Blackness in Los Angeles Is Historic and Trendsetting

Photo: Chris Pizzello (Invision/AP Photos)
America's Blackest CityFor Black History Month, we asked writers to explain why they think their hometown, current residence or notable place deserves the title of America’s Blackest City by defining a city’s history, music, cuisine, notable figures, and cultural touchstone/unique black fact.

Arguments have been made recently that Washington, D.C., Birmingham, Ala., and Harlem are the blackest cities in America. Those arguments are not without merit. Each of those cities has made significant contributions to black history, without a doubt. I would like to posit that my hometown, Los Angeles, is so iconic, so full of black excellence, and is the birthplace of so many styles, trends, musical movements and black-ass celebrities, we should be the main contender for the title of “America’s Blackest City.”

Los Angeles was first inhabited by the Chumash people around 8000 BC, followed by the Tataviam people around 300 BC, the Tongva Indians around 500 AD, Spanish settlers in 1769, and Mexican settlers in 1781. Among those 44 Mexican settlers, 26 were of African descent.

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Pío de Jesús Pico
Screenshot: KCET video

Pío de Jesús Pico, who was of Spanish, African and Native American descent, served as the governor of Alta California twice and Los Angeles Common Councilman before his death in 1894. Alta California would later become known simply as California, so yes, a black settler in what is now known as Los Angeles was one of the first governors of our state. Blackety-black. Pico Boulevard, one of the longest streets in Los Angeles that stretches from downtown to Santa Monica beach, is named after him.

At the end of the Civil War in 1865, emancipated blacks began moving to the city in significant numbers, and in 1872, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church was established, because you know that wherever black people go they gotta take their church with them.

In April 2005, a man stands outside Second Baptist Church where the funeral for Johnnie Cochran Jr. took place
Photo: Damian Dovarganes (AP Photo)
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Not to be outdone, Second Baptist Church was established 13 years later in 1885. It was named Second Baptist Church to distinguish itself from the all white First Baptist Church. The church’s building was designed by Paul Revere Williams, a Los Angeles native who was the first black architect to become a member of the American Institute of Architects. At the time it was built, Second Baptist was the biggest and most expensive black church in Los Angeles. Black people in L.A. have always gone hard, and this was no exception.

Fifty years after establishing the first black church, black people created their own cultural district along Central Avenue in south central Los Angeles.

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From 1920 to 1955, Central Avenue was the mecca and the heart of Los Angeles for black people. It was the location of the vibrant Los Angeles jazz scene that attracted such greats as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Bessie Smith. The Dunbar Hotel, which had the distinction of being completely financed and built solely by black people, was the hotel where members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) stayed for their first west coast convention in 1928. Los Angeles was still very segregated at the time, and the hotel provided first-class accommodations. It became known as the finest black hotel in the nation, and it helped drive more development in the area. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Hern Jefferies, Langston Hughes, Joe Louis, Arthur B. Spingarn, and W. E. B. Du Bois were among other notable guests to stay at the Dunbar.

Ralph Bunche, United Nations Undersecretary General, signs papers at his desk in his office at the U.N. headquarters in New York City, April 26, 1963.
Photo: AP Photo
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Dr. Ralph J. Bunche, the first person of color to win the lauded Nobel Peace Prize, grew up in the Central Avenue district, and his home remains a landmark there.

Thomas Jefferson High School, commonly referred to as “Jeff” by Los Angelenos, was a historically black high school in Los Angeles with primarily black teachers for a long time. Located adjacent to the Central Avenue corridor, many of its graduates went on to become great musicians, writers, actors, performers, politicians and giants in the legal field, including Alvin Ailey, Dorothy Dandridge, Mablean Ephriam, Ralph Bunche, Roy Ayers, Barry White, Jonny “Guitar” Watson, and David W. Williams—the first black federal judge from a state west of the Mississippi.

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In this August 1965 file photo, police detain a man as buildings burn during rioting that swept the Watts district of Los Angeles. It began with a routine traffic stop, blossomed into a protest and escalated into the deadliest and most destructive riot Los Angeles had seen. The Watts riot broke out Aug. 11, 1965 and raged for most of a week. When the smoke cleared, 34 people were dead, more than 1,000 were injured and some 600 buildings were damaged.
Photo: AP Photo

By the 1960s, black people had spread out in south Los Angeles, and Watts also became known for its high concentration of blacks. It was in August 1965 that the Watts riots raged for six days, sparked by the violent arrest of two young black men—Marquette and Ronald Frye—and their mother, Rena.

