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World War II and After in the Black West

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Established during the Gold Rush, San Francisco had the oldest black urban community in the West. But the number of African Americans in the city declined between 1890 and 1910 as many moved across the bay to Oakland, the city's first suburb.

Most were laborers or domestic servants, but sailors, ship stewards, and dockworkers made for greater employment diversity than existed in inland communities. However, their meager wages did little to raise the overall prosperity, and most African Americans survived on the urban economy's edge.

Despite their financial difficulties, black San Franciscans created a model for organized African-American community life in the West. In 1865, they could learn the "fine art of dancing" for $3 a month at Seales Hall. Four decades later, they could exhibit a flair for Shakespearean acting at Charles H. Tinsley Drama Club. These urbanites saw successful citizenship as linked to standards of Victorian civility and sought, through "refinement" and knowledge of the world, to gain the respect of their fellows, white and black.

By 1910, Los Angeles, with 7,599 African-American residents, had the largest black urban population in the West. The land boom of the 1880s had increased the city's population, allowing a few early settlers to reap immense profits. Bridget "Biddy" Mason was one of them. She had purchased a house on Spring Street in 1866 for $250; fifteen years later she sold part of the property for $1,500. Mason established the city's oldest black church, First African Methodist in 1872, and left behind a dynasty of African American real estate tycoons. Her son-in-law, Charles Owens, owned valuable parcels in downtown Los Angeles, and her grandson, Robert C. Owens, built a $250,000 six-story building in 1905 on the site of Biddy's original home. The Colored American Magazine designated him "the richest Negro west of Chicago." Robert C. Owens became a confidant of Booker T. Washington and a major contributor to Tuskegee Institute.

African American Los Angeles grew rapidly during the twentieth century's first decade. In 1903, the Southern Pacific Railroad brought two thousand black laborers to break a strike of Mexican American construction workers, doubling the size of the community. Intense inter-ethnic rivalry resulted and, today, still lingers.

Hundreds of black Texans also migrated to the area. Familial networks encouraged emigration. "We came here in 1902," declared a Tennessee couple. "We were doing pretty well, so we sent back home and told cousins to come along. When the cousins got here, they sent for their cousins. Pretty soon the whole community was made up of Tennessee people."

Urban boosters also helped attract new Angelenos. E. H. Rydall wrote in 1907, "Southern California is more adapted for the colored man than any other part of the United States [because] the climate. . . is distinctively African . . .this is the sunny southland in which the African thrives." The first black residential neighborhood began to evolve south of downtown, along Central Avenue. The mostly Southern-born migrants created a vibrant district, which eventually became known as the Harlem of the West.

The Evolution of Black Music in Los Angeles, 1890-1955Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in CaliforniaThe Evolution of Black Music in Los Angeles, 1890-1955 from Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California by Bette Yarbrough Cox and de Graaf, Lawrence B.; Mulroy, Kevin; Taylor, Quintard, eds.

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World War II and After in the Black West >