If the streets on these mundane-looking sheets could speak they would tell many a tale involving black history in Los Angeles. As February is Black History Month, it is a good time to learn about Biddy Mason, the Apostolic Faith Mission, the Azusa Street Revival, and the rise and fall of Bronzeville.
The neighborhood seen here is presently Little Tokyo (more or less), but it has experienced several cultural shifts since the area was settled back in the 19th century. Biddy Mason was an ex-slave who came to Los Angeles after escaping Mississippi, travelling to Illinois, and heading west with the Mormon battalion. She was bi-lingual and prospered as a nurse/midwife, finally saving the large sum of $250 to buy property on Spring Street. As such, she became one of the first African-Americans to own land in the city. Later she would buy land along Azusa Street (seen here on sheet 161) while selling to other black families, thus creating the first all-black street in L.A.
Biddy, otherwise known as Grandma Mason, was one of the founders of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, which held its services on the land she donated on Spring Street (site Biddy Mason Park today). The charismatic William Seymour eventually took over the old church on Azusa in 1906 and renamed it the Apostolic Faith Mission, where all races were invited and accepted; As many as 1,500 followers would cram into the wooden structure, whose ceilings were just eight feet high. The Azusa Street Revival at 312 Azusa Street is considered the birthplace of the Pentecostal movement and was widely known throughout the country for its unorthodox and emotional expressions of spirituality. The church continued, but the old building fell into disrepair by the late teens and was torn down in the 1930s.
The next chapter of the neighborhood’s history begins with the dramatic influx of black workers who flooded Los Angeles to work in the war effort during the 1940s. Thousands of black families relocated from places like Texas and Louisiana seeking good jobs out west, but housing was scarce due to racial covenants on real estate in the city. In February of 1942, Executive Order 9060 displaced L.A.’s sizeable Japanese community and sent its members off to internment camps, which in turn created somewhat of a ghost town; Black families reluctantly seized the opportunity to settle down because of low rents and a lack of alternatives.
It has been estimated that somewhere between 25,000 and 80,000 black Angelenos filled the old Little Tokyo, which was renamed Bronzeville by local landlords who were ready to make their own profits. Conditions were poor, and there was extreme overcrowding, which in some cases saw 16 people living in one-room apartments (with a single bathroom shared by up to 40 residents). Despite the terrible conditions, progress was made: A non-discriminatory job market, actions by the local authorities, and small advances in civil rights carried the new black community forward, and the old Miyako Hotel at 1st and San Pedro (sheet 162) became the Civic Hotel, where legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker stayed and had his well-documented streaking-through-the-lobby meltdown.
At the end of World War II, however, there was a great dilemma: Many Japanese families were released from internment camps only to find that their former homes had been taken by the new arrivals. In such a time the black community showed great character. Leading the charge were several columnists at the California Eagle newspaper, who expressed solidarity with the oppressed Japanese minority and did not fight their return to Little Tokyo.
Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.