Black Pioneers of Silver Lake


The other day, I thought it might be nice to submit a story for the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council newsletter for Black History Month. I figured I’d flesh it out and publish it here — a story about three culturally and historically significant black residents of the neighborhood.

Silver Lake, in its early years, was essentially off limits to black Angelenos. Unlike nearby Burbank and Glendale, it wasn’t a sundown town, but — like most of Los Angeles — it was comprised primarily of tracts whose homes included racially restrictive covenants that prevented their sale of most homes to non-Caucasian and non-Protestant Angelenos. Language in the deed to homes often explicitly forbade the sale to — in the language of the day — “Asiatics,” “Hindoos,” “Malays,” “Mexicans,” “Mongolians,” “mulattoes,” “Orientals,” “Spanish Americans,” and especially, “negroes.”

George Washington Albright

There were notable exceptions. Black resident George Washington Albright, a former slave-turned-Mississippi state senator, moved with his white wife, Josephine Hardy, to the adjacent Dayton Heights neighborhood in 1892. The two planted an orchard, farmed, operated a mill, and successfully petitioned Los Angeles to open a school there, which it did, in 1910 — the Dayton Heights School (now Dayton Heights Elementary). In 1914, Tsyua and Sukesaka Ozawa bought property in Dayton Heights which they operated as a boarding house for Japanese Angelenos. Before long, Dayton Heights was home to a thriving Japanese community and even came to be popularly known as “J. Flats.”

Racism came roaring back with a vengeance in the 1920s, however; and in 1923, when a group of black would-be homeowners attempted to procure a lot of Dayton Heights (now often considered to be part of Silver Lake) framed by Maltman, Marathon, and Tularosa; the Dayton Heights Improvement Association mobilized to oppose them. The improvement association triumph and The Los Angeles Times praised them for having stopped an “invasion.”

James Homer Garrott

Seventeen years later, in 1940, James Homer Garrott, Jr. decided to build a home for himself and his family only a block away, at 653 South Micheltorena Street. Homer was a black architect who had been born in Montgomery on 9 June 1897 to James Homer Garrott, Sr. and Fannie Ellen Walker. He had one brother, Curtis Walker Garrott, and together they moved to Los Angeles where James Jr. graduated from Los Angeles Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley in 1917. James Garrott, Sr. died in 1918.

Six years after high school, Garrott began working with Pasadena architect, George P. Telling. Garrott worked with Cavagliere Construction Company of Los Angeles from 1926 until 1928, when he earned his architect’s license. That year, he also co-designed the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company‘s headquarters with Louis Blodgett (added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998). In 1929, with celebrated black architect Paul Revere Williams, he designed St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in South Central. Garrott attended USC from 1930 to 1934. In 1936, he designed Mount Zion Baptist Church in Central-Alameda. He also designed the residence of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company board chairman George A. Beavers, Jr.

The Garrott and Miller residences

In 1940, Garrott and Pittsburg-born architect Gregory Ain opened an architectural practice in Westlake‘s Granada Building. As a team, they worked as “Garrott & Ain” or “Ain & Garrott,” depending on which architect led the particular project. It was also that year that Abbott designed and built a Silver Lake home for himself, his mother, and his brother. I can only comment on the exterior of the home, which to me, appears unexceptional in that it closely resembles many of the homes of the era, including the house next door which, incidentally, Garrott also designed, for a black friend. I have to wonder if he was consciously trying to avoid attention of the sort that had mobilized the Dayton Heights Improvement Association in 1923.

