granted more than $11 billion in war contracts. These Black citizens labored for decades in the automobile, rubber, steel and aeronautics industries, resulting in a Black population boom from 63,700 in 1940 to 763,000 by 1970. These advancements were realized via the labor shortages due to the war, but more accurately from Black protests which placed pressure on the Fair Employee Practices Commission to remove racial barriers to employment.

On the westside, a small but growing enclave had been forged in the 1940s by the city’s Black upper class which braved White resentment to their desire to move from the ghetto and enjoy the fruits of home ownership in one of the city’s most coveted neighborhoods. These families came to represent a threshold of achievement for working-class African Americans, despite the fact that they would subsequently depart some of the city’s best examples of California Craftsman architecture on the eastside with many homes fitted with redwood living and dining rooms, granite fireplaces and often occupying double residential lots. One stretch of homes on East 52nd Place became one of the city’s first housing tracts and is currently listed among the registry of Los Angeles Historic Places. At that time, the exorbitant price of $25,000 and up could move you into one of the old Sugar Hill properties, featuring Queen Anne, Spanish Colonial Revival and American Craftsman architecture.

Sugar Hill in the 1940s was a who’s who of the Black bougoise. Entertainers such as Ethel Waters, Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and keyboard virtuoso Earl Grant joined business luminaries like H. Claude Hudson, Col. Leon Washington and George Beavers to lay a permanent foundation of the Black upper-middle class thereby preserving the long-held ideals of social improvement and upward mobility. An unspoken “color line” was finally broken in 1938 when businessman Norman Houston purchased a house, though he waited three years to move in fearing a backlash from his White neighbors. Once he did, other African Americans moved in including J.A. Somerville, famed builder of the Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue, as well as businessman Horace Clark and activist Betty Hill.

Sugar Hill and Baldwin Hills were not the first westside destinations for African Americans. The migration west may be traced as far back as 1905 when land developer and tobacco mogul Abbot Kinney hired a contingent of southern Black transplants to build the Venice canal system. History reveals that these African Americans worked long hours digging ditches and dredging earth—sometimes amid storms and floods—to complete one of L.A.’s most famous destination points. Shortly after building the canals, Blacks began to settle in nearby Oakwood, a 1.1-square-mile community set aside for them.

“There was discrimination, but not the kind Blacks experienced in the South,” said Charles Anderson, 92, a former firefighter with the Los Angeles Fire Department in the 1940s and among the last men hired during the period when the department was segregated. “It was an economic discrimination—they simply priced you out. No one made much money because we were at the bottom of the pay scale. If you were fortunate to get a job at one of the department stores along Central Avenue or downtown, you could make it. Santa Fe Railway would hire porters. You could get a job at the shipyards. Black families didn’t make much back then, but we made do with what was available.”

When the Supreme Court banned L.A.’s legal enforcement of race-oriented housing covenants in 1948 (Shelly v. Kramer), Blacks began to move into areas outside the increasingly overcrowded “Adams” district. The aforementioned movie stars, well defined with notoriety, won early tolerance from their neighbors, but some Whites refused to share their neighborhood with any African American, regardless of their socio-economic status. After White residents organized the West Adams Heights Improvement Association, arguing that the White homeowners who sold their homes to elite African Americans violated the racial covenant on the property, the local civil rights movement brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall took up the cause of the Black potential homeowners and the Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants could not be enforced by the state, because the enforcement of the covenant would require the state to implement a discriminatory action. After the court victory, Oscar-winning actress McDaniel said of the ruling: “Words cannot express my appreciation.”

By the mid-1950s, the city’s African American population had grown to around 170,000, and parts of Midtown (Country Club Park, Harvard Heights, Mid-City, Pico del Mar) saw their Black populations grow significantly. Shortly after, a steady influx of Blacks—mainly from Louisiana and Texas—moved to South Pasadena and in the process saw this area begin to resemble South Los Angeles in terms of Black home ownership.

The dawn of the 1960s saw Los Angeles with the fifth largest Black population in the United States. In fact, there were more Black Angelinos than in any city in the South. It was far from harmonious. White flight among residents and merchants had taken place for at least 10 years, greatly exacerbated by Mayor Sam Yorty’s decision in 1964 to refuse federal anti-poverty money. This lack of services to an increasingly impoverished and overcrowded eastside may have helped spark the 1965 Watts Riots when in August that year, 21-year-old Marquette Frye was pulled over at 120th Street and Avalon Boulevard on suspicion of drunk driving. Four days after the traffic stop, 34 people were dead, 1,034 were injured and $40 million in property damage had resulted.

As the riots ended, most of the White eastside merchants and factories either closed or moved away. Central Avenue between Vernon Avenue and Manchester Boulevard became a mere shell of the once vibrant merchant district it was. African Americans began opting for more promising and stable westside neighborhoods like Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw, Inglewood, Ladera Heights, Leimert Park and View Park-Windsor Hills. As the Black population spread westward past Western Avenue, “South Central,” which had traditionally been used to describe the largely Black neighborhood along Central Avenue, became shorthand for any and all Black neighborhoods south of the Santa Monica (10) Freeway which effectively separated the Midtown area from South Los Angeles.

