Diversity has long been part of the fabric of Los Angeles and Southern California. Humans first arrived here at least 13,000 years ago and more than twenty Native American nations made their home here before the Spanish Conquest. The Spanish pueblo of Los Angeles was itself founded by people of Native, African, European, and mixed ancestries and in its early years as an American city it attracted substantial numbers of Armenians, Basques, Canadians, Chinese, Dutch, French, Germans, Irish, Italians, Japanese, Jews, Mexicans, Russians, Serbians, Sicilians, and others. For some, ethnic enclaves came into existence (and often vanished). Other people have tended to spread out across the region rather than cluster together — which makes exploring their presence in Southern California more difficult but no less rewarding.
Los Angeles‘s black population is relatively small compared to the city’s other major racial and ethnic minorities. The LA metro area is only 8.7% black as compared to 47% Latino (of any race), 28.7% non-Latino white, and 14% Asian/Pacific Islander. However, since its inception, black Angelenos have always played a major role in LA’s history and culture. Los Angeles is one of the only major US cities founded largely by people of black African ancestry. When it was still a Spanish colony, Los Angeles began life as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles on 4 September, 1781 (well, sort of). Of the 44p obladores who ventured over from nearby San Gabriel, a majority of 26 were identified as having African ancestry.
BLACKS IN MEXICAN AND EARLY AMERICAN LOS ANGELES
During the period that Los Angeles was part of Mexico (1821-1840), blacks were fairly integrated into society at all levels. Mexico abolished slavery much earlier than the US, in 1820. In 1831, Emanuel Victoria served as California‘s first black governor. Alta California‘s last governor, Pío de Jesus Pico, was also of mixed black ancestry. The US won the Mexican-American War and in 1850, California was admitted to the United States. Although one of America’s so-called “free states,” discriminatory legislation was quickly enacted to restrict and remove the civil rights of blacks, Chinese, and Native Americans. For example, blacks (and other minorities) couldn’t testify in court against white people.
BLACK LOS ANGELES IN THE 20TH CENTURY
Bridget “Biddy” Mason (left) and her grandson, wealthy businessman Robert Curry Owens (right)
By 1850, Los Angeles was home to a small, black community of 12 people. By 1856, the population had grown to about 48, most of whom lived on or near San Pedro Street. That year, former slave Bridget “Biddy” Mason moved into the San Pedro Street residence of Robert and Winnie Owen. Working as a midwife and nurse, Mason used her wages to purchase a property nearby on Spring Street in 1866. From there she acquired more property and operated a shelter, traveler’s aid center, and school for black students. In 1872, she and her son-in-law Charles co-founded the city’s first black church, First African Methodist Episcopal Church, at 312 Azusa Street.
By the 1880s, the growing black community east of Downtown was known as the “Brick Block.” In 1888, Frank Blackburn opened his Coffee and Chop House. Furniture stores, a barber shop, a restaurant, and a hotel followed developing southward until hitting 5th Street, which was notorious as “The Nickel” or “Skid Row” (although the latter name wasn’t yet coined) even then.
In 1903, almost 2,000 more blacks were brought to LA by the Southern Pacific Railroad to break a Mexican-American strike. In the process, the black population of LA almost doubled and the seeds of black and Latino tension were sowed. However, whites’ and Latinos’ long-standing, violent, mutual hostility went further back, as did white and Asian tensions. Black Angelenos, though hardly welcomed into mainstream Angeleno society with open arms, were largely left alone while racist hatred was focused elsewhere.
With black Angelenos relatively ignored, the community flourished. By 1910, more than 36% of black Angelenos owned their own homes — the highest percentage of black home ownership in the nation at the time. In 1913, the first California branch of NAACP was established in Los Angeles. That same year W. E. B. Du Bois described it as a “wonderful place.” The black population leapfrogged south past Skid Row and established itself along South Central Avenue. By 1915, the black-owned California Eagle publication was referring to South Central as the city’s “Black Belt.” In 1917, famed ragtime and jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton moved to LA. Two years later, fellow Louisianan jazz musician Kid Ory followed.