The Garrott & Ain office on Hyperion
Loren Miller

Garrott’s home at 647 North Michetorena Street may’ve been inconspicuous but its inhabitant, Loren Miller (who lived there with his wife, Juanita), was anything but. Miller was an outspoken journalist, activist, and civil rights attorney. He’d been born in Pender, Nebraska in 1903. His father had been born into slavery. His mother was a German-Irish woman from Stoutland, Missouri. When still a boy, the Miller Family moved to Kansas where, in 1928, Miller earned his Bachelor of Laws degree and was admitted to the Kansas State Bar. In 1929, Miller moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote and edited the famous black newspaper, The California Eagle. In 1933, he was admitted to the California State Bar. In 1944, Miller won the court case of Fairchild v. Raines, in which a black family purchased a non-restricted home in Pasadena but were nevertheless sued. The following year, he represented Ethel Waters, Hattie McDaniel, and Louise Beavers — all of them black Hollywood entertainers — when they attempted to buy homes for themselves in the Sugar Hill neighborhood.

In 1945, J. D. Shelley and Ethel Lee Shelley, a black couple in St. Louis, Missouri, attempted to buy a home with a racist covenant that restricted its sale to “people of the Negro or Mongolian Race.” A white couple Louis and Fern Kraemer — who could hardly be described as neighbors since they lived ten blocks away — objected. The case of Shelley v. Kraemer went to the US Supreme Court in 1948. Loren Miller was the chief counsel for the Shelleys, who prevailed, when the court ruled that racist housing covenants were unconstitutional. It was one of the most important steps in the decades long progress of dismantling racial segregation across the nation.

Miller bought his old employer, The California Eagle, from Charlotta Bass in 1951. It was published until 1964, when governor Pat Brown appointed Miller to the Los Angeles County Superior Court. In 1966, Miller wrote The Petitioners: The Story of the Supreme Court of the United States and the Negro. Miller still lived in Silver Lake when he died on 14 July 1967. 

Following the construction of his and Miller’s homes, Garrott found that there were few opportunities for him as a black architect and he worked, during the World War II years, at Douglas Aircraft factory in Santa Monica. Garrott’s fortunes began to change, however, in 1946, when he became the second black architect admitted to the American Institute of Architects | Los Angeles. His application had been co-sponsored by Gregory Ain and Paul Revere Williams. In 1949, Ain and Garrott designed themselves a beautiful new Modernist architectural office at 2311 Hyperion Avenue in Los Feliz. As a team, Garrott and Ain went on to design the Ben Margolis House (for the defense attorney best known for defending the Hollywood Ten and the Sleepy Lagoon murder suspects), the Westchester Municipal Building, the Loyola Village Branch Library, and the Ralph Atkinson Residence.

Ain and Garrott often offered input on one another’s projects, even when credited as sole designers. Credited as sole architect, Garrott designed the M. Wesley Farr Residence in El Segundo, the Jessie and Ruth Oser House in Brentwood, the Verna Deckard and John W. Bean House in West Adams Terrace, the Firestone Sheriff’s Station, the Lawndale Administrative Center, the Bodger County Park Director’s Building in Alondra Park, the Del Aire County Park Director’s Building, the Victoria Park Pool and Bathhouse in Carson, the Carson Public Library, and many others. He also designed another Silver Lake home, in 1953, for Harry I. Friedman and Bernice “Burr” Lee Singer.

The Burr Singer Residence

Bernice Lee “Burr” Singer was a social realist painter who had been born in St. Louis, Missouri on 18 November 1912. She studied art at St. Louis’s School of Fine Arts and, later, at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League in New York City, and in private classes with Walter Ufer in Taos. Although white, she was largely concerned with black subjects, whom she often depicted in lithography, oil, and watercolor portraits. Whereas Garrott’s and Miller’s homes were fairly modest, his design at 2143 Panorama Terrace is a Mid-Century Modernist stunner. One has to wonder what accounts for the transition. Surely, some of it is down to Garrott developing his aesthetic as he gained experience. Some, too, is probably a reflection of Ain’s influence (as well as Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra). Perhaps, too, though, Garrott’s aesthetic was liberated by the abolition of housing covenants that made it possible for him to build unapologetically beautiful homes for clients, regardless of ancestry. Garrott died on 9 June 1991.

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and the 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject and/or guest in The Los Angeles TimesVICEHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAOffice Hours LiveSpectrum NewsEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m YoursNotebook on Cities and CultureKCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles.

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