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In the immediate aftermath of the Great War, America experienced a sudden surge of both white supremacy and black nationalism. While the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan managed to briefly dominate politics on the West Coast in the early 1920s, black nationalism swept the entire country as Pan-Africa movements emerged around the globe.

The most influential nationalist organization of the 1920s was the United Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA. It was created by Marcus Garvey, a Caribbean immigrant, and became known as Garveyism. Garvey was a flamboyant character who excelled at staging elaborate public displays of pageantry and black pride. UNIA officers wore elaborate, full-dress military uniforms, and Garvey himself wore a Napoleon-style admiral’s hat with a giant plume. Although the displays were over-the-top, they derived their power from the fact that they in no way resembled mainstream white American culture.

The UNIA promoted economic self-sufficiency as well as black cultural pride. The basis of Garvey’s economic plan was practical: UNIA dues were to be invested in a line of steamships, the Black Star Line, that would establish commercial ties between black America and black Africa. This would enable blacks around the globe to grow strong and prosper together.

Garveyism spread rapidly throughout the country. It took only seven members to start a chapter, so the tiniest black communities of the midwest could organize and be part of the movement. Small-town chapters flourished everywhere, even in the most remote locations, and in the big cities formal membership was huge. At its height in early 1921, UNIA Division 156 in Los Angeles had about 1,000 members on its rolls.

In the summer of that year, Division 156 president Noah Thompson traveled to New York to represent LA at the UNIA national convention. The reports he sent back home were disturbing. Two days of the convention were spent discussing how many buttons should be on a certain officer’s uniform. Worse, when Thompson asked to see the ships of the Black Star Line, for which $250,000 in UNIA dues had been invested, he received evasive answers. Officials refused to discuss the Line’s finances. It soon became clear that the UNIA was broke, its dues invested in a few rickety ships that were worth only scrap.

The LA chapter promptly announced its independence from the national group and formed a new group, the PCUNIA, or Pacific Coast Universal Negro Improvement Association. The New York office decertified Division 156 and barred its former officers from membership in the new, officially-sanctioned LA chapter, which could only come up with about 100 members.

Nevertheless, Garvey himself remained a popular figure; the next summer, when he visited LA for the first time, he was given a hero’s welcome. But the UNIA’s accounting problems were never resolved. Eventually, Garvey was deported on charges of mail fraud, and Garveyism faded from the scene.

Black nationalism did not expire with the demise of Garveyism. Instead, it would continue to grow and flourish in new forms and under new leadership throughout the century.

(Flamming 136-140)

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The Tulsa Race Riot

The late 1910s witnessed a wave of white-on-black racial violence throughout the American West. Major race riots included those in Houston (1917), East St. Louis (1917), Chicago (1919), Elaine, Arkansas (1919) and Omaha, Nebraska (1919).

The last and worst of this wave of racial violence erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31, 1921. Tulsa was at that time a rapidly growing city, mostly white but with a sizeable and prosperous black population; the city was tightly segregated, and the homes and businesses of black middle-class families were centered in an area called Greenwood.

The incident began when a black man named Dick Rowland was falsely accused by some white men of having made advances upon a white girl. Rowland was arrested and locked in a courthouse jail; that afternoon, a white newspaper announced in bold headlines that there would be a lynching that night.

A group of Greenwood’s leading citizens and property owners decided to intervene. At dusk, about two dozen got their guns and drove to the courthouse. Already a white mob of several hundred was assembled. Approaching the sheriff, the Greenwood men offered their services; the sheriff informed them that he had already contacted the National Guard, and that the situation was under control. The men, convinced for the moment, got in their cars and returned to Greenwood.

Meanwhile, the white mob was growing. At some point, part of the mob tried to break into the National Guard armory to seize guns and ammunition; the Guard held them off but failed to disperse them. News of the escalation reached Greenwood; this time, from 50 to 75 men assembled and returned to the courthouse.

No one knows who fired the first shot, but someone did, and a riot broke out. The Greenwood men, outnumbered 75 to 3,000, managed to fight their way out of downtown and back toward their own neighborhood. The white mob followed them; fighting continued all night, and sometime the next morning, Greenwood began to burn. In broad daylight, as their homes and businesses went up in flames, as many as 6,000 blacks were rounded up and force-marched to internment centers.