This short age of relative peace and prosperity was soon challenged. DW Griffith‘s white supremacist film epic Birth of a Nation was filmed in and around Los Angeles and premiered at downtown‘s Clune’s Auditorium in 1915 (as The Clansman). That year, the Ku Klux Klan was revived in Georgia and a black teen was murdered by an enraged, white filmgoer after a screening in Indiana.
By 1920 there were 15,579 blacks who called Los Angeles home. No longer could they easily be ignored and racist, restrictive covenants became widespread, effectively ghettoizing not just them but also Asians, Catholics,Eastern Europeans, Jews, Latinos, Southpaws (just kidding), Muslims and other groups. For their part, blacks were primarily limited to the South Central neighborhood, part of South LA’s Eastside (watch The Eastsiders for first hand recollections).
Young Oakwood residents photographed by Charles Brittin
There were a few other far-flung and even smaller black enclaves in the San Fernando Valley‘s Pacoimaand the Westside‘s Oakwood (a neighborhood in Venice, annexed by Los Angeles in 1925). In the face of worsening discrimination across not just LA, but the entire nation, black historian Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week, which later developed into Black History Month.
Shoeshine boys in the old Plaza, 1930s. (Photo: Los Angeles Times)
In the 1930s, the character of black migration to Los Angeles changed. From 1890 – 1915, most were aspiring members of the black middle class, arriving from Atlanta, New Orleans, Shreveport, and Texas. However, the Great Migration that had seen many blacks leave the South for northern cities largely bypassed Los Angeles. In the 1930s, about 25,000 blacks — usually from much poorer backgrounds — arrived largely from Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans. There were inevitable class tensions among established and newly-arrived blacks, though fairly minor, and both groups soon united by-and-large to pursue the many of the same goals and together, establishing many black institutions like black churches.
In the silent film era, most movies made for black audiences (known as Race Films) were made by small studios, mostly based in the Midwest. With the rise of Hollywood‘s dominance during the sound era, Hollywood studios began to make few, but bigger budget black films like MGM‘s Hallelujah (1929) andWarner Bros‘ Green Pastures (1936). Though blackface remained popular, seen in such Hollywood films asThe Phantom, Amos ‘n’ Andy in Check and Double Check, Babes in Arms, Swingtime, and Wonder Bar, Hollywood also began employing black actors like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Butterfly McQueen,Dorothy Dandridge, Etta McDaniel, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Lena Horne, Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry — albeit not generally in what most today would consider especially desirable roles.
In the music world, even jazz superstars like Duke Ellington couldn’t stay in white hotels while playing in Los Angeles and they usually lodged in South Central. Beginning in the 1930s, South Central and South Park became the center of West Coast jazz, fostering local and touring musicians and as a result acquired the nickname of “the Harlem of the West.” In 1934, black musician Herb Jeffries left the Earl Hines Orchestraand moved to Los Angeles where he became a popular MC and singer at the famed Club Alabam at South Park’s Dunbar Hotel, then the hottest local hot spot on the jazz and blues scene. In Hollywood, Jeffries encountered Jed Buell, a poverty row producer with a background in B-westerns, and soon began starring in a series of black Westerns.
In 1940, Los Angeles had a black population of 63,774; more than all fellow-western cities like Oakland,Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle combined. In 1941, the US entered World War II. The same year, Reverend Clayton Russell formed the Negro Victory Committee with the aim of creating jobs for blacks in war industry. Further south, Watts had also been open to blacks at least since the 1920s, originally developed as a labor camp for workers on the Pacific Electric Railway. During the 1940s, its population became mostly black.
