SUN VILLAGE : Black Enclave Withers Amid Antelope Boom

Times Staff Writer

The pioneers of Sun Village, a small black community founded 40 years ago in the Antelope Valley, tell of struggle, hope and change.

Their stories in some ways evoke the shifting ethnic and racial landscapes of urban America. It has unfolded, however, in a corner of barren desert where Joshua trees claw at the sky.

Sun Village's founders bought unfinished homes and completed them by hand, drove over mud roads to blue-collar jobs and lobbied Los Angeles County officials for services that would build an idea in the desert into a decent place to live.

The eastern Antelope Valley has become the bustling frontier of a housing and population surge that has turned Palmdale and Lancaster into 1980s' boom towns.

Fading Amid Growth

But the pioneers have watched Sun Village fade amid the growth, the black population shrinking from its peak of 2,000 in the 1960s to 500 today. The shops and bars that once formed a small center of town at 90th Street East and Palmdale Boulevard are boarded up.

Longtime residents discuss the influx of newcomers with emotions ranging from resentment to acceptance. They see signs of hope, and they cherish the institutions that endure--the Chamber of Commerce, a women's club, churches clustered on the prairie, a park named after another pioneer--baseball star Jackie Robinson.

As far as the U. S. Postal Service and many others are concerned, Sun Village does not exist. The area is considered a neighborhood in the northern part of unincorporated Littlerock, a longtime agricultural community.

Narcissa Homes has built 500 homes in Sun Village since 1984 and is building about 200 more. But Richard Deebs, a manager at the firm, said he had never heard of Sun Village.

"I think it's a dying name," he said.

Ethnically Mixed Area

He called the community Littlerock and described it as an attractive, ethnically mixed area where ranch-style homes on one-acre lots sell for between $120,000 and $160,000, double the price of three years ago.

Nelloice Gatson is director of the still-active Sun Village Chamber of Commerce, which administers youth employment, food distribution and home rehabilitation programs through a contract with the county. She said the Sun Village she knew is a dying community.

"A lot of the older people who helped build this place are dead and gone," she said. "The younger people have decided there was nothing here for them."

But Gatson and others said the name of Sun Village and all that it symbolizes should be preserved.

Bernice Sims, who came to the area in 1962 and works as a supervisor at Jackie Robinson Park, said some of the early residents believe that their efforts to make the area livable are taken for granted.

"People are proud of Sun Village," she said. "Some of them feel one day it will be taken away from them."

Principal Founder

Melvin Ray Grubbs, a black lawyer-turned-real estate agent from Chicago's South Side, was the community's principal founder. He came to California in the 1940s and joined forces with a white family named Marble, who owned Sun Village Land Corp. The company owned 1,000 acres occupied mainly by Joshua trees, jack rabbits and snakes.

Grubbs' widow, Cleo Ward, was reluctant to give up her job as an insurance agent in South Los Angeles, but she moved anyway.

"I cried for two years" after the move, said Ward, 81, who lives in Palmdale. "He was a man of great perspective. He would say, 'You'll get used to it.' He loved it. He said one day the desert would bloom like a rose."

With Grubbs in charge of sales, the Marbles became perhaps the first landowners in the Antelope Valley to sell to blacks.

"Blacks couldn't live in Palmdale," recalled William Shaw, president of the Sun Village Chamber of Commerce and former superintendent of the nearby Wilsona School District, who came to Sun Village in 1957. Palmdale residents "would tell you that directly to your face."

Some pioneers were drawn by advertisements broadcast in Los Angeles on Hunter Hancock's popular rhythm-and-blues radio show. Others came for health reasons. Daisy Lee Mothershed Gibson came because her daughter suffered from asthma.

Gibson, a former comedian and actress who worked on radio and had bit parts in "Gone With the Wind" and "Jezebel," became one of the neighborhood's best-known leaders. At 77, Gibson exudes energy, charm and a calculated flamboyance. A new Sun Village school was recently named for Gibson to honor her community work.

Gibson's husband, Oscar, was the first black man to work at the Shopping Bag grocery market in Lancaster, commuting from Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. He drove two hours in each direction for several years. In 1959, the Gibsons moved into a new house on a dirt road named Avenue S.

"Watts was getting tough, sugar," she said. "You couldn't hang your laundry out to dry; it would disappear."

Residents generally agree that Sun Village is bounded by Avenue Q on the north, 132nd Street on the east, Avenue T (some say Avenue S) on the south and 81st East and 75th streets on the west.

In the early years, some residents worked at Edwards Air Force Base or nearby aerospace firms. Many residents were older and lived on fixed incomes. Board-and-care homes for the elderly or handicapped proliferated. Some were respectable, others unlicensed and unscrupulously run.

