You wouldn’t know it from rap lyrics, but for many African Americans in the 1950s, a South-Central Los Angeles enclave such as Compton was a city of dreams. “Blacks transformed this city in ways that people don’t recognize.” says Cal Poly Pomona history professor Josh Sides, author of “L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present,” newly published by University of California Press.
It certainly isn’t news that nearly 5 million African Americans left the South for big cities north and west from the WWII years on, but most accounts of the Great Migration center on the northern Rust Belt region. “City Limits” argues that the L.A. version of the saga has unique twists that are overdue for an airing.
In the Great Migration years, equality and opportunity were relative terms for black Americans anywhere. But Sides insists that where you migrated made a difference, and Los Angeles was a beacon of a better life. “City Limits” may be most fascinating in its discussion of three factors Sides believes augured well for black newcomers: L.A.'s racial diversity; its prolonged industrial boom; and, surprisingly, its sprawl. Sides sees L.A.'s spread-out city plan as an ironic boon to black residents, whose neighborhoods saw less interaction with whites and fewer daily social indignities compared to what might be experienced in the stratified South. “You don’t go around saying ‘sir,’ ” Sylvester Gibbs, a 73-year-old Watts resident, told Sides in 1998. “If he don’t say ‘sir’ to you, you don’t have to say ‘sir’ to him.”
From 1940 to 1970, L.A.'s African American population rose more rapidly than that of any other northern or western city, largely because of migration, growing 1,096% from 63,744 to 763,000. “This created black neighborhoods, a thoroughly modern phenomenon,” says Sides, who did much of his research in Compton. Record searches and interviews with longtime residents revealed Compton as a typical 1950s suburb where African Americans lived in stable nuclear family homes, with nice cars and jobs. “It’s not just a mythical concept that things were better here. The first blacks that moved to Compton in the ‘50s and ‘60s had big new homes straight out of the Cleaver family. Things got a lot better for a moment and then dropped off in the early to mid-1960s,” Sides says.
The “moment” of relative security passed, of course. “City Limits” is also a grim narrative of post-industrial unemployment, persistent racial discrimination and sociological devastation in South-Central Los Angeles. But the heritage of progress and success is a story that needs telling, says Sides, who sees those years of prosperity as a foothold for later achievements and as source material for planners of tomorrow’s multiracial cities. When it comes to conventional wisdom about African American Los Angeles, optimism and accomplishment are “not interesting,” says Sides. “It’s not a story that the movies or pop music tells.”
Sides, who is white, says he wrote the book to help set the record straight. “I don’t believe that African American history is a separate discipline. I think American history is a history of race and our wrestling with this problem. If this could serve as one tiny little counter-narrative to the historic narrative of crime and violence and poverty, I would feel it’s totally worth it.”