With roughly 140,000 blacks arriving from the South and Midwest to fill the newly opened factories during the decade, the few areas where blacks could live grew increasingly crowded. With the Japanese-Americanpopulation of nearby Little Tokyo having been relocated to concentration camps, the exploding black population moved in and the area became known as “Bronzeville.” Though designed for 30,000, it became home to 70,000. More black enclaves opened up on the Eastside, including the Furlong Tract between50th and 55th Streets. As early as the late 1930s, West Adams and Jefferson Park, part of South LA’s Westside, had first selectively opened up to LA’s few truly wealthy blacks. One of the first, businessmanNorman Houston, bought a home in what the area in 1938. Previously nicknamed “Little New Orleans” for its population of newly-arrived Creoles, it was soon nicknamed “Sugar Hill” for its wealthy blacks. However, Houston waited almost three years to move in, justifiably afraid of white hostility. Famous black actresses like Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers followed, as did more successful black businessmen.
In addition to the wartime industries, Hollywood began to attract more black actors and entertainers. Among many others, Eartha Kitt, Hadda Brooks, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier made their film debuts during the ’40s. MGM released lavish, black cinema spectacles like Cabin in the Sky (1943). Independent black cinema, largely as a result of the talent and audience drain, died.
Meanwhile, enraged by the rise of the black “Sugar Hill,” suits began to come to court in Los Angeles and elsewhere over the legality of segregation. The case of Shelley v. Kraemer, based on an incident inMissouri, was brought to the Supreme Court, who ended the legal enforcement of racist covenants in 1948. As a result, the black population of Los Angeles began to finally overflow its long cramped confines. Some whites formed anti-black gangs like The Spook Hunters with the intention of terrorizing blacks into staying out of till-then white enclaves of Compton, Downey, Huntington Park, and Lynwood.
On the other Side of the San Gabriel Mountains in the Antelope Valley, Sun Village was established to lure would-be black homeowners to the distant Mojave Desert. In 1947, Pasadena resident Jackie Robinson crossed baseball’s color barrier and Sun Village even established a Jackie Robinson Park. Sun Village would prove a somewhat successful experiment for a time, reaching a peak of around 2,000 black residents in the 1960s. Today its black population is still a larger percentage than LA’s.
In the 1950s, Los Angles was a manufacturing and industrial powerhouse that rivaled the great Midwesterncities of the Rust Belt and the East Coast. The black population had grown to around 170,000 and parts ofMidtown like Country Club Park, Harvard Heights, Mid-City, and Pico del Mar saw their black populations grow significantly. A steady influx of blacks, mostly from Louisiana and Texas, moved to Pasadena and in the process shifting its demographics so that then (and even today) it became more black than Los Angeles.
With the rising medium of television, the film industry began to feel its first serious competition. In the 1950s, there were only two black TV shows, The Beulah Show and Amos & Andy. Hollywood responded with more big, black-themed films like United Artists‘ The Joe Louis Story (1953), 20th Century Fox‘s Carmen Jones (1954), and Columbia Pictures‘ Porgy & Bess (1959). Black actors like Billy Dee Williams andOssie Davis among others began their film acting careers during the decade.
It was also during the 1950s, 1953 to be exact, that Santa Monica-born Ike Jones graduated from UCLA‘s film school, the first black filmmaker to do so.
The Spook Hunters remained an active force and, in response, black protectionist gangs including The Devil Hunters, The Slausons, The Businessmen, The Farmers, and The Gladiators formed to oppose them. Gang violence between black Eastside gangs (those east of Main) and black Westside gangs (those west of Main) arose too but was still primarily territorial and rarely resulted in deaths. There were only six gang-related deaths in the city in 1960, which at the time caused considerable alarm. The Spook Hunters were nothing but a bad memory by 1960 and significant numbers of blacks moved to suburbs, notably Altadena,Monrovia, Pomona, and Santa Monica.
By 1960, Los Angeles had the fifth largest black population in the US, and one larger than any city in the South. Hollywood made well-meaning, more sensitive black films like Columbia Pictures‘ A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and actors including Fred Williamson, Greg Morris, Jackée Harry, Paul Winfield, Redd Fox, and Yaphet Koto began appearing on screen. On TV, shows like I, Spy, Julia, and The Bill Cosby Showoffered very different portrayals of blacks than their predecessors in the 1950s.
