Chapter One: Paradise
In the tiny backyard of the Strawberry house at 6034
Seventh Avenue, a grapefruit tree produced an abundant harvest each
spring. Darryl and his four siblings -- two brothers, two sisters --
would pluck the fruit off the tree, peel the dimpled skin back, and
slurp it down right there in the yard. Then they would run back out on
the street or to the nearby park and resume playing ball, juice still
dripping from their faces.
Their house, in the middle of a block lined with tall
palm trees, looked like tens of thousands of other dwellings in
inner-city Los Angeles: a stucco-faced bungalow with three bedrooms, a
small kitchen and eating area, and a patch of green in front and back.
(The smallest of these types of houses came prefabricated from an outfit
called Pacific Ready-Cut Homes, and were sometimes referred to as
Most of the Strawberrys' neighbors also had at least
one fruit tree in the yard -- grapefruit, fig, avocado, orange -- along
with some shrubs and at least a modest patch of flowers. This was
typical of just about any neighborhood in Los Angeles; the city was
developed, above all, around the ideal that it should stand as a bucolic
alternative to New York and the other old cities back East -- that it
must never become just another teeming metropolis. And what better way
to make this point than to give even the poorest residents at least a
sliver of paradise?
"The poor live in single cottages, with dividing
fences and flowers in the frontyard, and oftentimes vegetables in the
backyard," Dana Bartlett reported in The Better City, which was
published in 1907. Bartlett observed that Los Angeles had some "slum
people," but "no slums in the sense of vicious, congested districts."
The Strawberrys had come up from Mississippi. The
Dillards, a whole family of plumbers back in Oklahoma -- fathers and
sons, cousins, in-laws -- migrated en masse to start life and business
anew in Southern California. The Browns made the pilgrimage from
Mississippi, the Whitings from Texas, the McWhorters from Alabama.
With just two exceptions, the families of the Boys of
Crenshaw all came from down South, post-World War II. In Los Angeles
they lived in single-family houses, rented in most cases. They drove
cars and had driveways. Most kept a little garden plot to grow
vegetables and greens.
The sense of roominess in Los Angeles, all the
attention given over to flora and natural beauty, was not a ruse, not
precisely. Much about Los Angeles really was superior to the crowded
cities of the East and Midwest, and still is. Even now, the common
reaction of a first-time visitor to L.A.'s inner city is to look around
at the greenery, the rosebushes, the purple-flowering jacaranda and
statuesque birds of paradise, and say: This is South Central?
But there was also something undeniably slippery about
the landscape; the whole L.A. experience seemed a violation of some
truth-in-packaging law. Historian Carey McWilliams seized on this in
Southern California: An Island on the Land, a 1946 book still
considered a standard text on the development of Los Angeles. McWilliams
wrote of the "extraordinary green of the lawns and hillsides," while
adding, "It was the kind of green that seemed as though it might rub off
on your hands; a theatrical green, a green that was not quite real."
It is not easy to keep in mind how young a city Los
Angeles still is, with its current tangle of freeways, its nearly four
million residents, and its dense concentrations of wealth, glamour, and
power. Its history begins in 1781, five years after the American
Revolution, when forty-four pioneers ventured north from the San Diego
area, at the direction of California's Spanish governor, to establish a
settlement on the banks of what is now called the Los Angeles River.
The land was exotic -- "a desert that faces an ocean,"
McWilliams called it -- as well as impractical. For its first century
and beyond, Los Angeles would have two great needs: water and people.
These were, of course, related; the city could only grow as it found new
sources of drinking water.
When California passed to Mexican control in 1821, the
population of the city was only about 1,200. It was still entirely
Spanish and Mexi-can in character, with the gentry consisting of the big
landholders, or rancheros, whose names still grace many of Los
Angeles's major thoroughfares.
California came under U.S. control in 1848, after the
Mexican-American War, and two years later became the thirty-first state.
The 1850 census counted 8,239 residents of Los Angeles, and the city was
still a couple of decades away from establishing police and fire
departments, or building a city hall and library.
A series of real estate deals -- or "land grabs," as
they have often been described -- brought much-needed water. Under the
direction of city water superintendent William Mulholland, snow melt
from the Sierra Nevada was captured from the Owens Valley, some 230
miles to the northeast, and sent flowing toward Los Angeles via aqueduct
beginning in 1913.
