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The Great Migration: Creating a New Black Identity in Los Angeles

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View of the Garret family in front yard of home, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

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

The Great Migration of the 1920s that saw major populations of the Black South move to Northern cities like Detroit, Chicago and New York largely bypassed Los Angeles. It was instead what scholars refer to as "The Second Great Migration" in the 1940s that made the most significant shifts in the city. As World War II commenced, defense production skyrocketed in Los Angeles with more than $11 billion in war contracts, which called for labor in the automobile, rubber and steel industries. Black Americans migrated West in response and the Black population in Los Angeles leaped from 63,700 in 1940 to 763,000 in 1970, making the once small-pocketed community visible to the general public.

Before this grand shift, the Black community in Los Angeles had been rooted in a more complex Black identity with Mexicans of mixed-African descent. By 1821, Mexico abolished slaves as part of the Trans-Atlantic trade and thus were allowed to assimilate earlier into a society that later became America following the Mexican-American War. The Black community in Los Angeles then grew from a successive stream of small migrations, beginning in 1848 with the California Gold Rush during which more than 5,000 Blacks made their way to California by 1860.

Between the 1890s and 1910, large groups of Black Americans migrated to Los Angeles from Texas, Shreveport, New Orleans and Atlanta to escape the racial violence and bigotry of the South with hopes for better access to wealth. Job opportunities were plentiful, including hauling lumber, digging ditches, cleaning toilets, laying brick, scrubbing laundry and shining shoes. Black migrants quickly laid claim to Central Avenue between 8th and 20th Streets in Downtown Los Angeles, and the area became known as "Brick Block" - with clubs, churches black-owned businesses and newspapers like the California Eagle supplying community needs.

Charlotta Bass, publisher & editor of the first Black newspaper in Los Angeles, The Eagle, recieves declaration. ca. 1949

By the time the Second Great Migration occurred, the prewar Black population that had founded its community's vital institutions grew closer to middle-class status. Homeownership amongst Blacks in Los Angeles by 1910 reached over 36% - the highest rate in the nation. L.A.'s prewar Black community viewed these "great" migrations with uncertainty. Some valued the opportunity for black families to reconnect and welcomed the new migrants as a chance to advance the race or as potential new business for their personal ventures. While others saw the influx as a threat to the peace their small existence afforded. Blacks had been in Los Angeles for nearly a century by the Second Great Migration, yet their population in contrast to the Latino and Asian population was miniscule.

Meanwhile, on the westside, another small-pocketed Black community was forged from the vision of developer and tobacco mogul, Abbot Kinney. Black Americans migrated west at the turn of the century to build the Venice canal system. They worked long hours digging ditches and dredging earth against a fast-approaching deadline, while storms flooded the area in March of that year. They finished in time for the July 04, 1905 opening. Subsequently, Blacks settled nearby in Oakwood, a 1.1 square mile community set aside for them. Of the better-known migrants from that generation was Kinney's confidante and driver, Irving Tabor, whose name is commemorated today on an alley street one block east of Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice.

When Kinney died in 1920, he left his private residence to the Tabor family. Navalette Tabor Bailey, one of the last remaining residents from that migration wave, passed away in 2010. Before she died, Bailey recounted her earlier days in the Oakwood as a Louisiana migrant. Below she describes the freedom Blacks experienced in the West during the 1920s:

"Abbot Kinney gave everyone a chance to make a living. If you would work, you had a job."
Jataun Valentine and Navalette Baily - From Louisiana to Venice

With this influx in the Black population, housing became more and more scarce, overwhelming the already established communities and providing opportunities for real estate developers. Davenport Builders for instance, was a large developer that responded to the demand, with eyes on undeveloped land in Compton. What was once an all-white neighborhood in the 1940s quickly became an African American, middle-class dream where blue-collar laborers could enjoy suburbia away from the slums. These new housing developments provided better ways of life with more space for families to grow and live healthy.

Marie Hollis, an early Black homeowner in the Compton community, moved to Compton in the 1960s with her husband and small child. At that time other Black families were few and far between. In the video below, Hollis describes the quiet and spacious lifestyle Compton afforded for her family:

"The impressive part of the area was the size of the lots; very different from the regular tract homes you found in the area."
Marie Hollis - Farming in the 60's

This heyday of peaceful living, ownership, and pride in the Black community eventually faded as the influx of Blacks in Los Angeles threatened the perceived value of property for Caucasian homeowners. Racially restrictive covenants would soon become widespread and condense the growing Black population to South Los Angeles, and in that density grew gang violence, crime, and one of the most severe riots in the city's history.

Top: Photo from Shades of L.A. Collection, courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

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