In 1963, Vantile Whitfield and Frank Silvera co-founded the American Theatre of Being. Silvera, through his work on James Baldwin‘s Amen Corner, was the first black production designer to work on Broadway. The following year Whitfield formed the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles (PASLA) to promote performing arts among for “inner city” children.
All was not well, however. On August 11, 1965, 21-year-old Marquette Frye was pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving. The situation intensified as more and more people became involved and the Watts Riotserupted. Four days later, 34 people were dead, 1,034 were injured and $40 million dollars of property damage had resulted. 103rd Street was particularly affected and the smoking rubble became widely known as “Charcoal Alley.”
After the riots ended, most of South LA‘s factories began to close or move away. Many blacks that could afford to left the Eastside for more affluent and/or apparently stable Westside neighborhoods like Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw, Ingelwood, Ladera Heights, Leimert Park, and View Park-Windsor Hills. As the black population spread, “South Central,” which had previously and accurately been used to describe the largely black neighborhood along South Central Avenue, became shorthand for “any and all black neighborhoods south of the 10 Freeway section separating Midtown from South LA (completed in 1964).
At the same time, a New Great Migration began, with many blacks leaving the rusting and crumbling industrial sectors of northern, western and midwestern cities and returning to the traditionally black deep South.
In the wake of the riots, Maulana Karenga and Hakim Jamal formed the black nationalist US Organization, or Organization Us. An emerging black nationalism across the ocean began to be evidenced in Africa with the beginning of post-colonial black African Cinema. Senegalese author-cum-director Ousmane Sembenemade the first black African film, 1964’s La Noire de… In 1967, Mauritanian director Med Hondo madeSoleil O. In 1969, an African film festival, FESPACO, would be established in Burkina Faso. In the US, the US Organization drew much of their philosophy and inspiration from the rising Afrocentric movement occurring in African motherland.
In 1966, down in Oakland, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Communist-inspired Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, felt tremendously threatened by the rise of black nationalism, which he felt was a threat to the “internal security of the country.” He supervised the creation and operation of a program called COINTELPRO which, among other things, sought to undermine black nationalism, especially by creating and exploiting rivalries between different movements through a variety of deeply disturbing means. Things reached a head between the Marx-and-Mao loving Panthers and the Afrocentric US on January 17, 1969, when Los Angeles Panther captain Bunchy Carter and deputy minister John Huggins were killed in Campbell Hall at UCLA in a gunfight with US members.
In LA, both organizations had associations with local street gangs. The Panthers were loosely aligned with The Slausons of the Eastside whereas US were on friendlier terms with the Westside’s Gladiators. Both black nationalist organizations began to decline in strength and numbers following the deadly shoot-out. As a result, new, less-disciplined groups like The Baby Cribs (later The Crips) were formed on the Eastside by a teenager named Raymond Washington and his friends. The teen gang never approached the organization or purpose of the Panthers but were clearly inspired by their glamor and power.
There were more positive developments too. 1969, Compton elected California’s first black mayor, Douglas Dollarhide. The same year, Gordon Parks made The Learning Tree at Warner Bros studios in Burbank, the first Hollywood film directed by a black filmmaker. 1970, Melvin van Peebles made Watermelon Man inToluca Lake for Columbia. The two basically kicked off the Blaxploitation movement alongside Ossie Davis, who filmed Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) in New York. Parks’ follow-up was Shaft (1971), and Van Peebles’s was Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971).
By 1970, there were 763,000 black Angelenos. Following LA’s de-industrialization, black unemployment was high, especially as jobs held by unionized-blacks began to be taken increasingly by newly-arrived, non-unionized Latinos from Mexico and Central-America. In 1972, the Crips had moved from assault and robberies to murder when a non-gang affiliated 16-year-old named Robert Ballou Jr. was beaten to death for his leather jacket by twenty Crips after a Curtis Mayfield and Wilson Pickett concert at the Hollywood Palladium. As their numbers and violence spread, so too did their influence, which by then stretched south toCompton and west to Inglewood. By the end of the year, there were 29 gang-related deaths. In part to counter their influence and following the murder of an LA Brim (17-year-old Frederick “Lil Country” Garrett) by a Crip, the Pirus, the Lueders Park Hustlers, the LA Brims, the Denver Lanes and theBishops joined forces as the Bloods in late ’72. That year there were eighteen documented gangs in LA. Within six years, that number would jump to 60 — 45 of which were Crip or Blood sets.
