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Bound for Freedom

Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America

Douglas Flamming
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 485
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  • Book Info
    Bound for Freedom
    Book Description:

    Paul Bontemps decided to move his family to Los Angeles from Louisiana in 1906 on the day he finally submitted to a strictly enforced Southern custom—he stepped off the sidewalk to allow white men who had just insulted him to pass by. Friends of the Bontemps family, like many others beckoning their loved ones West, had written that Los Angeles was "a city called heaven" for people of color. But just how free was Southern California for African Americans? This splendid history, at once sweeping in its historical reach and intimate in its evocation of everyday life, is the first full account of Los Angeles's black community in the half century before World War II. Filled with moving human drama, it brings alive a time and place largely ignored by historians until now, detailing African American community life and political activism during the city's transformation from small town to sprawling metropolis. Writing with a novelist's sensitivity to language and drawing from fresh historical research, Douglas Flamming takes us from Reconstruction to the Jim Crow era, through the Great Migration, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the build-up to World War II. Along the way, he offers rich descriptions of the community and its middle-class leadership, the women who were front and center with men in the battle against racism in the American West. In addition to drawing a vivid portrait of a little-known era, Flamming shows that the history of race in Los Angeles is crucial for our understanding of race in America. The civil rights activism in Los Angeles laid the foundation for critical developments in the second half of the century that continue to influence us to this day.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94028-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xviii)
    (pp. 1-14)

    Think about American freedom. What does freedom mean? Who gets to be free, and why? When people are not free, how do they get free? When they are free, how do they stay that way? For centuries, Americans from all walks of life have debated and fought over the answers to these questions, and the results of those conflicts have shaped who we are, as a people and a nation. Long after you finish reading this book, I hope you will continue to think about freedom in the United States. That, in the largest sense, has been my aim in...

  6. PART I. Staking a Claim in the West

    • Arrival
      (pp. 17-34)

      On September 10, 1910, Charlotta A. Spear rode into town on a train. No one met her at the Southern Pacific depot. She was just another sickly easterner who had come to Los Angeles seeking sunshine. She came from Providence, Rhode Island, a lone woman on a long, exhausting trip. The Pullman car porters—the black attendants who staffed the nation’s passenger trains—must have wondered about her. As the unofficial guardians of African American passengers, they would have looked after her, quietly dispensing helpful tips and subtle warnings along the way. Spear was short and full bodied, with a...

    • 1 Southern Roots, Western Dreams
      (pp. 35-59)

      One way to get free is to get gone. Move. Leave someplace bad for someplace better. Americans have always moved incessantly, looking for greener pastures, better jobs, broader opportunities, freer conditions, a place in the sun, a new start. At the turn of the twentieth century, Los Angeles offered all of that, which explains why it lured dream chasers from all over the nation and, indeed, the world. For white midwesterners—the majority of the newcomers during and after the real estate boom of the 1880s—Los Angeles promised freedom from harsh winters and the latest best bet for the...

    • 2 The Conditions of Heaven
      (pp. 60-91)

      African Americans moved to Los Angeles because they believed racial conditions were better in this “new heaven.” Compared to the South, conditionswerebetter. California law outlawed segregation, African Americans could vote, and the Republican Party dominated state and local politics. But how free were African Americans in Los Angeles? Did California law actuallypreventthe practice of racial segregation? To what extent were opportunities equal, regardless of race? In the decades before 1920, Afro-Angelenos pondered these very questions. They watched closely, swapped stories, weighed things in the balance. Eventually they developed a general consensus about local conditions: things had...

    • 3 Claiming Central Avenue
      (pp. 92-125)

      In early 1915, in a casual aside to an upbeat story, theEagleproudly referred to the Central Avenue district as the “Black belt of the city.” About a year later, Joe Bass called Central Avenue “one of the most remarkable Negro business sections anywhere in the country.” In 1918, voters in the 74th Assembly District, the political equivalent of the Central Avenue district, sent Frederick Roberts to the statehouse in Sacramento as California’s first African American legislator. A few years later, on a tour of Los Angeles, the nationally known black journalist Chandler Owen, editor of theMessenger, expressed...