The job of populating the new city was as blunt an
undertaking as the land grabs. Railroad, real estate, and other business
interests aggressively marketed the region's natural beauty and
healthful living, selling Southern California as the once-in-a-lifetime
chance to remake oneself in a new land -- creating what came to be known
as the California Dream.
The Dream was certainly all true in its particulars.
Southern California was lovely, new, different. In what other American
city could you eat grapefruit right off the tree? You sure couldn't do
that in New York or Philadelphia, or anywhere in the vast midsection of
the nation from where California attracted so many of its new arrivals.
But right from the start, the dream was hyped way
beyond reality, sometimes comically so.
"California is our own; and it is the first tropical
land which our race has thoroughly mastered and made itself at home in,"
journalist and public relations man Charles Nordhoff wrote in
California: For Health, Pleasure and Residence -- A Book for Travellers
Commissioned by the Union Pacific Railroad and
published in 1872, Nordhoff's book was an early articulation of the
California Dream and a naked sales pitch to entice people to the
sparsely populated land. "There, and there only, on this planet," he
wrote of Southern California, "the traveller and resident may enjoy the
delights of the tropics, without their penalties; a mild climate, not
enervating, but healthful and health restoring; a wonderfully and
variously productive soil, without tropical malaria; the grandest
scenery, with perfect security and comfort in travelling arrangements;
strange customs, but neither lawlessness nor semi-barbarism."
Nordhoff and other promotional writers served to
"domesticate the image of Southern California," according to Kevin
Starr, the leading historian of the state. They sought to convince
would-be settlers that the land was inhabitable, and further, that it
afforded an unimagined ease -- allowing a farmer from the East, for
example, to reinvent himself as "a middle-class horticulturalist."
As the California Dream was refined and expanded over
the next half century, the public came to imagine the state as a
365-day-a-year vacation and spa -- with bathing and boating on the
coast, and golf, hiking, and polo inland. California represented the
seamless integration of work and play, the promise that life need not be
so crushing. Surfing was invented in Southern California, and so was the
new popular trend of suntanning. ("A new phenomenon, the deliberate
suntan, became a badge of beauty and health," Starr wrote.)
An early settler in Southern California, Horace Bell,
noted in his diaries that he found a land of "mixed essences" --
Mexicans, Indians, and Spaniards who were various shades of brown, red,
and white. What today we would call multicultural. But a lesser-known
element of the dream was the selling of the new land as a racially pure
haven: Southern California as an Anglo wonderland, the city of Los
Angeles as a refuge for a class of �ber-whites, a fresh start for those
smart enough and motivated enough to flee the immigrant-infested cities
of the East.
"New York receives a constant supply of the rudest,
least civilized European populations," Nordhoff wrote, "that of the
immigrants landed at Castle Garden, the neediest, the least thrifty and
energetic, and the most vicious remain in New York, while the ablest and
most valuable fly rapidly westward."
Nordhoff and other like-minded writers helped
establish an intellectual foundation for hatred and bias, and this
peculiar strain of racism was not confined to journalists for hire. Much
of the new city's elite, including its academic elite, believed in and
propagated these theories.
Joseph Pomeroy Widney, a former dean of the medical
school at the University of Southern California, published Race Life
of the Aryan Peoples in 1907, in which he argued that the people of
Southern California, enhanced by their exposure to the sun and toughened
by their conquering and taming of the frontier, constituted a new
superrace. He called this blessed tribe the Engle people, a
variation of Anglo. He urged the city's business leaders to be "the
first captains in the race war."
Robert Millikan, a former president of the California
Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the winner of the Nobel Prize in
Physics in 1923, was another proponent of the philosophy (such as it
was) that Southern California stood as a bulwark of racial purity. He
argued that Southern California was "as England [was] two hundred years
ago, the Westernmost outpost of Nordic civilization."
The Los Angeles historian Mike Davis has written that
the city in the early part of the twentieth century "distinguished
itself as a national, even world center of Aryan revival in contrast to
the immigrant dominated industrial cities of the East."
The hypocrisy and ludicrousness of this, in a region
filled with brown-skinned people -- and with major streets named for
Francisco Sepulveda, Andres Pico, and other rancheros -- was
somehow overlooked. Millikan even urged that Los Angeles rebuff Italians
and other ethnic Europeans who might want to resettle from the cities
back East, as the city had the "exceptional opportunity" to be "twice as
Anglo-Saxon" as any other great U.S. city.