The seminal, independent Killer of Sheep was filmed in Watts in by Charles Burnett over the weekend from 1972 to 1973 with additional shooting in 1975. Its style elicited comparisons to the Italian Neo-Realist movement. In 1977, Burnett submitted the film as his MFA thesis at UCLA. Along with Ben Caldwell,Haile Gerima, Jamaa Fanaka, Larry Clark, and Julie Dash, he was part of the so-called LA Rebellion film movement, also known as the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers.
In 1973, LA elected Tom Bradley as mayor, the first black mayor of a major western American city. He went on to serve for 20 years, the longest tenure of any mayor in the city’s history. During his tenure he oversaw LA host the Olympics in 1984, LA pass Chicago as the second largest city in the country, and unfortunately, the Los Angeles Riots, shortly after which his popularity declined and he retired.
In 1974, Soviet and Cuban-backed Marxists ended Emperor Haile Selassie I‘s near 44 year rule ofEthiopia and ignited a civil war. At the same time, Eritrea continued its violent war of independence and in 1977 Somalia invaded the disputed Ogaden region. Significant numbers of Ethiopians fled to the US as a result, primarily to Washington DC and Los Angeles. Although the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 finally raised the cap on the number of Asians that could move to the US, African limits remained low. One of them, Fekere Gebre-Mariam, left Ethiopia in 1971. After she opened Rosalind’s on Fairfax, more Ethiopian businesses began establishing themselves in the area. The area was officially designated Little Ethiopia in 2002. Of all of the Southland‘s many ethnic neighborhoods (including Cambodia Town, Chinatown, Filipinotown, Little Seoul, Koreatown, Little Arabia, Little Armenia, Little Bangladesh, Little Brazil, Little Britain, Little Central America, Little India, Little Osaka, Little Russia, Little Saigon, Little Taipei, Little Tegucigalpa, Little Tokyo, Tehrangeles, and Thai Town), Little Ethiopia is the only recognized (official or otherwise) African one.
In 1976, Negro History Week was extended and re-christened Black History Month, a result of years of effort by the Carter G. Woodson-founded Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. That same year, the US increased immigration limits to 20,000 for any country in the Western Hemisphere. Large numbers of Jamaicans and Belizeans made their way to Los Angeles, — largely to Compton,Gramercy Park, View Park-Windsor Hills in the case of Jamaicans, and Athens and Vermont Square in the case of Belizeans.
The California African American Museum opened in 1981 in Exposition Park. It was first located within the California Museum of Science and Industry until the 1984 completion of a building built specifically for it and designed by black architects Jack Haywood and Vince Proby. Its free and open to the public Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10am-5pm and Sundays from 11am-5pm, and has both a permanent collection and special exhibitions.
After the 1982 release of New York’s Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force‘s “Planet Rock,” electrotook hold from New York to Miami to Los Angeles. On the West Coast, Compton became the center of the electro scene. Compton was then home to Arabian Prince, World Class Wreckin’ Cru (comprised ofShakespeare, Dr. Dre, Cli-N-Tel, Michel’le, and DJ Yella) and Detroit native The Unknown DJ. Just outside of Compton was Alonzo Williams‘s club, Eve After Dark, which hosted all of them as well as local rap and electro acts like LA Dream Team and Egyptian Lover.
Although the ’80s tend to be remembered for colorful Valley Girl fashions, whimsical New Romantics, and glamorous hedomism, it was often a pretty dark time for many who actually lived through it. AIDS proliferated and President Reagan cut federal expenditures for low-cost housing from $32 billion in 1981 to a paltry $7 billion in 1987, radically increasing the country’s homeless population by dumping mentally ill Americans onto the streets. Refugees fled civil wars in Central America whose flames were fanned by the Regan administration, which funded right wing death squads in the name of combating Communism. Crack hit LA in 1983, hitting black communities especially hard and making bad situation worse.
