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Monomania L.A.: Kent Kirkton and Images of Black L.A.

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Through a series of short films and articles, Monomania L.A. profiles five L.A. as Subject collectors who have turned a monomaniacal obsession with a particular aspect of Southern California history into a public resource. These collectors have documented disparate subjects -- the California orange, sci-fi reading circles, political graphics, a Mexican rancho, African American photographers -- but their stories share one thing in common: a passion for history that has enriched our understanding of Southern California's past.

Spend one day browsing through the photo morgue of the Los Angeles Times or Herald-Examiner, and you'll see one city. Spend the next with Kent Kirkton at CSUN's Tom and Ethel Bradley Center, and you'll see another.

Kirkton has spent decades bringing the collections of African-American photographers under one roof. A longtime journalism professor at CSUN, Kirkon started collecting when, in the course of researching an academic paper about the alternative press, he realized he couldn't find any images from Southern California's African-American newspapers in the region's major archives.

"I thought to myself--it's amazing the extent to which the ethnic communities in this city are undocumented in the institutional holdings," he said.

Since then, he has amassed some 850,000 images, many of them taken by freelancers for African-American-run newspapers like the Los Angeles Sentinel and California Eagle. These photographs tell a different story than those produced by the mainstream press.

"[The photographers'] membership in the community leads them to have a different perspective on the people they're photographing than the big metropolitan paper that drops into the community occasionally to cover a crime or some other circumstance," Kirkton told us.

It's not that publications like the Times or Herald-Examiner completely ignored the city's African-American population. Rather, historically, they under-represented and sometimes mis-represented the community.

As an example, Kirkton points to coverage of the May 26, 1963, Freedom Rally at L.A.'s own Wrigley Field (the longtime home of the Los Angeles Angels). More than 35,000 people filled the ballpark's seats to hear from such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy, as well as Hollywood luminaries like Paul Newman and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Photos from the Bradley Center's collection depict the rally as a smashing success: smiling faces, garbage bags stuffed with cash donations, and a general mood of solidarity.

There was one disruption, when a student tried to grab the microphone, claiming to have a letter from then-Governor Pat Brown. Private security guards dragged him away.

"That was the photograph that the Los Angeles Times used," Kirkton said.

Kirkton's collection has become an essential resource for anyone researching the history of African-Americans in Los Angeles. Now, like several other collectors we profiled as part of Monomania L.A., Kirkton has been thinking about the future. He has brought in a research historian, Keith Rice, to conduct oral history interviews and add important historical context to the materials in the collection. And recently, he and CSUN forged a partnership with the Tom and Ethel Bradley Foundation that gave the center--formerly known as the Institute for Arts and Media--its new name.

Kirkton may be eying his own retirement, but he plans for his collection to continue to grow under a new steward. With support from the Bradley Foundation, Kirkton is broadening his collection policy to include the story of other Los Angeles ethnic communities.

"Our goal here is to make this a major national research center," Kirkton said. "If [researchers] are interested in Los Angeles or various ethnic communities in Los Angeles, it will soon be clear that this is the place for them to do their research."

All images courtesy of the Tom and Ethel Bradley Center, California State University, Northridge.




This project was made possible with support from Cal Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit http://www.calhum.org.

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