Once upon a time, the swamp-like area that we now know as Compton was inhabited by Shoshone tribes, Spaniards and missionaries. When Anglos began pouring into the area after the Mexican-American War, everything changed. Reverend Griffith Dickenson Compton, along with William Morton, soon turned the land into a profitable agricultural area. Reverend Compton became the namesake of the city - which was incorporated in 1888 - after donating his land and stipulating that a certain acreage be zoned for agricultural purposes. Thus the City of Compton and Richland Farms were born.
Flash-forward to the first and second World Wars. Segregation, poverty and the collapse of the Southern agricultural economy (thanks to industrialization and failed government policies) contributed to mass migrations of African-Americans, first to cities in Northern states and then West after WWII. In 1910 there where only 7,599 black Americans living in Los Angeles, but L.A. still had the largest black population of any urban center in the West due in part to the construction of the Transcontinental and Southern Pacific railroads.
World War II then set off the largest migration of African Americans in history. During the 1940's, the West's black population increased by 443,000 (33%) as blacks came to work in the military industries that were transforming the demographic constitution of western cities - specifically Los Angeles and Oakland - overall. So it was no surprise that when black families began migrating from the rural South in the 1950's, they found a "home away from home" in the small communities of Compton and Richland Farms. While the area didn't support large-scale agricultural business, the large residential lots in Richland Farms provided residents with enough space to raise a family, have a barn, tend to livestock and grow food - for their own use and benefit of the community. As Professor Josh Sides explains, Compton's growth as a specifically African-American city was the result of its rural aspect, as well land speculation and its proximity to the the region's other big industry: entertainment.
Departures got a glimpse of Compton's working class past through the eyes of longtime resident Ellis Cooke, who witnessed first hand how the area's rapid development was fueled by how it was marketed. Residents like Marie Hollis recall Richland Farms as a kind of Eden, a place that represented access to an otherwise unattainable American dream. Hollis moved from Oklahoma to Southern California in 1967 and settled on a one-acre lot in Richland Farms; she remains connected to the area despite the recent and drastic demographic changes it has undergone.
Although many African-American saw their lives improve during the eras of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the 1965 Watts Uprising ended the area's mid-century renaissance. Agricultural practices in Richland Farms that were direct transplants of hundred-year-old Southern folkways largely disappeared during the late 70's and 80's, an era when being called "rural" or "country" began to strike many black people in Compton as a slur. A younger generation sold land their families had worked for decades, moving away or simply abandoning both farm work and the quest for sustainability. Financial, housing and educational inequality that had been held at bay too root in Compton opened the door to gang violence.
Lloyd Wilkins, who has owned property in Richland Farms since the 1960's and has seen the area go from a promise to an afterthought, sees potential for revitalization in the environmental justice movement. Wilkins worries, however, that years of political and governmental corruption may prevent Compton's (and the Farms) rebirth.
Change brings new opportunities, however, so there is new hope in Compton thanks to Los Angeles' rapid changing demographics. In the 1980's, rural Latinos from Mexico and Central America began to migrate to Los Angeles in earnest and they found Compton and Richland Farms attractive for the same reasons that the previous groups of migrants had. Today, a multi-ethnic Richland Farms is poised serve as a model of urban inner-city renewal and sustainability. We invite you to discover Richland Farms.
- A Los Angeles Primer
- Arrival Stories
- Block by Block
- Engaging Spaces
- Green Justice
- I Am Los Angeles