The racial climate outside the community, like the desert's harsh physical climate, was less than perfect.

"Some of the older whites and older blacks had the same old Mississippi ideas," said the Rev. Henry Hearns, 56, a sharecropper's son from Mississippi who for 24 years has been pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church on 100th Street East. Hearns, also chief environmental engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, designed the church, which was built in 1975.

Another longtime resident, who worked at North American Aviation, the forerunner of Rockwell International, recalled an unpleasant ritual: County sheriff's deputies would stop and search his car regularly on Palmdale Boulevard as he headed for a midnight maintenance shift.

In the 1960s, activists such as Grubbs, Gibson, Hearns and the Rev. Robert Joseph pressured then-County Supervisor Warren Dorn to pave dirt roads that were impassable in snow and rain, to install street lights and fire hydrants, and to build a park that would become a symbol of the community.

Dorn had grown up with Jackie Robinson in Pasadena, and he agreed with residents that naming the park after the first black baseball player in the major leagues would be fitting. Robinson attended the ceremonies in 1964. A plaque was unveiled that said Robinson would be remembered not only as an athlete but "as the proud crusader against pompous bigots and timid sentinels of the status quo--as the symbol of a new Negro American."

The Sun Village Chamber of Commerce was another product of community activism. The businesses along Palmdale Boulevard and 90th Street included a market, a barber and beauty shop, clothing and furniture stores, a pool hall and "juke joints" offering liquor and music.

But a younger generation saw little future there and drifted away. "It was hard to find jobs," Gatson said. "They went to places where they could survive."

Sheriff's Deputy Carl Thomas, who grew up in the area and who works with Antelope Valley street gangs, remembers his parents forbidding him to go to the business district because it had a rough reputation.

But residents said that overall Sun Village had remained largely free of crime until the past three years, when gang and drug problems have spread throughout the valley.

"You used to be able to leave your door open," Gatson said. "We didn't ever have graffiti until the past couple of years."

Sun Village's transition accelerated in the 1980s. Residents said change has brought occasional pains, such as the tension between young whites, blacks and Latinos that has flared intermittently at Jackie Robinson Park. New and old residents have also reacted differently to the area's board-and-care homes, whose wandering residents draw complaints from new, young families seeking rural tranquility.

Longtime residents agree that some homes have not been well-run, as shown by a recent state and county crackdown on unlicensed facilities. But some say the homes have been accepted partly because they were one of the few ways to earn a living in Sun Village.

During the past several years, Sun Village has been a focus for protests against alleged bias and harassment of blacks in the Antelope Valley.

One case that caused an outcry involved Ava Casey Brown, a Sun Village woman with no previous criminal record who was sentenced in 1987 to five years in prison for forcing her daughter's car off the road during a car chase, injuring a teen-age passenger. A state appellate court ruled her sentence was too harsh and ordered her release after nine months.

Sun Village residents also protested the death of a black woman transient armed with a butcher knife who in April was shot 18 times by deputies at a Lancaster fast-food restaurant.

Hearns, who has worked to smooth relations between the Sheriff's Department and the community over the years, called that shooting "totally unwarranted."

But he expressed strong support for the Sheriff's Department and said he does not believe that there is a racial problem in the Antelope Valley.

Hearns' church, which began with 30 members in the 1950s, has nearly 1,000 members and continues to thrive despite Sun Village's shrinking black population.

"There is life here; there is energy here," Hearns said as a gospel group rocked the adjoining chapel.

Hearns' parishioners come from all over the Antelope Valley, where the black population has increased from 3% to at least 5% since 1980, according to county statistics. Hearns said Sun Village has changed partly because blacks can now live where they choose.

"It's inevitable that Sun Village as we knew it is going to go away," he said. "We can't hang back and keep remembering Sun Village. We have to bring that history with us and marry it to new education, new thinking, new ideas."

One new idea is Mabel's, a restaurant that will open in November across the street from the desolate ruins of the 90th Street shopping area. Owner Douglas Cross, whose wife is a Lancaster physician, describes Mabel's as a " '50s' restaurant, serving American food with a touch of soul."

Cross acknowledges that he is something of a pioneer in a culinary wilderness. But he said he has studied the area's growth and is confident that the local black community will join residents of all races in making Mabel's a success.

"Don't discount the location," Cross said. "Don't take the people for granted."

Cross has joined the Sun Village Chamber of Commerce, whose members are enthusiastic about his arrival. Describing the attitude of chamber members and other aging Sun Village pioneers, Gatson said: "The main thing is that we want our history remembered. We want people to know this was ours, and we did the best we could with it."

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