Black-Owned Businesses Pay a Heavy Price
Six days after rioters set fire to Broadway Federal Savings and Loan’s headquarters on South Broadway at 45th Street, the charred remains of the blue stone building still gushed plumes of smoke.
Paul Hudson, the 45-year-old thrift’s president, sat in one of the firm’s branch offices trying to make sense of the disaster that struck the business his family had run in South Los Angeles for three generations.
The Broadway Federal headquarters, two years older than Hudson, was among a still-untold number of black-owned and operated institutions that were burned last week in the riots that swept across the city.
They were banks and barbershops, cultural and social service organizations and offices of black politicians. More than just places of commerce or providers of services, some were historical landmarks that chronicled the passage of blacks through Los Angeles in the last half-century.
“I’m assuming (the arsonists) didn’t know what it was and thought they were striking at a federal government institution,” said Hudson, who succeeded his father as president in March. “I got to believe they didn’t know. It’s not unusual for teen-agers not to be plugged into a sense of history.”
Zenora Steele consoled herself with the belief that outsiders torched her family’s 31-year-old Terry’s Interiors, the largest black-owned furniture store in the city. “The neighborhood knew it was a black-owned business,” she said about the Vermont Avenue store founded by her husband, Terry. “That’s why we know it wasn’t someone from the neighborhood.”
The family watched the business burn on television during the first day of the riots from the emergency room of Cedar-Sinai Medical Center, where Terry Steele had been admitted hours earlier for a severe asthma attack.
At Vermont Avenue and 84th Street, trucks are still hauling away the ashes of a building owned by 100 Black Men, a 10-year-old service organization that has become a prominent symbol of the post-civil rights era commitment of black professionals to community service.
The building’s revenue supported the organization’s scholarship, mentoring, tutoring and social programs. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas had a field office in the building and it was recently renovated and expanded to accommodate 16 city departments in a mini-City Hall where district residents could obtain services.
The blaze that gutted Broadway Federal also destroyed the adjacent offices of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), whose 1990 victory kept a black in the congressional seat held for 28 years by Augustus Hawkins.
Gone, too, are the African Refugee Center on Crenshaw Boulevard in the Crenshaw Square shopping center and the nearby Ethiopian Community Center Outreach Services, the only facility of its kind in the area whose sole purpose is helping African immigrants with passports, medical care and government services.
“The irony I saw was that my neighbors were putting up signs that said ‘black-owned,’ but we didn’t put up one,” said Saba Hile Maskel, the center’s director. “We have our logo, which is a map of Africa, outside the office, and we thought it would go without saying that we are black.”
The list of casualties--businesses and services--remains incomplete. Black business organizations and community activists are tallying the hundreds of mostly small restaurants, construction companies, janitorial supply firms, dress shops, clothing stores, secretarial services, dry cleaners and photo shops that were ransacked and burned.
“The smoke hasn’t cleared, and all the information hasn’t gotten back to the chamber here,” said Glen Hale, chairman of the 200-member African-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Los Angeles.
The news spread quickly through a shocked Los Angeles black business community about the destruction of Rod Davis Firestone on Crenshaw and 53rd Street. “The thing about Rod is he owned another Firestone in Culver City, and he sold it to concentrate in the black community. And now everything is gone,” said Greogory Burks, vice president of the Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce.
Crenshaw Chamber member Ron Smothers, 48, saw four of his six Burger King restaurants damaged. None of his outlets burned, and Smothers said he has to reopen “and generate some money to pay these bills.”
The Los Angeles-Long Beach area has more black-owned businesses than any metropolitan area other than New York City, according to 1987 U.S. Census Bureau data, the latest available. The New York City area’s 28,063 firms had gross receipts of $1.2 billion, compared to receipts of $1.3 billion generated by the 23,932 firms in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area.
The dream of business ownership is a goal more African-Americans have begun to pursue in Los Angeles, with barely a week going by without word of another refugee from corporate America or academia coming back to the old neighborhood to set up shop.
Although many of those who lost their businesses vow to rebuild, the destruction has left deep and bitter pain.
“Those are the businesses that really employ the people in the community,” Hale said. “When you look at it that way, you’re looking at thousands of people out of jobs. In a strip mall you would have five or six businesses. When you set a fire to that, you are wiping out five or six businesses with one match.”
At Broadway Federal Savings’ headquarters, 35 to 40 people who lived in the immediate area were put out of work, Hudson said. One of the company’s founders in 1947 was Claude Hudson, a civil rights pioneer who helped desegregate local beaches and was known simply as “Mr. NAACP.”
When he died three years ago at age 102, Los Angeles’ black political Establishment and the city’s power elite turned out to pay him tribute.