Gang violence in South LA exploded and as a result, many Eastside black families continued to decamp to the Westside, the Harbor, and other destinations. With crime rates soaring, serial killers like Lonnie David Franklin, Jr. (the so-called Grim Sleeper), Louis Craine, Michael Hughes, and at least two other serial killers terrorized South Los Angeles, mainly targeting young black women in their killing sprees.
Against the backdrop of this dystopian nightmare, electro was soon displaced by another, much harder edged black musical form — gangsta rap. Like electro, its roots were in the East Coast with artists like LA transplant/New Jersey-native and former electro artist Ice T, Philadelphia‘s Schoolly D, and New York’sToddy Tee pioneering the genre. However, it was in LA that it resonated most loudly. In 1986, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, Arabian Prince, and Ice Cube joined forces with the small-time drug dealer and Kelly Park Compton Crip Eazy-E to form gangsta rap’s most famous group, N.W.A. Priority Records‘ first release was 1987’sN.W.A. and the Posse, a compilation of tracks from N.W.A, Eazy-E, Rappinstine, and a group that had relocated from Dallas, the Fila Fresh Crew. Shortly after N.W.A. and Eazy-E achieved notoriety, Compton’s Most Wanted and 2nd II None began making music with a similar bent and attitude. A Tree Top Piru, DJ Quik, pioneered a truly West Coast gangsta variant, G-Funk.
From 1985 to 1990, 61,773 blacks moved out of Los Angeles County to other counties of the Southland. Many more blacks left California altogether, most often for Southern states like Florida, Texas, Georgia, and other areas of America’s so-called Black Belt.
In the East Coast, notes of black positivity were sounded by the Native Tongues, Five Percenters, and theAfrocentric rappers of the Blackwatch movement. On the West Coast, in December of 1989, the owner (and her son) of the Good Life Cafe health center in Leimert Park began fostering and promoting a conscious rap scene in LA. Their open mic nights evolved into Project Blowed, which in 1994 released their first compilation, produced by Aceyalone and Abstract Rude. Today the workshop is the longest continuously-running open-mic in the Hip-Hop scene.
Images of light-hearted black positivity and thoughtful expression began to appear on screen around the same time, with shows like In Living Color (filmed in Hollywood) and the films of Spike Lee scoring mainstream hits. After many years in Hollywood with almost no films with black casts, things changed for a brief moment. New Line filmed 1990’s House Party in Monrovia and Culver City. 1991’s Boyz N the Hood was filmed in Chesterfield Square.
A few months before it was released in theaters, the beating Rodney King at the hands of five LAPD officers in the Lake View Terrace neighborhood was caught on video tape by an unseen private citizen, George Holliday. After 56 baton blows and six kicks, King was admitted to a hospital where he was found to have a fractured facial bone, a broken right ankle, and numerous bruises and lacerations. The footage was first shown on KTLA and then thousands of times more across the globe.
Not two weeks later, on March 16, 1991, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot and killed on tape by a Korean-American store owner named Soon Ja Du after a scuffle between the two at Empire Liquor in Vermont Vista. On November 15, Du was sentenced to community service, probation, and a fine. Again, the footage was broadcast repeatedly by the news media. On April 29, 1992, all five of the cops in the Rodney King trial were acquitted of assault and two were given with the lesser charge of excessive force. The following night, the riots began, starting in South Los Angeles’s Westside.
White truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten by four black men while news helicopters filmed it. Later, at the same intersection, Guatemalan-American Fidel Lopez was pulled from his truck, robbed, beaten unconscious and defiled with black paint by the mob. One black man, Reverend Bennie Newton, threw himself on Lopez to protect him, famously yelling “Kill him and you have to kill me too!” Although the Rodney King verdict was the immediate catalyst, more than 2,000 Korean-owned businesses were destroyed. Asian-American journalist K.W. Lee described it as “America’s first media-fanned urban pogrom.” 53 people died (ten at the hands of LAPD officers) and property damages approached the $1 billion mark. Half of those arrested and a third of those killed were Latino.
