Departures is KCET's oral history and interactive documentary project that thoroughly explores neighborhoods through the people that live there. In January, SoCal Focus is taking you through the Richland Farms series one day at a time.
Editor's note: The article has been updated to remove a reference to Ellis Cooke as a white man based on confirmation from his daughter.
When Ellis Cooke moved to Compton in 1962, it was a time when whites and blacks peacefully coexisted. That, however, was a very unique sandwiched-in period for the city. Before the courts struck down racially restrictive covenants--deeds that prohibited blacks and other races from living on a property--in 1948, Compton was white. Really white.
"It's difficult to overstate how white Compton was in the early 50s and late 40s--exclusively white with an extraordinary web of racially restrictive covenants with a very aggressive policing strategy about keeping black people out," explained historian Josh Sides, the director of the Center for Southern California Studies at CSU Northridge. "There was no more effective tool in 20th America than the racially restrictive covenant in terms of keeping neighborhoods white, and Compton was not unique in its application of covenants. There were very few neighborhoods in Los Angeles or Southern California generally in which there was not a restrictive web of covenants established. So in that regard, Compton is unexceptional, but the virulence and the violence in which the Comptonites protected the whiteness of their neighborhood was much more acute than you would have found in the city of Los Angeles for example."
Covenants across the country began in the late 1910s and early 1920s in response to the increasing black population in American cities, namely Northern and Western ones that saw the rise during World War I during the so-called great migration from the South. In Los Angeles, however, the move of African Americans was slow until World War II. Still, that slow growth in the 1920s was enough for white homeowners to become concerned about declining property values because of the black influx.
"There's a curious thing about this and that is this: whites believe then, and I think now, that the arrival of black people in their neighborhood will lower property values," said Sides. "And the really troubling reality is, that that is true. The arrival of black people does usually lower property values, but not, of course, because of any material difference, but simply because real estate is all about perception. In fact, if you looked at the FHA--Federal Housing Administration--studies during World War II, they actually found that blacks defaulted at a lower rate on their mortgage than whites did. But it doesn't really matter."
Sides continued: "[The FHA] even had an anecdotal study in L.A. that was kind of colorful that talked about the extent to which blacks planted more flowers and maintained their gardens in better condition than whites did, but, of course, real estate is never really about true value, it's about perceptual value. And in this case, the perception that blacks would lower value meant that in reality, the values did decline. And so white paranoia about that decline, even when whites did not think of themselves as racists. In fact, in L.A., they really distanced themselves from that sort of malicious Southern racism, but, of course, whether they were racists or not was sort of immaterial because they entered into an agreement that kept blacks out of their neighborhoods, and they defended those agreements very vehemently."
When the legality of racially restrictive covenants was destroyed, white developers with the primary goal of turning a profit looked to creating affordable housing for aspiring middle-class African Americans who wanted to move to Compton. And in 1952 with a series of new developments, the demographics change almost overnight. "There's a moment in time, which as a historian to me I find so interesting because it was really kind of a window of opportunity, where blacks and whites coexisted quite peacefully in Compton" from the early 1950s to the Watts riots of 1965, said Sides.
During that time, the landscape, physically speaking, was also considerably different. "We had a lot of open space to do horseback riding at that time," Cooke said, reminiscing about his five-hour morning rides. He even knew people who could ride to Pasadena and back.
The Departures Richland Farms series is broken down into two parts as interactive murals: The Past and The Present. The above information is based on The Past's fourth mural hotspot, where two additional video interviews with Cooke and another resident, Marie Hollis, can be found. Additionally, a photo slide show, " From the South to Compton," can be viewed there.