For a decade, since the mid 1990s, commentators on Los Angeles have often reported the disappearance of the city’s Black community. That being said, Black people are visible all over Los Angeles. These people speak several languages. They are native Angelenos, the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of migrants from the Southern United States, particularly Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. They also come from South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and the African Continent. They come from Asia and the Pacific. Some work as domestics and day workers. Others work as mechanics and bus drivers. Still others work as receptionists, mail carriers, security guards, police and firefighters, dental assistants, merchants, and shopkeepers. Some work as teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, athletes, sports and entertainment agents, financial advisors, realtors and management executives. Some work in the underground economy. These folks make up a very diverse group, and this diversity of background and station makes commentary on a unitary Black community difficult if not ill advised.
This diversity of language, national background, occupation and class prompts the opinion that a Black community may no longer exist in this most diverse, most multi-ethnic of cities. So we should be clear what the phrase “Black community” signifies, and whether it is really disappearing. I don’t really believe that the Black Community has disappeared; nor is it disappearing. It has changed dramatically, has splintered even. But it is here and is identifiable nonetheless. It exists because its members say it exists. It exists because its members recognize each other, even if others do not recognize them. And its members participate in the cultural events that seek to reinforce these connections. Perhaps the annual African Marketplace and Cultural Fair every August best exemplifies this institutionalizing of the relations among the various Black ethnicities of Southern California.
My children, their mother and I have lived and worked in Los Angeles continuously for eleven years now, their first residency in Los Angeles, my second. I am one of the native Angelenos. I grew up in this city in the 1960s and the 1970s. When my family, my children and their mother from the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Area, joined me in Los Angeles, we lived in the Jefferson Park neighborhood. Thirty years ago, Jefferson Park was still largely African American. Sixty years ago, my oldest friend’s mother went to school and church at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Jefferson Park. Fifty years ago, it was a neighborhood that my father lived in as a teenager (During the same years, the mid-1950s, my mother’s family moved from the Eastside, east of Central Avenue, to the Temple-Echo Park neighborhood). My father’s younger brother died in the neighborhood, hit by a truck on Cimarron on his way to the community market. Family oral history says that he was angry, not paying close enough attention. He was thirteen. The building still stands, and it still houses a community market. My children and I regularly patronized the market. We have a living history there.
My father’s aunts lived in the neighborhood. They lived as part of a community of immigrants from New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA), who settled in the area of South Los Angeles now bounded by four freeways: the 110 freeway to the east, the 105 freeway to the south and parallel to Imperial Highway although at the time the freeway didn’t exist, the 405 freeway to the west, and the 10 freeway to the north.
These NOLA immigrants effectively tried to reproduce New Orleans in Los Angeles. My Aunt Loretta McRoyal and my Uncle Willie, who moved to Los Angeles in 1959, explained that California, and especially Los Angeles offered opportunities for work in several industries. They could not envision the future they wanted for themselves and their children if they stayed in New Orleans. But they missed home horribly. Nearly fifties years later, they still embody “not-here to stay” as New Orleans is still “home” in their conversations. They and other NOLA immigrants lived close to each other around the twelve Roman Catholic parishes within the boundaries of the four freeways.
They created the institutions and practices that attempted to recreate what finally could not be recreated, founding business to supply “authentic New Orleans products.”
Through a network of social organizations, Les Bon Temps Clubs and church related organizations like the Knights of St. Peter Claver, the community was able to provide social support for families facing difficulties in Los Angeles and New Orleans. These fundraisers would take the form of masquerade balls, church carnivals, Mardi Gras balls, fish fries and baking contests. Besides their function as mechanisms to maintain and support social relations within this community, these fundraisers also served an important role in allowing poor and working class families to save face. Government assistance was looked down on; thus, these routine fundraising events allowed families to save face.
Sometimes the fundraising took place in less formalized setting, but was no less ritualized. Let me offer an example. When my father died in 1980, each of the four evenings leading to his Friday morning funeral consisted of my family and friends bringing food and drinks and company to out house. These were not somber events. The evenings were loud, raucous and joyous. People cried over their beers and whiskeys and crab legs and chicken and rice. And they told stories about my father, his youth in New Orleans and adventures in Los Angeles. At the end of each evening, including after the rosary and the funeral, my grandmother presented my mother with a large pickle jar, the kind that used to be in butcher shops and local markets, filled with bills of various denominations.
In the sixty years since the death of the uncle I never had a chance to meet but whose baseball trophy from Denker Park I still cherish, the neighborhood remained largely African American, though many families, including parts of my own, began moving further south past Slauson, Florence, Manchester and Century, and west into the Crenshaw area and the Exposition area. Other families, with rising incomes, moved a little north and/or west into the Pico and San Vicente and Mid City and West Adams and Palms neighborhoods. Inglewood began to change complexion. By the mid 1970s, families began to trickle into the Inland Empire and the Palmdale-Lancaster area. These families were the forerunners of the allegedly disappearing Black community. And that is instructive.
I call this instructive because it speaks to the limits of the language of race in the general discourse on Los Angeles’s ethnic communities. Black community is used interchangeably with African American community. It is true that African Americans occupy fewer neighborhoods as a majority community, but that has only made Los Angeles differently black. The African American population did decrease by nearly 15 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to U. S. census data. Those numbers reflect the second wave of out migration.
To be continued…