His son, Elbert, served as Broadway Federal’s president until March 1, when he turned over the reins to Paul Hudson. Elbert Hudson’s daughter, Karen, is chief of marketing and public relations.
Because of the family’s deep roots in South Los Angeles, Paul Hudson said he thought the headquarters were safe.
“We assumed we would not be a target,” he said. “We had made it through the Watts riot. We know all the people in the community, on that block. We figured people knew it was black-owned.”
The crowd that sacked and torched the business, according to a security guard who tried to defend the building, was made up of young Latinos and blacks.
The Hudsons have made a commitment to rebuild at the same site, and Home Savings of America has donated a modular building in which Broadway Federal will open for business in about four weeks, Hudson said.
If he could sit down and talk with the arsonists, he said, he would display no anger or hostility.
“But I’d like to have an opportunity to explain to them the history and the importance of a financial institution such as Broadway to our community, and the people who have been hurt because of their act,” he said. “I’d like to convey to them some message of consciousness about their community.”
Nowhere has the history of the community been more central to a business than at the Aquarian Bookshop in a mini-mall at King Boulevard and Western Avenue. The Aquarian, the oldest continuously operated black bookstore in the country, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
But it and three other black businesses were wiped out along with 12 shops when vandals torched the complex.
Last month, Rosa Parks was at the store for a book signing. Her refusal to surrender her seat to a white man launched the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Over the years at its various locations, the Aquarian has hosted Alex Haley, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, Dick Gregory, Margaret Walker, J. California Cooper--a virtual “Who’s Who” of African-American letters.
Alfred Ligon, 86, who runs the business with his wife, Bernice, said he cannot find words to describe his reaction to the shop’s burning, “but it wasn’t a shock. It was something I just accepted. It was gone and I just put it out of my mind.”
Ligon came to California from Chicago in 1936 to study metaphysics, and he has faced the destruction of the historic business with remarkable equanimity. He sees it as part of a 500-year cosmic cycle that will enable a phoenix to rise from its ashes.
“When you have gotten into certain phases of metaphysics, you know there is no basic sorrow about a thing, especially when we have so much attachment to a physical thing,” said Ligon. “As I began to study this, I realized that these things had to be destroyed to give one an opportunity to move to a higher stage. The magnificent phoenix bird should arise from these ashes. Now, it may take a little while.”
The bookshop, which survived the Watts riots of 1965, carried more than 7,000 titles, and its owners estimate that the uninsured loss will be more than $300,000.
Nonetheless, Bernice Ligon’s reaction echoes that of her husband.
“This is the birthing of the Aquarian Age,” she said. “And birthing ain’t easy.”
While the Ligons take a metaphysical approach to the shop’s destruction, writer Earl Ofari Hutchinson gathered a group of black artists, writers and academics outside the charred remains Monday, pledging to raise money to replace the inventory.
“Aquarian has been a major resource for teaching in this area,” said UCLA historian Robert Hill, who is editor of the Marcus Garvey/United Negro Improvement Assn. papers. “Without the Aquarian Bookshop, many courses would be severely handicapped. It’s only fair for the academic community to take stock and see what it can do.”
The fire that gutted the Jazz Etc. supper club in the Santa Barbara Plaza was an off-key riff played by a suspect the club’s owners say they and other witnesses can identify. John McKinney, one of the owners, said he is gathering information to turn over to authorities.
As he spoke, a middle-aged passerby pulled up in his car. “Aw, man. No, no,” the driver said in anguish. “They didn’t do my place, did they?”
“Yes, they did,” answered Isaac Suthers, another owner.
“Lord have mercy,” the driver said, biting his lip and pulling away.
“That goes on all day long,” Suthers said. “People are genuinely hurt. I’ve stood out here and seen people come up and cry.”
The elegantly remodeled year-old club had established itself as one of the most important jazz venues in the city. McKinney and Suthers said their loss will be at least $500,000, but they intend to rebuild.
“We don’t have any plans of leaving here,” Suthers said. “We were victims of circumstances. Hey, we didn’t make a dime here. We saw (profits) coming. But the love that we had for the music, the pride of ownership.”
The 5,000-square-foot club seated 200, and the owners spent 2 1/2 years remodeling, completing the work as money became available. When it opened last year, it featured an 18-piece big band and Sunday afternoon jam sessions that attracted as many as 50 musicians from all over Southern California.
“Every race was coming to this place,” said Suthers. “Jazz attracts that kind of person. It’s an international music.”
Sadly surveying the burned-out club, McKinney said he and the other owners had talked about the possibility of “junking the whole thing. Then we thought about it. We went against all odds before. Why not go back and buck the odds again.”
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