The architecture and emerging lifestyle of Los
Angeles, meanwhile, were nothing if not Mediterranean. As Davis, the
historian, wrote: "Southern California, in other words, was [to be] a
Mediterranean land without any pesty Mediterranean immigrants to cause
It is doubtful that anyone of any class or color, who emigrated in any
decade, would say that Charles Nordhoff's California -- the tropical
land that was restorative and never "enervating," that had "strange
customs" but no lawlessness -- is what they discovered upon arrival. But
this vision of paradise was especially far from the Southern California
of the Boys of Crenshaw.
Blacks began arriving in the L.A. area early in the
twentieth century, in trickles at first. They came for the same reasons
as other migrants: a fresh start, a conviction that they would find
something better than what they left behind.
Some were lured by the chamber of commerce-packaged
dream, the booster copy produced by Nordhoff and his heirs. (Although
not, of course, by the tracts recommending California as an Aryan
refuge.) Many others were attracted by entreaties from relatives who had
already moved there, newcomers to California who sold the state with the
zeal of religious converts.
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In 1920, Mallie McGriff Robinson, the daughter of
freed slaves, was living as a tenant on a plantation in rural Georgia
with her five children. Her philandering husband had moved out. A woman
of energy, ambition, and, by the norms of her time, an advanced
education -- sixth grade -- she was not content to raise her children
where they had no prospects for bettering their lives.
On May 21, 1920, she loaded her possessions and her
family into a buggy and headed for the train station in Cairo, Georgia,
near the Florida state line. The youngest of her children, just eighteen
months old, was Jack -- Jackie Robinson -- the future baseball star,
soon to become a child of Southern California.
In his 1997 biography of Jackie Robinson, Arnold
Rampersad recounts how the Robinsons came to point themselves west. The
story is in many ways the classic tale of westward migration: California
as the bailout from a hopeless situation, the land of rebirth and
"A way out for Mallie came with a visit to Grady
County by Burton Thomas, her half brother, who had emigrated to Southern
California," Rampersad wrote. "Elegantly garbed and exuding an air of
settled prosperity, Burton expounded to one and all on the wonders of
the West. 'If you want to get closer to heaven,' he liked to brag,
That first small wave of blacks who came to Los
Angeles did find greater opportunity than they had left behind. With the
city still thinly settled, people with skills and energy were
desperately needed, and initiative could pay off regardless of your skin
color. One black man at the turn of the century worked his way up from
ranch hand to real estate speculator and was said to be worth $1
million. Blacks earned far better wages than they could down South.
Their neighborhoods were planted, just like those of the white folks,
with tall palms, cypress and pepper trees, and all sorts of other flora
imported from Europe and South America.
Mallie Robinson settled her family in Pasadena, just
north of Los Angeles. On the day she arrived, she wrote to relatives
back in Georgia that seeing California for the first time was "the most
beautiful sight of my whole life."
She got work as a domestic -- working hard, nights and
days -- and was rewarded for it, ultimately owning not only her own home
but two others on her street.
Her son Jackie starred in five sports at racially
integrated Pasadena High, becoming the greatest athlete ever at a school
with a long history of sports excellence. But even as he brought
championships and glory to his town, he had to stand outside the fence
at the municipal pool while his teammates splashed in water he wasn't
allowed to enter. At many Los Angeles-area public pools, blacks were
barred from swimming on all but one day of the year -- the day before
the pool was drained.
The city of Pasadena had no black cops and no black
city employees of any kind, not even a janitor. Several incidents during
Jackie Robinson's youth left him feeling harassed by the Pasadena
police. The barely concealed anger that the nation's baseball fans would
see when he reached the big leagues was first seared into him in
Southern California, by what Davis has called "the psychotic dynamics of
racism in the land of sunshine."
The end of World War I in 1918 actually made life
worse for L.A.'s black residents. Tens of thousands of returning
veterans needed work, and blacks, whose labor had been prized, were the
first to be sent off the job. This, combined with an influx of white
migrants from the South, made L.A. begin to feel uncomfortably like
Alabama. The coastal towns made their beaches whites-only. A private bus
company put out a flyer urging that blacks not be allowed to ride "so
your wife and daughter are not compelled to stand up while Negro men and
women sit down."
