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Only the walls will change

SUSAN ANDERSON is a visiting professor at Pitzer College in Claremont and managing director of L.A. As Subject, an association of archives and libraries, at USC.

AFTER YEARS of planning, consultation and fundraising, the Second Baptist Church in the Central Avenue district of Los Angeles is about to begin a $5-million renovation of its sanctuary complex. Designed in 1924 by the renowned architect Paul Williams, the African American church is an official city landmark. Although the work will update the structure, its important historical elements will be retained in the renovation.

The project comes at a time of an “epidemic” of threats to historic urban houses of worship that are “both architectural landmarks and homes to crucial social services for their neighborhoods,” according to Partners for Sacred Places, a nondenominational nonprofit organization. Second Baptist’s renovation is not simply rescuing a significant building. It is also preserving a community’s complex narrative and its effect on the evolution of Los Angeles.

The church was the first black Baptist church in Southern California, founded in 1885 when L.A. was, in effect, a rural outpost and African Americans made up perhaps 1% of the population. Japanese and Chinese were the city’s largest minorities. Its first building was surrounded by barley fields and located on Maple Avenue between 7th and 8th streets. The period from 1886, when L.A. experienced its first population explosion, through the Wall Street crash of 1929 was a time many considered a golden era for African Americans in L.A. As J.L. Edmonds, editor of the Liberator newspaper, asserted in 1913, “The colored people in California are the best fixed in the United States.”

To accommodate a growing congregation, church leaders sought in the early 1920s to buy property in a then-white Central Avenue neighborhood, the church’s current home. Wary of racial discrimination, they secured a real estate agent “who was very light in complexion,” and the white owners “sold him the lot thinking he was a member of their racial group,” according to a church history. The vision of then-pastor Thomas Lee Griffith Sr. was “to house large audiences for programs and public meetings.” The auditorium could seat 1,600 people.

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Records show that in 1928, the year City Hall opened, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People held its first national convention in the West at the Philharmonic Auditorium at Olive and 5th streets, and Second Baptist hosted many of the participants. Two years later, California Gov. C.C. Young spoke from the church’s pulpit on its 45th anniversary. Such prominent speakers as scholar and editor W.E.B. DuBois and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, widow of the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, were among those who brought national attention to the parish and the city in the early decades of the 20th century.

Second Baptist’s membership roster has included black leaders whose persistence and ingenuity contributed to L.A.'s civic progress. Among them were: John J. Neimore, founder, in 1879, of the California Eagle, the oldest African American newspaper in the West and, under publishers Charlotta Bass and Loren Miller, a crusading voice for justice in the city through the 1960s; Army Col. Allen Allensworth, who founded the all-black settlement of Allensworth in 1908; Leroy Beavers, a pioneering insurance executive and an heir to Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co.; Vassie Wright, who started Our Author’s Study Club, which initiated Negro History Week in Los Angeles in 1949; and William Elkins, former Mayor Tom Bradley’s chief of staff from 1973 to 1993.

Like most black churches, Second Baptist played a liberating role that, in the words of church member and unofficial historian, retired Judge Albert Matthews, was more than “just worship and shouting and having a good time on Sunday.” From the ministry of Griffith (1921-40), through those of J. Raymond Henderson (1941-63), Thomas Kilgore (1963-85) and William S. Epps (1987 to present), Second Baptist has been “a servant church,” committed to meeting the needs of its surrounding community. What distinguished the church from others was its clergy’s and congregation’s considerable resources, as well as their ties to the centers of power.

The church embraced the civil rights movement as an essential element of its spiritual mission. Griffith’s son, attorney Thomas L. Griffith Jr., was the executive director of the NAACP’s L.A. chapter from 1932 to 1948, and church members supported the civil rights organization’s local campaigns to fight discrimination against blacks at public pools in Brookside Park in Pasadena and at Santa Monica beach, as well as to overturn racially restrictive housing covenants in California. For generations, the church gave generously to the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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Henderson was a longtime friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., and soon became a mentor to his son, Martin Luther King Jr., who considered Second Baptist his church home when in Los Angeles. Three weeks before his assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, King preached at Second Baptist Church. After the civil rights leader’s murder, Kilgore, a close associate of King, was credited with helping to calm incendiary passions in L.A. by opening Second Baptist’s doors for a “community talk-out.”

More recently, the character of the church’s surrounding community has dramatically changed. After World War II, African Americans steadily arrived in the city until 1970, mostly settling in South L.A. because of discriminatory housing practices. But overcrowding soon forced many black families to leave, and plant shutdowns cost thousands of blue-collar jobs, compelling many more to find employment elsewhere. What was once a community overwhelmingly black is today 40% African American and more than 50% Latino immigrant.

As a result, Second Baptist has become a commuter church, with many members traveling from the Inland Empire, the San Gabriel Valley and the Westside for Sunday services. Nevertheless, church members, under Epps, decided to keep Second Baptist at its historic address rather than move.

Today, the church’s nursery school, begun 40 years ago with a first-of-its-kind federal grant, is 98% Latino, with a bilingual staff and services for parents. Several Spanish-speaking Protestant congregations have rented the sanctuary for services, and Second Baptist’s women’s shelter, low-income housing it built and operates and other programs serve mixed ethnic populations -- and will continue to do so during the church’s renovation.

As it begins a massive survey of historic resources around the city, the Los Angeles Planning Department should consider Second Baptist as an anchor for a revitalized heritage district around Central Avenue, which would protect historic and socially significant properties and revitalize the neighborhood for residents and merchants. This is especially feasible around Central Avenue because historic properties have already been reclaimed, including the Streamline Moderne Coca-Cola building, the African American Firefighter Museum, the Dunbar Hotel, the Ralph Bunche Home and the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. building.

There are many models for such a transformation. The restoration of the 18th and Vine historic district in Kansas City, Mo., includes the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the American Jazz Museum, other cultural landmarks and neighborhood improvements. Revitalization of the Shaw neighborhood in Washington preserved the Whitelaw Hotel and True Reformers Hall, scene of Duke Ellington’s first gig, while bringing new life to the once-destitute U Street community.

As vexing problems of inequality are recast in contemporary Los Angeles and residents struggle to overcome them, perhaps the venerable Second Baptist Church can help Angelenos understand the importance of the words of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


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