You Can Hear Them a Mile Away: The Black Invasion of Los Angeles

By Fleetwood, Homer, II | Negro History Bulletin, January-December 2001 | Go to article overview

You Can Hear Them a Mile Away: The Black Invasion of Los Angeles


Fleetwood, Homer, II, Negro History Bulletin


In 1920 the African American population of Los Angeles was 15,579. By 1930 that number increased to 38,894. (1) These population figures in themselves do not represent a large number of people. To illustrate that fact, the total black population of Los Angeles in 1930 could only fill half the Los Angeles Coliseum before it was expanded for the 1932 Olympics. Yet this increase of nearly 125 percent in the African American population of Los Angeles during the decade of the 1920s was greater than the population increase of African Americans in any large city in the Western United States. (2)

This so called "black invasion" of Los Angeles, coupled with restrictive housing covenants and a limited job market became the primary demographic factors shaping the economic and political formation of black Los Angeles during the second decade of the twentieth century. (3) This paper addresses these three factors and the black community's coordinated response to attempted white domination.

The restrictions on property sales forced black residents into one narrow corridor containing approximately 80 percent of the city's black population, and by 1930 whites began to take increasingly larger numbers of traditional black jobs. The black response to white pressures was a proactive adaptation of the traditional church-based black mutual support network. Yet despite the growth of cooperative black economic and political power throughout the twenties, the Depression became a more potent adversary than white domination of the city's political economy. First organized as the Southern Counties Economic and Commercial League as "a politico-economic organization" which intended to use the combined political strength of African American voters in seven Southern California counties "to increase our economic opportunities," the League centered on two questions: the creation of an economic and political platform, and which political party to back in the upcoming election. The Economic and Commercial League grew during the summer and fall of 1932 and changed its name to the Economic, Commercial, and Political League of California with the intent of becoming the most influential black organization in the state,. However by the winter of 1932, the League, the most powerful African American economic and political organization ever to exist in the state of California, was derailed. (4)

In 1933 J. Max Bond interviewed a pioneer black Angeleno who said:

   When I came to Los Angeles, Negroes lived anywhere they could afford to
   live. Homes were rented to anyone who had money. The first colored
   neighborhood that I remember, however, was bounded by First and Vine
   Streets and Commercial and Banning Streets. A little later a group settled
   in Boyle Heights. Next, there was a group who moved to the Furlong Tract--a
   tract situated at Fifty-First and Central Avenue. In fact, the places where
   I have lived indicate the direction the city traveled, as far as Negroes
   are concerned. (5)

As this statement suggests, prior to the date of the interview there was a general leap frog-like spread of the black community southward. Certain conditions dictated the pace and direction of community growth.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, a significant number of black Angelenos made a conscious effort to avoid conforming to pervasive housing covenants. A 1904 article by Julius Loving in an early black newspaper, The Liberator, states that black Angelenos "have prudently refused to segregate themselves." Not all blacks lived as Julius Loving suggests. While some had enough money to live in any part of the city, limited resources restricted many to poorer neighborhoods. Local historians and sociologists suggest that the reason black Angelenos were not confined to certain housing areas prior to 1920 was because their numbers were relatively small and they thus were not perceived as a threat by white Angelenos. …

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