    • 4 A Civic Engagement
      (pp. 126-158)

      At some point, people who want to be free must take a stand. Exodus has its limits. Finding a promised land ultimately means settling down and living free. Historically, Americans have understood this, for if they have been a nation of movers, they have also been a nation of fighters, ill-content to wander forever. Time and again, hard-pressed groups in America have found themselves standing at the walls of Jericho, determined to win a place in the land of milk and honey. But how to bring down the walls? That was the question facing black leaders in early-twentieth-century Los Angeles,...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • 5 Politics and Patriotism
      (pp. 159-188)

      In spring 1918, the Reverend Benjamin C. Robeson of Los Angeles joined the United States Army and marched off to war in France. A popular minister in the AME-Zion Church and a contributing editor for theEagle, Robeson enlisted as a chaplain, not a soldier, but his support for the American military campaign rang with the tones of a true believer. “Let us rally around Uncle Sam,” he wrote in early 1918, “and help to whip the Kaiser.” For the past four years, while the nations of Europe had slaughtered their sons in the Great War, America had tried to...

  7. PART II. Civil Rights as a Way of Life

    • 6 Fighting Spirit in the 1920s
      (pp. 191-225)

      In November 1920, Charlotta Bass became one of the vice presidents of the Los Angeles NAACP. The branch membership elected her to one of the loftiest posts in the city’s foremost civil rights organization. At the same time, Charlotta was helping to establish a local division of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the black-nationalist organization headed by New York’s charismatic Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey. When the Los Angeles UNIA received its charter and elected its officers in January 1921, the members chose Charlotta as their “Lady President.” TheEagle’s managing editor had become a top leader, simultaneously, in the city’s...

    • 7 The Business of Race
      (pp. 226-258)

      George Beavers, Jr., turned thirty-two in 1924. His parents, George and Annie, had brought the family to Los Angeles from Atlanta twenty years earlier to gain the “full citizenship rights and better living conditions” they wanted so badly. They found better conditions, but also hardship: George Jr.’s early exit from high school, their homes lost to fire, Annie’s death. Nor did they enjoy “full” citizenship rights in Los Angeles, which was why George Jr., became active in the NAACP. For all this heartache and frustration, the Beavers family established a singularly active and fruitful lifestyle. George Jr. and his wife,...

    • 8 Surging Down Central Avenue
      (pp. 259-295)

      In 1924, Verna Deckard drove into L.A. in a new Ford coupe, its smooth finish covered with seven days of dust and dirt. The car was her own, a gift from her father, Jule Deckard, an auto mechanic from Terrell, Texas, just east of Dallas. The dirt had accumulated during the Deckard family’s two-car road trip from East Texas to Los Angeles.Verna’s parents drove in her “Papa’s” automobile, a Ford touring car that sported a sign: “Texas to Los Angeles.” Papa had enlisted a young fellow to ride in Verna’s car to share the driving, but his daughter would not...

    • 9 Responding to the Depression
      (pp. 296-330)

      Shortly after theEagle’s anniversary celebration, the prosperity of black Los Angeles came crashing down. John Somerville went bankrupt. He lost his La Vada apartments and the Hotel Somerville. “The fate of my financial ventures could not withstand the crash of 1929,” he later recalled. “Banks and mortgage companies in that year suddenly discovered the word ‘Liquidation’; my equities were highly attenuated and frozen at that. I had no reserve to make them liquid, so I went down with millions of other Americans.” In fact, he lost everythingbeforethe stock market’s horrific crash—indicating just how fragile the community’s...

    • 10 Race and New Deal Liberalism
      (pp. 331-364)

      On the morning after the 1936 election—and the reelection of both FDR and Gus Hawkins—two hundred women congregated in the basement of the Second Baptist Church. As theNew Agereported, they were mostly “women of African and Mexican descent,” mostly “mothers of dependent children.” They were employees of a Works Progress Administration sewing project that operated out of Second Baptist, and they were “jubilant over the Roosevelt re-election.” When they arrived at work that day, they “cheered for the President and sang patriotic airs for some time before settling down to work.” Then they got laid off....

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • Departure
      (pp. 365-382)

      On August, 27, 1952, Charlotta A. Bass again rode into town on a train. Forty-two years earlier she had arrived in Los Angeles unnoticed, a sickly woman disembarking at the Southern Pacific depot with no one to greet her. Now she arrived at L.A.’s Union Station to a cheering throng of admirers. Bass was no longer merely a local activist, no longer a Republican or Democrat. She was instead the national standard-bearer of the Progressive Party, the final haven for communists, socialists, and fellow travelers in coldwar America. Earlier that year she had been chosen as the party’s candidate for...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 383-426)
  9. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 427-438)
  10. Index
    (pp. 439-467)