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Azusa Street to Bronzeville: The Black History of Little Tokyo

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In honor of Black History Month, this is the last in a 3-part series exploring the shifting Black communities of Los Angeles. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Life during wartime was prosperous for much of America, enough to bring the struggling economy out of the Depression. In Los Angeles the defense industry was in full swing - employment skyrocketed as contractors such as Lockheed brought a throng of new migrants to work in the new industrial powerhouse. For many it was an opportunity to start anew.

The Great Migration brought many migrants from the South, lured by the golden opportunities of the West. We may be familiar with the historic black neighborhoods of Oakwood, Central Avenue, and eventually Compton, but we tend to brush over an unlikely but important area in the growth of black identity in Los Angeles - a 66-square-block area known as Little Tokyo.

Former slave Biddy Mason arrived in Los Angeles in the 1860s and founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, using funds she had saved as a nurse and midwife. As a real state entrepreneur, she owned many properties - the First AME church was built on Mason's own land on the little alley-like Azusa Street. An unpaved path that bent its way from San Pedro to Second Streets, Azusa (which is now part of the plaza at Japanese American Cultural Center) was said to be the first all-black street in L.A.

Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street

A decade after Mason's death in 1891, the site of the First AME had fallen into disrepair. When William Seymour, son of slaves from Texas, brought his evangelical practice to Los Angeles it quickly gained followers, soon growing too large to accommodate at his home church on Bonnie Brae. He soon found the property and turned it into the Apostolic Faith Mission, a site of worship for men, women, and children of all races - a rare sight at a time when segregation was so predominant and accepted. It was 1906, and this was what came to be known as the Azusa Street Revival - birth of Little Tokyo.

The area wasn't known as Little Tokyo then. But around Azusa Street, then called the Eighth Ward, Japanese Americans were already settling in. A headline in the L.A. Times dated December 23, 1906 - just months after the founding of the Azusa Street Mission - describes, "Little Brown Men Crowding Other Races...Make New Oriental Quarter in City's Heart." By that time the Japanese population accounted for 2% of the city's population. They shared blocks with a diverse bunch - Chinese, Russians, Germans, Polish Jews, Italians, Slavs, Germans, Irish - mostly due to the fact that minorities were restricted from living in many parts of the city. Many ethnic minorities, by necessity, became neighbors.

The rapidly growing neighborhood soon grew rowdy, with police raiding the numerous restaurants for unlicensed serving of alcohol in 1909. Gambling soon became a problem, as storefronts such as the Nichibei Kinema on San Pedro St. were reported to have been fronts for gambling syndicates.

The attack on Pearl Harbor changed the face of Little Tokyo. Executive Order 9066 was signed by FDR in February 1942; by April all Angelenos of Japanese ancestry were ordered out to the internment camps. Residents and business owners hurriedly left behind the lives that they had built up for decades. This created a void in the center of the city - a ghost town in the shadow of City Hall.

Many blacks empathized with the plight of the Japanese - racial hostility was something they knew a bit about. But when they saw an opportunity they seized it. The now-empty storefronts left behind by the Japanese was a golden chance for a new beginning. Thus began another chapter in the wave of migration of black Americans in Los Angeles.

The Second Great Migration of the 1940s brought an influx of migrants, many from the deep South, and settled around Central Avenue, then the heart of the black community. By this time though, the area was becoming overcrowded with little room to grow. Little Tokyo, just a few miles north, provided room for migrants who had dreamed of owning their own business - they now had a bevy of blank canvases to paint with their entrepreneurial skills. Miyako Hotel soon became the Civic Hotel. A New Orleans woman transformed a business block into the "first Negro department store in the Far West."

Ruth Davis, William Love, and Bernice Patton (RN, 2nd Lt. Army) at Shepp's Playhouse | Photo from Shades of L.A. collection, courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Ruth Davis, William Love, and Bernice Patton (RN, 2nd Lt. Army) at Shepp's Playhouse | Photo from Shades of L.A. collection, courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

The thriving rhythm & blues scene around Central Avenue now stretched out several more blocks northward. Shepp's Playhouse at the corner of First and Los Angeles Streets became a hotspot for local and touring musicians, with Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis entertaining a crowded that included Hollywood stars who were "slumming it." The upstairs club became a frequent target for the prying eyes of the police, as an interracial crowd was the norm, just as it had been at the Azusa Street Mission. Alcohol flowed freely and gambling came back to the area with a vengeance, with original white gangster Mickey Cohen often at the helm.

By 1943 Little Tokyo was no longer. 80,000 had moved in to an area that previously housed 30,000. "This is Bronzeville. Watch us grow!" claimed signs produced by the newly formed Bronzeville Chamber of Commerce. But what was for a moment a ghost town with endless possibilities was now an overcrowded slum rather than Black Utopia. Housing conditions deteriorated, not only due to the number of occupants but also the negligence of the absent white landlords.

City officials soon came knocking. The overcrowding and crime-ridden, slum-like conditions had become hazardous. 12,000 were living in unlicensed dwellings, and people had resorted to sleeping in front of hotels, already filled with families living shoulder to shoulder. Mayor Fletcher Bowron and his men urged President Roosevelt to act on measures to build emergency wartime housing: "Deplorable overcrowding of as many as 16 adults and children in one room and extremely serious disease hazards are amont the conditions which must be wiped out," Bowron told the L.A. Times, dated May 26, 1944. Many buildings were condemned, though many of the structures were quickly fixed and reoccupied. But some were not as lucky.

Slum conditions in Bronzeville | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Slum conditions in Bronzeville | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Bronzeville denizens who were forced to leave had little place else to go. Restrictive covenants imposed by white property owners largely prevented them from moving anywhere else but the "minority neighborhoods." "It's in your power to protect your home and your district against invasion by NEGROS, JAPS and WHAT-NOTS..." read a typical flyer from a developer, as shown in RJ Smith's "The Great Black Way." A black-only subdivision in Willowbrook was proposed to alleviate the overcrowding, though the mostly-white residents of the area by Compton was none too happy.

Japanese-Americans began returning to the area in 1945. Many bought back their leases, though some were entangled in lawsuits just to get their property back, such as with the Hongwanji Buddhist Temple which had been converted to a Baptist Church. Some couldn't afford to buy back their businesses, as was the case with bookseller Takeo Taiyoshi. Slum conditions of the Bronzeville era continued for the next several years, as returning Japanese Americans only added to the overcrowding of the area.

Hostility toward the returning Japanese was not uncommon within the victorious country. But in Bronzeville, the transition was mostly trouble-free, though not without friction. The leading African-American newspaper The California Eagle urged its readers to be supportive of their re-assimilation efforts. The Common Ground Committee was formed to foster better interracial relations. Japanese American businessowners hired blacks, remaining Bronzeville businesses hired Japanese Americans.

Very little traces of Bronzeville remain today. Restrictive covenants that prohibited minorities from occupying certain areas ironically had brought many of them together in the heart of the city, coexisting with shared experiences of discrimination. Those unlawful restrictions are now largely gone. But as populations spread farther out into the suburban sprawl, many neighborhoods remain separated by race - whether by choice or by unspoken restrictions.

Top: Mayor Fletcher Bowron with Bronzeville residents | Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

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