The destruction continued all day. White newspaper photographers followed the mob and took pictures of the burning buildings. The National Guard did nothing to stop the violence; the whites freely continued destroying property as they chose.

The number of deaths due to the violence was never accurately established. Estimates range from 30 to 300 persons dead; perhaps half of these were white men. More than 1,000 homes and businesses in Greenwood were destroyed; black Tulsa lay in ruins. White officials at the city and state levels openly blamed the riot on the small group of black men who had arrived downtown with guns. Many black families left the city, never to return.

The violence in Tulsa began a panic in Los Angeles, when rumors of a Klan riot began to circulate; reportedly, black Los Angeles had been scheduled for the “Tulsa treatment” on July 4.

But it didn’t happen. Los Angeles was a very different place from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa was a southern-style city, and Greenwood was the kind of all-black neighborhood that didn’t exist in the cities of the West Coast. In places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, blacks lived and worked in mixed neighborhoods, interspersed with whites, Mexicans, and Asians. There would be no way to attack the “black district” without destroying the property of many non-blacks. This diversity could not, of course, prevent violence on an individual basis, but it may explain why the cities of the West Coast escaped the race riots so prevalent during this period.

(Flamming 130-133)


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Biddy Mason

Biddy Mason was born in Georgia. A slave, she was purchased by aspiring cotton planter Robert Smith, and brought to the cotton frontier of Mississippi.

Smith’s efforts at growing cotton were unsuccessful;¬† he didn’t even manage to acquire his own land. So when the Latter-day Saints decided to build their new Zion at Salt Lake City, Smith and his wife, who had recently converted to Mormonism, decided to emigrate. By the end of 1848, Biddy Mason found herself living in Utah.

The next year she was uprooted again, this time to California. In the wake of the Gold Rush, Mormon leaders had seen fit to establish an outpost in the hills around San Bernardino, where they hoped to successfully raise cattle. The perpetually-struggling Robert Smith volunteered to join the San Bernardino colony.

By the time Biddy Mason arrived in California, it had joined the Union as a free state. Although the state constitution was not clear on the legalities, free blacks and white abolitionists in California were actively taking steps to free the slaves brought to the new state. Among such local activists were a family by the name of Owens.

Robert Owens had once been a slave in Texas. He had managed to purchase his own freedom and then that of his wife; together they had worked to purchase the freedom of their three children. Then Owens had moved his family to the sleepy little town of Los Angeles, California, where he established successful livery stable and cattle business. After the Mormons moved to the area, the Owens family became acquainted with Biddy Mason, who was still being held in slavery by Robert Smith.

Sometime in the mid-1850s, Robert Smith had a disagreement with the Mormon leadership, who then took him to court and successfully sued him for the possession of his land and cattle. Disgruntled, Smith decided to leave California for a new start in the slave state of Texas. He intended to take with him his few remaining possessions, including his slave, Biddy Mason.

The Owens family, with the help of sympathetic neighbors and the county sheriff, acted quickly. The Smith family and their slaves were already camped outside Los Angeles, preparing for the trip to Texas, when the authorities showed up and took the slaves and their children into protective custody.

The judge at the trial happened to be a southerner and former slave owner, Benjamin Hayes. Nevertheless, Hayes ruled that, because California was a free state, Smith did not have the right to make Biddy and the other slaves leave. They were, by California law, “forever free.”

After gaining her freedom in 1856, Biddy Mason stayed in Los Angeles. She and her daughters moved in with the Owens family; one of her daughters married an Owens son, and Mason soon became a grandmother. She worked as a domestic and became known as a dependable midwife. Then in 1859 a successful local physician offered her a job as his assistant, for the excellent wage of $2.50 per hour.

Mason¬† saved her money, invested in real estate, then eventually built a home which became a place of meeting for the city’s several dozen black citizens.

As the value of her properties grew, she became a wealthy woman and a notable humanitarian. She founded a day-care center, visited prisoners in jail, and aided the poor and homeless. In 1872 she helped local black Methodists establish the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Perhaps most importantly, she became a leader in the black community and served as a role model and an inspiration for others – a slave woman who had found freedom and prosperity in the American West.

(Flamming 21-59)


Filed under 19th Century