In what was a positive turn after one of Los Angeles’s ugliest chapters, hopeful expressions of black LA appeared with the 1992 establishment of the Pan-African Film Festival by Ayuko Babo, designed to further cultural and racial tolerance through film, art, and other expressions. Originally screened at the no-longer existentLaemmle Sunset 5 Theatres in West Hollywood, they moved to Crenshaw‘s Magic Johnson 15 in 1996 and flourished there for more than ten years before relocating again.
Also in 1992, Thomas “Tommy the Clown” Johnson formed the Hip Hop Clowns in Compton, in which dancers would dress as clowns and perform at children’s birthday parties and other entertainment functions. Clowning would evolve into Krumping at the hands of Ceasare “Tight Eyez” Willis and Jo’Artis “Big Mijo” Ratti, documented in the 2005 film Rize.
In Hollywood, Stephen Milburn Anderson‘s South Central and the Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society, primarily filmed in Watts, were continuations of the “hood movie” subgenre, but film’s like F. Gary Gray‘s Friday (1995), filmed largely in Athens, seemed to reflect a lightening mood in black Los Angeles that continued with black middle class comedies like 1999’s The Wood (filmed in Inglewood) and 2000’s UPN series Girlfriends, and the reality show Baldwin Hills, which depicted the lives of black teenagers in LA’s affluent Baldwin Hills neighborhood.
In the 2000s, the Eighth District Empowerment Congress began the Naming Neighborhoods project with the goal of fostering pride and community by giving new neighborhood names to communities that had previously existed within the large and largely black Crenshaw district and South LA areas hat were previously lumped together colloquially as “South Central” or “The ‘Hood.” As a result, Angeles Mesa, Arlington Park, Baldwin Vista, Cameo Plaza, Canterbury Knolls, Century Cove, Century Palms, Crenshaw Manor, Broadway Square, King Estates, Magnolia Square, Manchester Square,Morningside Circle, Vermont Vista, and Westpark Terrace were born.
By 2010, LA’s black population had dropped to under 10% as blacks continued to leave the city. Only the communities of Athens, Baldwin Hills, Chesterfield Square, Crenshaw Manor, Gramercy Park, Hyde Park, Jefferson Park, Leimert Park, Manchester Square, View Park-Windsor Hills, and West Comptonretain black majorities today as black and other Angelenos began to more fully integrate.
Although racist skinheads had terrorized largely black and Latino Section 8 housing residents in theAntelope Valley, by the 21st century an LA Times analysis found that Lancaster has more blocks with a “substantial” mix (meaning that at least a quarter of the residents are white and a quarter are black) than any community in LA, or any other city in the county for that matter.
Although Hollywood currently exhibits no interest in making black films for black audiences, a thriving independent Black Cinema persists beneath the mainstream radar. In newer black music, the Jerkin’ scene appeared around 2009, suggesting more cultural integration with black and mainstream culture, with fashions obviously drawn from the rave and skater scenes.
In conclusion, although I sometimes feel like Black History Month has been co-opted by corporations like Coke and McDonald’s or reduced merely to an academic exercise, it goes without saying that history is being written constantly and that the future of black history is no different. There are ongoing, healthy debates about the importance and significance of Black History Month. Los Angeles and America still struggle with racial and class inequalities and tension, but I’m no pessimist. Believe it or not, to me it seems like we’re mostly moving down the right path – celebrating our differences and erasing the imagined ones. Only time will tell. Happy Black History Month!
As a side note, if I have time this month I’d like to visit and blog about the most-voted-for black majority communities or those with significance to black history. In the former category, Baldwin Hills, Leimert Park, and Manchester Square are currently in the lead. In the latter, Lancaster, Manchester Square, and Watts lead. So if you’d like to vote for any communities of Los Angeles County, vote here. I’ve you’d like to vote for any communities in Orange County, click here. And finally, if you’d like to vote for any neighborhoods of Los Angeles, vote here.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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