Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
The Development of Leadership and Organization Building in the Black Community of Los Angeles from 1900 Through World War II. By E. Frederick Anderson. Saratoga, California: Century Twenty One Publishing, 1980. Bibliography. Appendices. Table. 159 pages. $12.00.
Black Los Angeles: The Maturing of the Ghetto, 1940-1950. By Keith E. Collins. Saratoga, California: Century Twenty One Publishing, 1980. Bibliography. Appendices. Tables. 120 pages. $11.00.
Reviewed by Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies, San Diego State University, editor of In Search of the Promised Land: Essays in Black Urban History (1981).
Black migration to California in the antebellum years was drawn primarily to San Francisco and the gold country, but by 1900 Los Angeles surpassed the northern metropolis in black population and has never relinquished its primacy. The doctoral dissertations reviewed here narrate several significant and little-documented chapters in the twentieth century growth of the “City of Black Angels.”
E. Frederick Anderson examines two community organizations using the framework of social movement theory. The Los Angeles Forum was organized in 1903 at a time when considerable black in-migration was taking place. Lodges, women’s aid and child care facilities were being funded at this time, and black churches served both spiritual and secular needs. Yet there was a need for a platform apart from the churches where issues could be freely debated. The Forum was part lyceum, part town meeting, and a social equalizer where anyone could air his ideas. During the peak of its influence in the Teens and Twenties it exercised the “power of positive sanction” as black (and occasional white) leaders sought its approval or came under its purview. Dealing also in concrete issues, it promoted the careers of the first black certificated female schoolteacher and first black female physician in the city. Political issues like the Birth of a Nation film controversy, Chinese labor exclusion, county government minority hiring practices, restrictive covenants, and the election of California’s first black assemblyman were issues of concern. The Forum declined in the Thirties, and by the time of its demise in 1942, a more militant and more issue specific organization had taken its place.
The Los Angeles Negro Victory Committee was the creation of the Rev. Clayton Russell and his People’s Independent Church of Christ. The Committee initially sought to gain employment in defense industries that discriminated against black workers. Foot-dragging by the War Manpower Commission and discrimination by the U.S. Employment Service galvanized a black community already articulating the “Double V” call for simultaneous defeat of international and domestic racism. Using mass action tactics the Victory Committee first convinced the Employment Service to place black women in other than janitorial and service positions in defense plants. Effectively utilizing his weekly radio program, Rev. Russell subsequently led fights to gain job training centers in Watts, motormen and conductor opportunities on the Los Angeles Railway, and halt prejudice by the Navy and labor unions. These activities brought the Committee’s leadership into corporate boardrooms and cabinet and congressional offices in Washington. For reasons not well explained by Anderson, the Victory Committee was dying by 1945, hastened perhaps by Rev. Russell’s unsuccessful campaign for the Board of Supervisors.
Keith Collins’ Black Los Angeles is a work of history based on interviews with 450 Watts residents of the Forties, and some of the best parts of the narrative cite the reminiscences of these individuals. Especially interesting are details on employment experiences at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard and various aircraft plants, including transportaton difficulties to and from the job, employee relationships with other groups, and hazardous conditions in the plants. Blacks coming from rural backgrounds experienced disorientation with the fragmentation of families into several work locations and a lack of time for common family meals and recreational activities.
Subsequent chapters on housing and social life are not as useful; the author has not made diligent use of the local black press and national black monthlies like Crisis and Opportunity, especially for the period of post-war adjustments. Readers get no clear view of the scope and successes of the local Urban League and the NAACP, and the Victory Committee is not discussed at all. The full spectrum of social life is not conveyed, and there is little correlation to social class differences. For example, all churches are lumped together, with no distinction by class. Nor is there much on the role of the churches in helping migrants adjust to urban life and find housing and jobs.
Readers of these dissertations will have to wade through prose typical of the genre, as well as embarrassing typographical errors. But patience will be rewarded with interesting bits of social history which could only have been gained through oral narratives. Historians of black urbanization in the present century may profitably sift through these studies for examples of indigenous organizations and group phenomena, but will have to supply their own broader conceptualizations and generalizations.