The population of Los Angeles doubled in the 1920s,
from 577,000 to nearly 1.25 million residents. Hughes Aircraft and other
aircraft manufacturers set up headquarters in the region, which combined
with the proximity of engineers at the California Institute of
Technology to make L.A. the nation's aviation capital. But only in boom
times were non-whites hired for those good factory jobs.
A pattern took hold, which persists to this day, of
blacks in Los Angeles getting shunted to the bottom rung as other newly
arrived ethnic groups stepped over them. "Even the seeming
inapproachable shoe-shining field was competed for by Greeks," noted
researchers from the Federal Writers Project when they conducted
interviews in the L.A. ghetto in the 1930s. "Trained English butlers
succeeded them as valets and butlers....In 1922, the employment
situation was alleviated somewhat, especially for those who sought
domestic employment. A larger percentage of Southern whites coming to
live in Los Angeles preferred Negro servants, resulting in an increase
in domestic jobs, such as cooks, laundresses and private maids."
In Hollywood, blacks were part of the background,
obtainable on short notice and at bargain rates. Their place in the
movies paralleled their status in real life: useful when called upon,
but otherwise easily ignored. "Negroes have been employed in the motion
picture industry for a number of years," the Federal Writers Project
reported. "The major portion of these have been and still are employed
as extras to create atmosphere in jungle, South Seas island and South
American scenes as natives, warriors, etc." Lon Chaney, the silent film
star, used two hundred black extras in the 1926 movie Road to
Mandalay, and praised their utility and adaptability: "You can pull
any one of them out of the mob and they can act. It is only a matter of
makeup and costume to create anything from a Chinaman to an Eskimo. They
require no interpreters and are always available in large number."
In the early 1930s, Los Angeles County began deporting
tens of thousands of Mexican nationals who came to be known as
repatriados. The gentry continued to anglicize the area, to try to
make L.A. a white man's land and, to the extent possible, make it seem
like it had always been so. In 1932 alone, an estimated 11,000
repatriados were sent south by the trainload and truckload, carting
with them, according to one account, half-opened suitcases, children,
dogs, cats, and goats. The deportations, which Starr called "ethnic
cleansing," were hardly a good omen for future nonwhite arrivals.
Blacks began arriving in Southern California in large
numbers from the South in the years around World War II. No one had
suggested they come west to recline or even to farm the fertile soil;
they came as part of a huge black migration that coincided with the need
for assembly-line workers in the aircraft and defense industries.
As part of this great migration, the Southern Pacific
Railroad began importing huge numbers from the South -- 400 arrivals a
day at the peak; 12,000 new black migrants just in June 1943; at least
100,000 up from the South between 1940 and 1950. Nearly all of them
crammed into Watts and a couple of adjacent neighborhoods east of Main
Street. Los Angeles sprawled like no other U.S. city, with wide expanses
of undeveloped land and virtual wildernesses spread out across some five
hundred square miles. Most blacks lived in a five-square-mile enclave on
the east side.
Whites had started to move out of the city center and
up onto the hillsides by the 1920s, including the new communities of
Hollywood and Bel Air. But blacks stayed put in the basins, because by
this time 95 percent of all housing stock in the Los Angeles area was
subject to deed restrictions and covenants prohibiting sale or lease to
black families. Emerging communities in the San Fernando Valley enacted
similar restrictions, assuring that blacks would be hemmed in on all
The new black migrants were citizens, but except for
that it can't be said they had any greater standing than the
repatriados. After World War II ended and the labor market again
swelled with returning veterans, the old pattern was repeated: blacks
were thrown out of work or relegated to lower-status jobs, and even
returning black GIs found that their combat had not won them opportunity
or rights. Peace and prosperity, the comfort felt by the wider white
society, had the opposite effect on blacks in L.A.: The less they were
needed, the more discrimination they felt.
A middle-aged black worker from that era told author
Keith Collins: "One day I was well on my way to being an airline
mechanic and the next day I was well on my way to becoming a custodian
in the tool shop. In a very short period I went from a position which
required expert knowledge in the use of tools to a position which
required only that I knew how to properly clean and display them. I felt
as if my manhood had been deposed. I felt cheated or tricked and did not
know how to fight back."
