Black L.A. Feels Pain, Anger of ‘Sister City’

Times Staff Writers

At Inglewood’s Faithful Central Bible Church, parishioners called out names of the missing and prayed for fortitude and God’s grace. At Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in the Jefferson Park neighborhood, they sang soaring hymns. At a Creole restaurant in Baldwin Hills, they sought the familiar aroma and taste of gumbo.

Everyone’s thoughts were of back home -- of the elderly aunts and friends who stayed behind; of swatting mosquitoes on sultry Louisiana evenings; and of the sun glinting off the Mississippi delta. The ties that link Los Angeles’ black residents to communities ravaged by Hurricane Katrina run deep. And on Sunday across the city -- in churches and restaurants, on street corners and in markets -- their shared sense of kinship and sorrow was palpable.

At the Church of the Transfiguration in Leimert Park, 67-year-old Ramona Martin sat with many other Louisiana transplants and put extra money in the collection plate during Mass to help the needy while reflecting on the fate of a sister and brother-in-law who are still missing almost a week after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.


“I don’t know what happened to my sister,” said Martin, who left New Orleans in 1959 soon after she married. “The last time I talked to her was Sunday. She had just had open-heart surgery and I told her to get out before the hurricane. She thought, ‘We’ve survived these things before.’ I don’t think she knew the magnitude.”

In many African American communities in Los Angeles -- Leimert Park, South L.A., Ladera Heights and Watts -- vestiges of the distinct patois and flavors of Louisiana can easily be found.

The migration began in the late 1800s, when African Americans who worked as Pullman porters on the Southern Pacific Railroad spread the word about a golden land out West to blacks seeking to escape oppression in the South.

After World War II, thousands more -- hoping to take advantage of federal promises to eliminate discrimination in federally funded industries -- flocked to L.A. looking for jobs.

“Since the late 19th century, New Orleans has been a kind of sister city to Los Angeles because it has played such an incredibly large role in populating black Los Angeles,” said Josh Sides, a Cal State Northridge history professor and author of “L.A City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present.”

At the Faithful Central Bible Church, where more than 8,000 people gathered at the old Inglewood Forum, worshipers with family members caught in the storm were urged to stand at the pulpit and receive blessings.


“We pray for those of you whose family and loved ones are touched by tragedy,” Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer told members of his flock, many of whom were weeping and hugging. “We want you to see that you are surrounded by brothers and sisters who care for you and support you.”

Among those praying was Jenecia Zachery, 19, a student at Xavier University in New Orleans who fled the hurricane a day before it whirled ashore Aug. 29. Zachery and a classmate made their way 200 miles north to Monroe, La., and then continued on to Los Angeles. They arrived Saturday to stay with relatives.

Zachery has spoken to friends who rode out the storm, endured its aftermath and were finally evacuated: They described wading through fetid waters with floating corpses.

Zachery is looking for a Los Angeles college to attend until New Orleans is whole again, but the ordeal has left its mark.

“I’m really emotional about it,” she said. “I can’t look at the pictures on television. It’s just too hard.”

Many black Angelenos are ready to shelter and support loved ones and others who have been uprooted. Danny Bakewell, a New Orleans native and executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel, said his mother was missing for days. He located her in a northern Louisiana hotel and has flown her and an aunt to Los Angeles.

“Everyone who has relatives back there is reaching out with open arms,” Bakewell said.

L’Tanya Bolin-Knight, 52, was one of dozens of customers who sought solace at the Creole Chef, a Baldwin Hills restaurant that is adorned with photographs of New Orleans landmarks and Mardi Gras beads. She was deciding whether to drive to Texas to pick up family members who fled with few belongings and to care for them indefinitely in her Crenshaw home.

Over a bowl of spicy shrimp and rice, she said she came for the company as well as for the food.

“This is like family to me,” she said. “It’s uplifting to be here.”

Martin, the Transfiguration worshiper, was gratified to find a slice of New Orleans at her church -- where red beans, rice and hot sausages are staples of funerals, and boiled crawfish are part and parcel of church fundraisers. She has met people with whom she went to grade school.

“When we bump into each other around here, we always say, ‘When are you going home, when are you going home?’ ” Martin said. “Home is New Orleans.”

At the Agape International Spiritual Center’s sanctuary in Culver City, 1,000 congregants filled the hall. Ushers passed velvet-lined wicker baskets, and people pulled bills from their wallets and tore checks from their checkbooks.

After Sunday’s two sermons, about 1,800 congregants had donated $25,000, a church official said, the same amount that was gathered over a period of several weeks to aid victims of December’s tsunami. The money was to be donated immediately to the Red Cross to support relief efforts.

“The hurricane put a camera on all of the poverty down there,” said Ife Thomas, 28, of North Hollywood. “Maybe this is a wake-up call. When these type of things happens, it shows we’re all connected.”

At Holy Name of Jesus, gospel hymns of exaltation contrasted with sadness and anger.

“If we have a space station and a shuttle program, how is it that we can’t get clean water and food ... to these people?” Father Paul Spellman asked the packed church, which erupted in cheers. “This is what’s happening in our country. This is what we have to ask questions about. We have to ask these questions of our government, and we have to ask these questions of ourselves.”

During the service, Jeffrey Richard, 59, told fellow parishioners about narrowly escaping the home he recently had bought in his native New Orleans as floodwaters roared in.

“Without electricity, it’s a heck of a life to live,” Richard said. “You go from being the Jetsons to being the Flintstones.”

Richard said that as he was driving out of the city, he worried constantly that the gas in his car would run out.

Two brothers-in-law have so far resisted leaving their besieged city. “One told me that he was on a mission and that we all have to make a decision for ourselves,” Richard said.

“And he has chosen -- he really feels that he wants to be there and be there to rebuild it and bring it back.”

At the Forum, Ulmer criticized the church community for a “what-can-God-give-me” attitude and the government for being “dysfunctional.” He issued a plea for the nation to extend to hurricane victims the same aid that was shown to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“It will be interesting to see what the spirituality will be in this country when a tragedy hits a pocket of poverty versus what the spirituality was when tragedy hit a pocket of prosperity on Wall Street and the Twin Towers,” he said.


Times Staff Writers Jason Felch, Jean Guccione, Jill Leovy, Ashley Powers and Louis Sahagun contributed to this report.