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A Southern California Dream Deferred: Racial Covenants in Los Angeles

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In honor of Black History Month, this is the second in a three part series exploring the shifting Black communities of Los Angeles. Read part 1 here and part 3 here.

As manufacturing labor from the Great Migration afforded skilled Black migrants a middle-class income, the previously unattainable suburban Southern California dream became closer to reality. Unlike the congested and deteriorating properties of South Central Los Angeles, working-class suburbs like Compton allowed Blacks to raise their families in manicured homes with space enough for livestock and petting farms.

Take Marie Hollis for instance, an Oklahoma native who in 1967 moved west to a quiet block in Compton with nearby flower gardens to escape the crime and density of the slums. At the time Compton was predominately Caucasian and, for a time, Blacks peacefully coexisted with their white neighbors. But soon the white residents began to feel that too many Blacks were moving in - a perceived threat to their property values - and thus began a devastating transformation in the area.

Earlier in Los Angeles - before the 1950s - suburbs fighting integration often became sites of significant racial violence. Whites resorted to bombing, firing into, and burning crosses on the lawns of Black family homes in areas south of Slauson. White gangs in South Gate and Huntington Park confronted Blacks who dared to travel through their area. This violent reaction to Blacks' presence in white communities echoed across the nation as the Great Migration transformed cities in the North and West. In 1917, the Supreme Court ruling of Buchanan vs. Warley, declared municipally mandated racial zoning unconstitutional. Unfortunately the case only dealt with legal statutes, leaving the door open for alternative agreements such as restrictive covenants, which served to perpetuate residential segregation on private properties.

Woman stands in front of a home at 48th Place and Compton Avenue. Photo coutresy of the Los Angeles Public Library, Shades of LA collection.
Woman stands in front of a home at 48th Place and Compton Avenue. Photo coutresy of the Los Angeles Public Library, Shades of LA collection.

Real estate planning boards and developers saw racially restrictive covenants as a peaceful and progressive alternative to the violent real estate conflicts. In Compton, white homeowners guarded their community by introducing several restrictions in 1921: Real estate brokers' license could be revoked for integrating the neighborhood, and the Federal Housing Administration flatly denied loans in areas not covered by covenants as a matter of policy. Terminologies used to highlight restrictions where found in the deeds of homes, supposedly to maintain "respectability of the home," which in translation meant white. Restrictions were not limited to blacks - they included Asians and Mexicans as well as Native Americans.

No area in Los Angeles was affected more by this practice more than Compton. According to an essay by Josh Sides, the director of the Center for Southern California Studies at CSU Northridge, in the early years of World War II the Compton City Council resisted construction of a public housing complex in the neighborhood because it was considered "Negro housing." Mobs formed under the slogan "Keep the Negroes North of 130th Street." As with other areas throughout the region, they employed violent tactics, including vandalism and death threats, to keep Black families from moving in. Over time however, fearful white homeowners began to feel pressured - Compton's location, directly adjacent to the overcrowding Black communities along Alameda, was a threat to their desired "respectability." In the video below, Sides explains the racial transformation of Compton:

There was a brief moment in time when blacks and white peacefully coexisted in Compton.
Josh Sides - From the South to Compton - On Race

Following the Supreme Court decision of Shelley vs Kraemer in 1948, racially restrictive covenants became a political liability, as it dissipated the legality of restrictive housing practices. In Compton by this time, undeveloped, recently annexed land between the white suburb and the concentrated Black community inspired ambitious developers to capitalize on the financial potential of integration. Davenport Builders spearheaded this shift, selling the first unrestricted homes in 1952 on a patch of land that was formerly a cornfield.

The development of the freeway system made it easy for whites to travel farther away to the suburbs, further instigating segregation. Blacks soon overcrowded the South Central area of Los Angeles, eventually boxed into an area confined within the largely uncrossable borders of the 110 and 10 freeways and Pico Boulevard. By the 1970s, the area's density and shortage of manufacturing jobs increased crime and branded the black communities - even including more affluent and middle-class nearby neighborhoods like Baldwin Hills - as one large, notoriously violent enclave.

Such problems were not limited to Compton. Black Americans, largely returning veterans, moved en masse to the San Fernando Valley following the 1946 construction of the Basilone Homes public housing complex and the privately developed Joe Louis Homes, both in Pacoima. Other areas affected by the covenants included Venice, Huntington Park and areas east of the Alameda. But Compton was the "beacon of hope" for ambitious Black Americans, exemplifying the story of Los Angeles' historic social and economic transformation.

Yet the racial transformations of historically Black neighborhoods in Los Angeles goes beyond Black and White. As a once small minority within the greater minority population, Blacks often co-inhabited areas with Mexicans, South Americans and Asians. From this, other stories of multi-ethnic transformation in Los Angeles history are drawn and one such story can be found in Brownsville. More on that area next week.

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