Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America

Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America

Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America

Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America


Paul Bontemps decided to move his family to Los Angeles from Louisiana in 1906 on the day he finally submitted to a strictly enforced Southern custom--he stepped off the sidewalk to allow white men who had just insulted him to pass by. Friends of the Bontemps family, like many others beckoning their loved ones West, had written that Los Angeles was "a city called heaven" for people of color. But just how free was Southern California for African Americans?

This splendid history, at once sweeping in its historical reach and intimate in its evocation of everyday life, is the first full account of Los Angeles's black community in the half century before World War II. Filled with moving human drama, it brings alive a time and place largely ignored by historians until now, detailing African American community life and political activism during the city's transformation from small town to sprawling metropolis.

Writing with a novelist's sensitivity to language and drawing from fresh historical research, Douglas Flamming takes us from Reconstruction to the Jim Crow era, through the Great Migration, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the build-up to World War II. Along the way, he offers rich descriptions of the community and its middle-class leadership, the women who were front and center with men in the battle against racism in the American West.

In addition to drawing a vivid portrait of a little-known era, Flamming shows that the history of race in Los Angeles is crucial for our understanding of race in America. The civil rights activism in Los Angeles laid the foundation for critical developments in the second half of the century that continue to influence us to this day.


Think about American freedom. What does freedom mean? Who gets to be free, and why? When people are not free, how do they get free? When they are free, how do they stay that way? For centuries, Americans from all walks of life have debated and fought over the answers to these questions, and the results of those conflicts have shaped who we are, as a people and a nation. Long after you finish reading this book, I hope you will continue to think about freedom in the United States. That, in the largest sense, has been my aim in writing it.

But sweeping questions do not make the best starting point for a study of freedom, for the very notion of freedom is a topic of enormous breadth and complexity, encompassing an entire universe of theoretical conundrums. Somehow, I can’t get at it by starting with the big picture. I get lost in the abstractions. My historical research has always gravitated toward what is local and concrete. I’ve been drawn to the neighborhood, the corner store, the church pew, the city council. I have always wanted to understand how real people at the corner of First and Main saw their world. In my approach to this book, then, I almost instinctively looked away from the universe of ideas inherent to “freedom” and tried to see how one group of people tried to get free in a particular place and time: the African American community of Los Angeles, California, in the half century before World War II—a period of vital importance to American race relations and the urban West.

The story of this community is fascinating in its own right, but I would suggest that it also sheds light on the continuing dilemmas about race and freedom in America. It is fascinating because the city and its people were, in the first half of the twentieth century, caught up in a unique drama. It is instructive because Los Angeles then was what most cities in the United States are now: a sprawling, multiracial place where the rules of the game and the hierarchies of power seemed always in flux. When boosters in the . . .

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