The 1960s also saw a number of working-class church congregations leave South L.A. and establish themselves in the Jefferson Park/West Adams area, among these First AME Church as well as Roger Williams Baptist Church, the latter at that time led by the influential minister Dr. Tim Chambers Sr. Even a popular college would plan its move to Malibu.

Despite the destruction of the ‘65 riots, this era saw an increase in Black upward mobility as the World War II generation saw more children enter college and gain professional acumen. This is when, in earnest, a new “great migration” of Black Angelinos began. Those who were able left the rusting and crumbling eastside for the better neighborhoods on the westside; some of these residents left the city entirely and moved to areas such as Lake Elsinore, Fontana, Valencia and even and as far away as Perris in Riverside County. In Valencia during the 1950s and ‘60s, the Val Verde region was a frequent day trip for Black Angelinos who could revive the popular “family reunion” within the rolling hills dotted with oak trees.

By 1970, Black unemployment was reaching staggering numbers because of the city’s de-industrialization. Unionized Black workers were hit especially hard when the automobile, tire and rubber, and steel firms moved from the eastside.

The famous eastside high schools of Jefferson, Fremont, Manuel Arts, Washington, Jordan—once major powers in City and CIF Southern League sports—saw their athletic prowess suffer considerably from poor funding, gang activity, deteriorating facilities and, with court-ordered bussing, a mass flight of promising 10th graders to other westside campuses such as Crenshaw, Dorsey, Los Angeles and Hamilton high schools, as well as transport to the San Fernando Valley.

Meanwhile on the westside, a burgeoning new business class began to develop along Crenshaw Boulevard. Once home to a sizable population of Japanese Americans, the Crenshaw region saw more middle-class African Americans move in as housing restrictions began to disappear. The famous “Crenshaw Strip” saw new Black-owned businesses such as nightclubs, haberdasheries, barber and beautician shops and some restaurants cater to the new transplants who relished the opportunity forge a new community of Black Angelinos, no longer existing within the social stigma and growing deprivation of the eastside. The 1980s saw more African Americans invest in the lush real estate of West Adams; they remodeled and restored these historic homes, being attracted primarily by the history of Black luminaries and by the streetscape itself.

Despite the social advancements made since the end of World War II, Blacks remain the most segregated group in Los Angeles County. Moreover, the compactness of the Black population seems to be reinforced by a voluntary self-segregation of affluent Blacks, who may choose not to assert their relatively greater freedom to settle in non-Black neighborhoods since the Civil Rights Movement.

Essentially, White flight made it possible for Blacks to move into westside neighborhoods—especially the picturesque landscape of Baldwin Hills. But a problem arose early as new residents found there was insufficient park space for their children. It has been said that Baldwin Hills is one of the greatest public works projects in Los Angeles history, a transformation from oil fields dating back to the 1920s to modern, split-level homes with panoramic views of the city and ocean. Baldwin Hills through the 1960s was essentially a White suburb within the city limits. The area offered a unique opportunity for middle-class African Americans to finally rear their families in an upscale neighborhood while retaining their eastside roots. The solution for recreation space was found in Kenneth Hahn State Park which began construction in 1978 and opened in 1983.

The Baldwin Hills properties were unlike anything so-called “eastsiders” had seen. The Mediterranean-style, split-level homes offered spacious living quarters with wood-burning fireplaces, three- and four-bedrooms with adjacent baths, center-island kitchens with marble counters, skylights, swimming pools…even fountains. The images of Los Angeles captured in war-time movies, newsreel footage or in magazines had become a reality. Some of these residences approached $100,000, but the high-price of a bank loan was worth it because the city’s new Black professional class had demonstrated to the nation that it was possible to rise above racial segregation de facto and establish a new community reflecting personal achievement and reward. Further west in Culver City, more African Americans are residing in that area than ever before with 1,763 households, according to 2010 U.S. Census data..

Old Central Avenue is undergoing a long-overdue revival, though at times one will spot wandering souls manning shopping baskets, only to be flanked across the street by poor immigrants hawking sidewalk bazaars. From Washington Boulevard to Slauson Avenue, major retail developments, secondary schools and a number of housing complexes have been built to serve an increasingly populated community. Crenshaw Boulevard is anticipating the Crenshaw-LAX Metro Line as well as a new multi-level shopping complex at Rodeo Road. New ownership of Leimert Village also promises improvement to the city’s most vibrant Black community.

Though there has been a regular decline of African Americans residing in Los Angeles, this community continues to place its stamp of achievement on Los Angeles and through the years has demonstrated to America and to the developed world how upward social mobility can be fashioned not just from legal jurisprudence, but from the time-honored precepts of faith, courage and self reliance.