Hatred and racial bias don't lend themselves to
measurement and comparison. Where was it worse, in Chicago, Detroit, or
Los Angeles? Was the Jim Crow South, or even slavery, in some ways
better than the mix of poverty and rootlessness of the Northern cities?
It is impossible to say. What matters is how it felt, how it was
received. And for many newly arrived black citizens, racism as practiced
in Los Angeles felt trickier than what they had experienced elsewhere --
in some way crueler, perhaps because it was so unexpected to encounter
this dark underside on so beautiful a landscape. In the South, racism
was something you were born to, a permanent and inevitable state of
affairs. In L.A., it felt more like a blindside punch to the jaw.
Chester Himes, a postwar black novelist who moved to
Los Angeles at age thirty-one, wrote in his autobiography: "I had lived
in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out
of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had
survived the humiliating last five years of the Depression in Cleveland,
and still I was entire, complete, functional....But under the mental
corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I had become bitter and
saturated with hate."
Blacks never stopped migrating to L.A. They came in good times and bad,
when jobs were plentiful and when they weren't. They came for the
climate. The perceived glamour. The knowledge that life where they were
living was fixed and the hope that out west, it might be transformed.
They came, in other words, for the same old reason:
The California Dream.
By the time the members of that 1979 Crenshaw High
team were born, in the early 1960s, on-the-books discrimination was
starting to disappear. Civil rights legislation over the next decade
would erase most of the rest of it.
But L.A. was still a tease. Unlike in the hopeless
South, a black man or woman in Los Angeles could see the dream of a
better life; it had a shape, it lived in the next neighborhood over, or
maybe two neighborhoods over. But the Dream demanded a higher rent. It
meant banking, say, 20 percent of your weekly salary for a whole year,
and hoping no emergencies came up in the meantime. And even if you moved
fast, the Dream moved faster. If by chance you got close enough to grab
ahold of it, you stood a good chance of falling into some kind of hole
just as you made your final reach.
The parents of the McNealy twins tell the classic L.A.
story: They worked as if on a treadmill, running hard without making
much forward progress.
"I worked nine a.m. to midnight some days, doing
hair," Dorothy McNealy says. "I had a shop on Fairfax, it was called D's
and Things. I had clothes, accessories, everything. And then I had a
couple other shops after that one. But you know how it is. You work and
you work and you work, and you think something is going to come of it,
but it doesn't. You just workin', after a while, to keep up with the
Her husband, Napoleon, says: "The boys raised
themselves up playing ball. I didn't get to see them play but maybe just
once. I was too busy working. I was into construction, carpentry, I was
trying to be an entrepreneur. I had a little janitorial service I was
trying to build up.
"At one time, we were able to move to Inglewood. But
you know, every time you move, you gotta pay a little more security, a
little more rent, and it's hard to keep up. You're happy when you get
into a better situation, but in a way it's more pressure on you. And
then, sometimes, your health kind of catches up with you from all that
stress and strain -- it wears you down."
The Boys of Crenshaw were not raised in Charles
Nordhoff's L.A. -- the land of ease -- but in the L.A. of novelist
Walter Mosley, where the men are exhausted and embittered but also, in a
distinctly California way, ever hopeful. "California was like heaven for
the southern Negro," Mosley's character Easy Rawlins observes in
Devil in a Blue Dress. "People told stories of how you could eat
fruit right off the trees and get enough work to retire one day. The
stories were true for the most part but the truth wasn't like the dream.
Life was still hard in L.A. and if you worked hard every day you still
found yourself on the bottom."
Easy later observes: "The poorest man has a car in Los
Angeles; he might not have a roof over his head but he has a car. And he
knows where he's going, too. In Houston and Galveston, and way down in
Louisiana, life was a little more aimless. People worked a little job
but they couldn't make any real money no matter what they did. But in
Los Angeles you could make a hundred dollars in a week if you pushed.
The promise of getting rich pushed people to work two jobs in the week
and do a little plumbing on the weekend. There's no time to walk down
the street or make a bar-b-q when somebody's going to pay you real money
to haul refrigerators."
This was the city inhabited by the Boys of Crenshaw.
Generations of people perpetually winded from running hard to chase
something they couldn't quite catch. A whole culture that felt duped,
lured west under false pretenses. Their parents, a half-generation
younger than Jackie Robinson, had experienced his Southern California --
only without his personal resources, his ability to emerge triumphant.
Copyright ?2004 by Michael Y.