Who was Los Angeles' first black mayor? No, it wasn't Tom Bradley, who served from 1973 to 1993. Nearly 200 years earlier, Francisco Reyes, an Afro-Mexican, led the fledgling city of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula (the Town of Our Lady, the Queen of the Angels on the River Porciuncula).
That fact is just one of the fascinating nuggets in Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities, finally published after a nine-year effort by UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.
Made up of 15 essays by 25 social science scholars, the 432-page work shines a bright light on African-American life in Los Angeles since the earliest-recorded black settlement. It also brings into focus the very early, largely ignored mayoral leadership of Reyes, beginning in 1793.
Described by USC geographer Michael Dear, author of The Postmodern Urban Condition, as "the culmination of a groundbreaking research project that presents an in-depth analysis of the historical and contemporary contours of black life in Los Angeles," the book has been widely discussed and dissected, including on National Public Radio.
Robin D.G. Kelley, a professor of African-American studies at Columbia University, called it "a true masterpiece of urban studies. Taken together, these wide-ranging, diverse, original essays significantly expand our understanding of the African American experience in Los Angeles." Lauding Black Los Angeles' "breathtaking scope and vision," Kelley cited the volume as "a brilliant example of cutting-edge scholarship and a powerful corrective to the enduring image of a city of drive-by shootings and low-rise projects."
The chapters, as Dear noted, are "original essays, multidisciplinary in scope, connecting the dots between the city's racial past, present and future."
In an interview with The Root, Darnell Hunt, the Bunche Center's director and the volume's editor, explained the book's primary objectives. "This volume represents a multidisciplinary approach, so it's not a traditional history, per se," he said. "I'm a sociology professor; the co-editor, Dr. Ana-Christina Ramon, is a social psychologist. We used this multidisciplinary approach of scholars to triangulate on this thing called black Los Angeles — what it is, what differentiates it from other places, where it came from and where it's going."
Black Los Angeles, Hunt observed, "is unlike any other volume on African-American Angelenos. This city has the nation's second-largest black population, but we felt there wasn't enough scholarship to fully understand it. So for us, we were trying to create something that's pretty radical. Other good books about black Los Angeles exist — City Limits and Bound for Freedom, for example — but they look at specific periods."
And although the volume is focused on black Los Angeles, Hunt said, "for us, another objective was to create an essay that covers a range of topics. We created a series of chapters put together in different configurations that teach people about the issues (socioeconomic, political), which can be very useful, particularly in political campaigns."
Dr. Paul Robinson, an assistant professor and geographer at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in the Watts neighborhood of L.A, one America's four historically black medical schools, wrote the volume's first chapter, "Race, Space and the Evolution of Black Los Angeles."
His chapter sets up the rest of the book, Robinson told The Root. "This is a people's history, more of a true history, from the perspective of looking at research, analyzing, studying and inquiring into it, rather than using cursory observations from the Los Angeles Times or a tale from a Hollywood narrative."
When Los Angeles was established in 1781, the majority of the pobladores (settlers) had African ancestry, which has been well-documented. In the section of the book titled "African Roots," Robinson noted that "although there has long been recognition of the mixed Spanish, African and Native American origins of the first settlers in Los Angeles, there also has been a tendency for scholars to downplay the influence of their African and Native American roots, instead dwelling on their assimilation into the region's Spanish heritage."
Robinson said, "This multiracial pueblo formed on the banks of the Los Angeles River in the late 18th century played an important role in the Spanish empire's northward expansion into 'Alta California,' yet that role has been obscured by early Anglo-American historians, who made unsubstantiated charges of the laziness, ignorance and uselessness of the original inhabitants."
These misrepresentations, Robinson continued, "tended to overshadow the remarkable accomplishments of the society that developed on the western frontiers of the Spanish empire. This multiracial society proved crucial to Spain's colonial expansion into North America and set the stage for the modern development of the Los Angeles area."
In the following chapters, scholars discuss the broad range of challenges faced by African-American Angelenos and their responses, often involving multiracial coalitions. These obstacles included the effects of the racially restrictive housing covenants put in place by whites in 1920, and the massive segregation imposed on the entire black community.
The future of black Los Angeles, now home to growing numbers of African and Caribbean immigrants, is also discussed, including the cultural implications of that growth for the city as its dwindling black American population migrates outward to Riverside and San Bernardino counties and beyond, or back to the nation's Southern states.
F. Finley McCrea is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.