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Family stood up to restrictive covenants

Times Staff Writer

Henry and Texanna Laws literally lived on the wrong side of the street -- near Watts, where grant deeds barred all but white residents.

The African American couple challenged these restrictive covenants, triggering a grass-roots crusade for civil rights that led to a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring racial covenants unenforceable.

From the simple red-tile roof home they built in 1944 and fought to keep, the Lawses tasted both the bitter and the sweet in a city settled largely by white Southerners and Midwesterners. But they were determined to protect their rights.

“The only way they will ever get me out of this house is to shoot me with a Gatling gun and throw my dead body on the other lot,” Henry Laws testified in a 1944 trial testing the validity of the covenants.

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Many of these details come from Los Angeles Times stories about the case, as well as from a 1960 book, “Forty Years: Memoirs From the Pages of a Newspaper,” by Charlotta Bass, editor of the California Eagle. The Eagle, published from 1879 to 1964, covered the lives of black Angelenos, who were largely ignored by most daily newspapers.

Their story began in 1910, when the Lawses were in their early 20s. The young couple were cooking, washing and gardening for wealthy families in Rosenberg, Texas, southwest of Houston, when they heard there were better-paying jobs in beautiful Los Angeles. They packed up their meager belongings and their 3-month-old son, Nat, and took a train west.

But they soon learned that Los Angeles -- with a black population of less than 10,000, about 2.3% of the population -- was no paradise. Jobs were scarce, and much of the racism they thought they had escaped in Texas was in L.A. as well.

At first, Henry butchered sheep for meatpacking companies in Vernon. Later, he worked as a fry cook on Santa Fe trains.

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Over the next two years, Texanna gave birth to two more children, Pauletta and Leroy. Another son and daughter, Alfred and Dolores, were born after World War I.

In 1919, the family moved to Gardena and later to the Imperial Valley, where they eked out a living in the cotton fields. In 1921, the family returned to Los Angeles. By then, the black population had grown by more than 50%, to nearly 15,600 -- but still constituted just 2.7% of the city’s population.

Henry worked odd jobs, including gardening, while Texanna cleaned houses. With the money they saved, they bought two adjacent lots in a black community near Watts. While their house was going up on one lot, the family lived in a tent on the other.

At the time, Watts was middle-class and white. The Lawses lived just south, in a growing black area now known as Willowbrook.

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“Watts was a little white town, north of where we lived,” Pauletta Laws Fears, now 95, said in an interview. “The mayor was white, and all the schoolteachers and police were white. Imperial Highway was then called Lynwood Road, and it was the dividing line.” Minorities lived south of Lynwood Road.

In 1936, as Central Avenue was becoming known as the “jazz thoroughfare of the West,” the Lawses bought two more vacant lots, this time on 92nd Street. But blacks did not live in the neighborhood. The deed barred anyone who wasn’t “Caucasian” from living there, but not from owning property.

“The man who sold my parents the property told them restrictive covenants didn’t mean anything, and they believed him,” Fears said.

Their lots would remain vacant for 13 years while they saved enough money to build a home.

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World War II brought relative prosperity to the Lawses, giving Henry and Texanna jobs in defense plants. With their children grown, it was time to build their two-bedroom, one-bath dream house at 1235 E. 92nd Street.

“It was a nicer neighborhood than where they were living,” Fears said. “At the time, 92nd Street was the dividing line -- black families lived on the south side of the street but not on the north side,” where the Lawses started to build.

Henry, 55, and Texanna, 56, moved into their new home in October 1944, along with Fears, whose husband had been wounded at Pearl Harbor but had returned to fight in the war.

“Another black family and a Mexican family moved into the neighborhood soon afterward,” Fears said. All three families knew they were treading on dangerous ground.

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“We were on the alert ..., " she said. “We were sitting around with our eyes wide open.”

Within weeks, white property owners filed suit in Superior Court to enforce the covenants.

The case went to trial in November, with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People defending the Lawses.

“Why should I move?” Henry said in court. “I bought this property 13 years ago and I built this house.... I am a free-born American citizen. My sons are fighting ... in the South Pacific. I buy war bonds. I am working for a defense plant, and so is the rest of my family. No judge will ever put me out, and the United States government will never put me out.”

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But a Superior Court judge upheld the restrictive covenants, ordering the families to move by Dec. 1 or face a fine and five days in jail.

The other families cleared out, but the Lawses stayed.

The NAACP countersued to remove the racial covenants, despite long odds. But within days NAACP officials got nervous and offered the Lawses $750 to move, Fears said.

“My dad was stubborn; he refused,” she said.

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In December, sheriff’s deputies arrested Henry and Texanna Laws. When Fears returned from work, she too was arrested and tossed in jail.

“But we were bailed out in three days” by the NAACP, she said.

Civil rights groups, churches and neighbors held rallies to defray legal fees. Friends and neighbors picketed in front of the house, protesting segregation. Bass, the Eagle’s editor, publisher and owner, championed their cause and drummed up support among influential friends, including singers Lena Horne and Paul Robeson.

Civil rights attorneys John T. McTernan and partner Ben Margolis linked the Laws case with more than half a dozen similar cases in a class-action suit that went all the way to the state Supreme Court. In the meantime, the Lawses stayed in their home.

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“People drove by and made threats, but there was never any violence,” Fears said.

On May 3, 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a similar case, Shelley vs. Kraemer, deeming restrictive covenants unenforceable. The ruling also applied to the Laws case.

Four months later, the California Supreme Court reversed eight lower-court judgments, including the one against the Lawses, clearing them to stay in their home.

Fears was working as a domestic when she heard of the U.S. Supreme Court decision. “I was ironing for the president of the local Farmers and Merchants Bank when the news came across the radio,” she said. “I turned off the iron and walked home.

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“We were jubilant! For a long time, people around the neighborhood would stop by and say, ‘I’m glad your parents didn’t give up.’ It made all of us feel very proud.”

Watts was being transformed by white flight.

“Black people bought up all the white folks’ termite-eaten houses,” Fears said. By 1950, more than 70% of Watts-area residents were black. Today, the area is more than half Latino. Fears still lives nearby.

In 1967, Texanna retired from domestic work to care for Henry, who died later that year of a heart attack. Texanna continued to live in the house they had built until her death in 1987, at age 99. Fears still owns the home, which she rents out.

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“It should be designated a civil rights landmark,” she said.

cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com


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