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Nearly 27 years later, another uprising would occur after another questionable incident with police.

Commonly known as the “L.A. riots” of 1992 or the “Rodney King riots,” the six days of rioting, looting and burning were a result of four Los Angeles police officers being acquitted of the brutal beating of a black motorist by the name of Rodney King.

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In March of 1991, King led police on a high-speed chase through Los Angeles County. He was reportedly intoxicated and uncooperative, so of course the police did the only thing they could do and brutally beat the unarmed man with their batons. They beat and kicked him long after he stopped resisting because that’s what police do and had been doing to black men in Los Angeles for years. Unfortunately for them, a private citizen caught the beating on video camera, and the rest is (repeated) history.

It didn’t matter that there was videotape of the incident. The cops got off, and the city burned for six days—resulting in 53 people dead, more than 2,000 injured, and property damage totaling $1 billion. Many parts of south Los Angeles still show signs of the damage done nearly 27 years ago.

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This 1992 crime scene photo provided by the Los Angeles Police Department shows a burned-out Pep Boys store, destroyed during the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.
Photo: Los Angeles Police Department (via AP)

I was born and raised here, as were both my parents. My mother grew up in Watts, and she has told me many stories from her childhood, including what happened during the Watts riots.

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I was nearly 21 when the ‘92 riots happened. I watched the Rodney King video get replayed on a continuous news cycle loop and watched my city burning all around me. I was in the car with my mother driving down Manchester Avenue on the afternoon the verdict was announced. We couldn’t figure out what all the traffic was about, and it was only later we realized we narrowly avoided driving directly through the epicenter of the riots on Florence and Normandie because there was too much traffic going up Normandie.

Manchester is the next major thoroughfare just south of Florence.

My grandmother’s house is still in our family and is near one of the blackest intersections in the city—Imperial Highway and Western Avenue. You can see Los Angeles Southwest College—commonly known as the “black” college in Los Angeles—from her backyard.

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We are BLACK black, and so is our city.

Bridget Biddy Mason
Photo: LA Times Archive
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The blackest person from Los Angeles was really not from Los Angeles at all, but we are going to claim her, because what she did was historic. Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born a slave in Mississippi in 1818. In 1848 at 30 years old, she walked behind a 300-wagon caravan led by her Mormon master from Mississippi to California. Her master was full of white privilege, and ignored warnings by Mormon leader Brigham Young that slavery was outlawed in California.

Along the way, Mason met free black people who encouraged her to contest her slavery now that she was in a free state. She did just that, and in 1856, she won freedom for herself, as well as 13 members of her extended family. Mason would go on to amass a fortune working as a midwife and nurse—work she had done while she was enslaved. She was one of the organizers of First African Methodist Episcopal church (FAME).

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Yes. She was very black.

But aside from Biddy Mason, black Los Angelenos have gained fame and made significant contributions to the culture.

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We gave y’all Dr. Dre, Eazy E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, Arabian Prince and DJ Yella—more commonly known as N.W.A, or Niggaz Wit Attitudes. Their contribution to the culture was gangster rap. You couldn’t go anywhere in 1988 without hearing a song from either Eazy’s solo album or Straight Outta Compton, the group’s first studio album.

They gave us an eternal anthem to express our lack of trust or faith in law enforcement—“Fuck tha Police.” If that isn’t black as fuck, I don’t know what to tell you.

We also gave you Ava DuVernay, who has created Hollywood magic again and again.

We gave you Fatburger, which was started by Lovie Yancey—a black woman—as a small hamburger stand in south Los Angeles in 1947 and has grown into a large chain after being sold by Yancey in 1990.

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We gave you Tyra Banks, Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Snoop Dogg, The Game, DJ Quik, and too many others to list—all of whom have made significant contributions to the culture.

I love L.A., and I ride hard for my city.

Black people started here, right along with the Mexican settlers, and we will be here until our “little” island sinks into the sea.

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About the author

Monique Judge

News Editor for The Root. I said what I said. Period.