Making Black Los Angeles: Class, Gender, and Community, 1850 -- 1917

Making Black Los Angeles: Class, Gender, and Community, 1850 -- 1917

Making Black Los Angeles: Class, Gender, and Community, 1850 -- 1917

Making Black Los Angeles: Class, Gender, and Community, 1850 -- 1917


Drawing from an extensive database of all African American households between 1850 and 1910, Campbell vividly tells the story of how middle-class African Americans were able to live, work, and establish a community of their own in the growing city of Los Angeles.

Black Los Angeles started small. The first census of the newly formed Los Angeles County in 1850 recorded only twelve Americans of African descent alongside a population of more than 3,500 Anglo Americans. Over the following seventy years, however, the African American founding families of Los Angeles forged a vibrant community within the increasingly segregated and stratified city. In this book, historian Marne L. Campbell examines the intersections of race, class, and gender to produce a social history of community formation and cultural expression in Los Angeles. Expanding on the traditional narrative of middle-class uplift, Campbell demonstrates that the black working class, largely through the efforts of women, fought to secure their own economic and social freedom by forging communal bonds with black elites and other communities of color. This women-led, black working-class agency and cross-racial community building, Campbell argues, was markedly more successful in Los Angeles than in any other region in the country.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, two of the most prominent African American leaders, W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, visited California. Washington visited twice, in 1903 and in 1914. Du Bois traveled to the state in 1913, and wrote extensively about Los Angeles in his Crisis Magazine’s volume entitled, “Colored California.” He believed that the city offered more to African Americans than any other region of the country. Du Bois wrote, “One never forgets Los Angeles and Pasadena: the sensuous beauty of roses and orange blossoms, the air and the sunlight and the hospitality of all its races linger on.”

Du Bois described Los Angeles as possessing “sensuous beauty,” with wonderful weather and climate that extended to its inhabitants. He noted the African American community’s efforts in the local economy, their beautiful houses, and the ways in which they worked with other communities of color. Du Bois also believed black Angelenos worked well with one another to create opportunities for themselves and for their community as a whole. African Americans in Los Angeles, Du Bois concluded, challenged their oppressive circumstances and overcame adversity better than any other city in California.

Booker T. Washington also toured California, making his second trip a year after Du Bois’s visit. Unlike Du Bois, however, Washington did not publish his observations about Los Angeles or the west. Washington visited with wealthy Black Angelenos, spoke at several churches, addressed the “colored” YMCA, several women’s clubs, and attended dinner with most of the people who hosted W. E. B. Du Bois one year before.

During both of his visits to Los Angeles, Washington was impressed with the accomplishments of African Americans and the treatment he received. He appreciated the ways in which black Angelenos managed their own businesses, their churches, and their ability to secure property. Perhaps the only thing he was more impressed by was the idle gossip of one dinner party at the home of one of the wealthiest African Americans in the west, Robert C. Owens, who also hosted W. E. B. Du Bois. Washington said, “It seems he made a perfect fool of himself by . . .

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