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Black History Month / Valley Retrospective : Perspectives on the Past--and the Future

From the African American who owned much of what is now the San Fernando Valley in the 1790s to the high school student who has devoted himself to keeping his peers out of gangs, people of African descent in the Valley have a long, proud history.

In this special report, we look back at some of that history and--with the help of several voices from the present--turn to the future.

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PACOIMA / Joe Louis Homes Gave Hope for Housing

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They are old and plain, humble boxy homes plunked down in unimaginative rows. But just after World War II, these houses made up the only hope for African Americans trying to claim a stake in the middle-class dream in the San Fernando Valley.

They were dubbed the Joe Louis Homes, after the late heavyweight champion who was--and to many still is--one of the most revered figures in the African American community. Many in the African American community, however, say the name was little more than a ruse, used to steer black buyers to homes in Pacoima.

Indeed, until the advent of fair-housing laws in the 1960s, there was little alternative to Pacoima for African Americans. There were exceptions, to be sure, such as the houses built by architect Joseph Eichler in Granada Hills, but African Americans found it hard to settle anywhere else.

Time has made it difficult to unravel myth from truth about Joe Louis’ role in erecting and selling these 30 or so homes northwest of Glenoaks Boulevard and Filmore Street. As far as can be gleaned from both oral and written accounts, Joe Louis had little or nothing to do with real estate in the area.

“This is the first I’ve heard of this,” said Joe Louis Barrow Jr., son of the heavyweight fighter, who has written a biography of his father. “I know for a fact that he did license his name. But houses? That would be a new one.”

The irony of using Louis’ name for what proved to be a ruse for segregation is not lost on Pacoima’s early African American residents.

“Joe Louis was just the most popular guy, and it attracted people to this community,” said Ed Kussman, former head of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, and a longtime champion of fair housing. “It was just another way of isolating us. . . . When no one else wanted to rent or sell to you, they’d send you here.”

James Robinson remembers the homes well. In 1962, he was the first African American real estate agent admitted to the San Fernando Valley Board of Realtors. “They just selected a name that was popular,” Robinson said. “Then there were three or four tracts they started building after that.”

Both Robinson and Kussman recalled that city officials moved a series of Quonset huts that African Americans had been renting near Griffith Park out to the Pacoima area in the late 1940s. Eventually, these residents were offered the chance to buy homes in the Joe Louis tract, they said.

Before such tracts, much of Pacoima consisted of small farms and dirt roads, according to Kussman. Gilbert Morris, then manager of Los Angeles’ Building and Safety Department, described it this way in 1949, according to Jackson Mayers, in his 1976 book, “The San Fernando Valley”:

“Forty-five blocks of this community were a jungle of tents, broken down trailers, rusty iron huts and run-down shabby houses. The place looked like a squatters town. Yet 90 per cent of its 2,000 residents owned the lots where they lived.”

Kussman, then living in Compton, soon owned his own plot. He bought 2.5 acres in 1951, and several years later built a home for himself. Kussman became active in the Valley chapter of the NAACP almost immediately, and spearheaded many housing-discrimination battles with that organization and the Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley, organized in 1960.

Those battles continue today, Kussman said. But the fact that African Americans since have moved to many other areas of the Valley may be a measure of the success of previous battles.

In 1960, for example, 90% of the nearly 10,000 African Americans in the Valley lived in Pacoima (which then included Arleta). As of the 1990 census, though, just 15% of the Valley’s total population of 73,851 African Americans resided in Pacoima-Arleta.

Others began to live throughout the Valley, where African Americans now make up measurable minorities in Mission Hills, Panorama City, North Hills, Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, Sunland-Tujunga, North Hollywood and Sylmar.

Those African Americans who left Pacoima did so simply because they had the opportunity to sell and move up, Kussman said.

“It’s good for real estate,” he said. “But it’s bad for our political power.”


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