Black (living) history

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A few weeks ago, the powers that be in Leimert Park polished off a five-year project evoking 500 years of history. The Sankofa Passage, a stylized pathway swaying along Degnan Boulevard, pays tribute to a who's who of artists, musicians, actors, poets and others whose reputations are global, but whose talents shaped the local. (Think Charles Mingus, Paul Williams and John Outterbridge.) Unlike on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, though, the names here aren't adorned with microphones, LPs or cameras; they're ringed with slave brands. And at their apex sits the mythical Sankofa, a symbol -- originating with the Akan people of Ghana -- of a bird gazing backward.

"The whole idea of the Sankofa is that, in flying forward, it looks back to identify what its future path should be," says Clint Rosemond, who helped oversee the project as manager of Leimert Park's business improvement district.

The image is especially poignant on the eve of Black History Month, for African American history and the power of the places from which it sprung perennially inspire Angelenos. Certainly, the influence of contemporary African American culture can be felt virtually anywhere, but to fully appreciate it requires a deeper understanding of how at least some of it began.

That theme is explored in two exhibits opening today at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park -- "The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present" and "Common Ground." Both examine connections between African and Latino cultures via paintings and mixed media tracing a five-century history.

But while CAAM's exhibits offer context, telling artifacts from the multicultural past are scattered throughout the streets themselves. Just look at the bronze plaque on Olvera Street stating that, of the 44 founders of El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles del Rio de Porciuncula in 1781, 26 were of African descent.

Or take the popular bus tour offered Saturday by Our Authors Study Club, a historical organization that championed L.A.'s first black history week in 1949. The locations are as diverse as some of the city's oldest adobe structures (in Baldwin Hills), the J. Paul Getty mayoral mansion (where Tom Bradley once lived) and the oak tree at 11th and Hobart streets -- reportedly once a 3-inch sapling given to Jesse Owens' team by the German Olympic Committee during the 1936 games. To cover the territory, club president Genevieve Shepherd says, "we really need six hours, but we try to do it in four."

Another tour stop is the site of the former home of Biddy Mason, a Mississippi slave whose owner marched her out to California behind his wagon train in the mid-1800s. Mason sued for her freedom and reinvented herself as a businesswoman in downtown L.A. Today a park stands on the site, next to the Bradbury Building, and her life is charted on its courtyard wall.

Before dying a wealthy landowner, Mason also founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church -- now claiming a congregation of 19,000 souls -- in her living room. First AME became an anchor of swanky West Adams, along with the mansions of Sugar Hill, while close-by nightclubs on Central Avenue testified to the area's heyday as a multiracial, cultural focal point in the 1920s through '40s. "It was a hub of the city, unapologetically and unquestioningly," says Christopher Jimenez y West, CAAM's history curator. "It was the place to go for speak-easies, after-hours clubs."

By the 1960s, the area was declining, but pockets of great night life survived. One was Babe's and Ricky's Inn, a blues joint run by "Mama" Laura Mae Gross (shown on the cover). Widowed in 1954 after her husband was murdered trying to cash his paycheck, Gross went into business for herself in 1957, migrating to Central Avenue in 1964, where she took over the Atlantic Club's site and created a neighborhood institution, the sort of place B.B. King might just drop by.

A Mississippi native and preacher's daughter, Gross says she knew good blues but lacked a certain urban sophistication. "The police and everybody looked out for me because they knew I was country," she says with a laugh. That's why authorities gave her a pass when they found out patrons were smoking pot in the club's bathrooms. "They knew I didn't even know what marijuana was," she says. Pot became the least of Central Avenue's problems and, like many, Gross headed west, in her case to set up shop in Leimert Park, where her new location still beckons. "My customers are white, Japanese, they come from all around," Gross says. "Last night I had a couple in here from Santa Barbara."

An Olmsted brothers design in a village-like setting of wide boulevards, sidewalks and a line of towering trees, Leimert Park dates to the 1920s, when it was a whites-only enclave. Prominent neighborhoods such as Inglewood, Jefferson Park, Watts, West Adams and Exposition Park have all played key roles in the development of 20th century African American history, but post-WWII into the early 1980s, Leimert Park was it -- a cultural, commercial and residential center for black Angelenos. Today, many still refer to it as the community's cultural heart.

Artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Alonzo Davis and Betye Saar (a co-designer of Biddy Mason Park) all exhibited here. Ben Caldwell, founder of Kaos Network, a de facto storefront cultural center that has nurtured talent through its long-running hip-hop jams, arrived in '71.

Lounging against a rack of books and T-shirts in a Leimert Park hoodie, the bearded and bespectacled Caldwell has almost become synonymous with his adopted home. Chatting with office mate Karen Mack -- director of the nonprofit arts organization LA Commons -- the two try to sum up the place's energy. Spots like Leimert Park have become even more important, Mack believes, as demographics shift, and the city's percentage of African Americans shrinks.

"There's an openness in Leimert Park, to people and experiences," Mack says. "This place embodies the idea of improvisation, a way of being that African Americans had to develop in America. It comes out in this place."

"Our flavor is more than just soul food," Caldwell continues. "It's the whole environment. It's the jazzy, soul-ish vibe of cool."

"The things that define African American culture," adds Mack. "Not just now, but over time."

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A SAMPLER OF HISTORY PRESERVED, AND IN THE MAKING

The African American Firefighter Museum

1401 S. Central Ave., L.A., (213) 744-1730; aaffmuseum.org. Housed in Fire Station 30 -- a once-segregated fire house -- it pays tribute to 100 years of heroes.

Babe's and Ricky's Inn

4339 Leimert Blvd., L.A., (323) 295-9112; bluesbar.com. Soul food and drinks accompany the blues performers.

Biddy Mason Park

333 S. Spring St., L.A.; lacity.org/angelswalk/5.htm. A courtyard wall tells the story of the former slave and philanthropist who founded the First AME Church.

California African American Museum

600 State Drive, L.A., (213) 744-7432; caam.ca.gov. Two new exhibits -- "The African Presence in Mexico" and "Common Ground" -- explore the intermingled histories and cultures of Mexican and African Americans, while "MLK in California" captures Martin Luther King Jr.'s West Coast visits.

Eso Won Books

4331 Degnan Blvd., L.A., (323) 290-1048; esowon.booksense.com. This bookstore features a collection of African American authors and sponsors big-name events.

First African Methodist Episcopal Church

2270 S. Harvard Blvd., L.A., (323) 730-7750; famechurch.org. The oldest-existing African American-founded church in L.A. now has a congregation of 19,000.

5th Street Dick's Coffee House

4305 Degnan Blvd., L.A. (323) 545-9077. This long-standing cafe is a poetry hot spot and hosts a lively open-mic musical jam session the last Saturday of the month.

Founders Plaque

Olvera Street Plaza, downtown L.A. lacity.org/elp/elpfp1.htm. A tribute to the city's founders lists 26 of African descent.

Harold & Belle's

2920 W. Jefferson Blvd., L.A., (323) 735-9023. A venerable history and immense portions have made this restaurant a favorite for Creole cuisine.

"Journey To Black Mexico" At 2nd City Council Art Gallery

and Performance Space

435 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 901-0997; 2ndcitycouncil.org. Ron Wilkins explores the shared experiences of black and brown in this "photographic discourse," through Feb. 28.

LA Commons

4343 Leimert Blvd., L.A., (213) 705-4457; lacommons.org. This public art booster group shares space with the multifaceted cultural center KAOS Network.

Our Authors Study Club Black History Bus Tour

3725 Don Felipe Drive, L.A. (323) 758-4358; oasci.org. Genevieve Shepherd guides a flock of six buses; the free annual event starts at 8 a.m. Saturday and is first-come, first-served.

Pan African Film & Arts Festival

Various venues, (323) 295-1706; paff.org. Kicking off its 12-day run next Thursday, PAFF will showcase more than 175 films.

Sankofa Passage

4305 Degnan Blvd., L.A. (323) 290-6565. This path honors the luminaries who helped shape Leimert Park.

St. Elmo village

4830 St. Elmo Drive, L.A., (323) 931-3409; stelmovillage.org. An indoor-outdoor art space founded in 1969, it offers a variety of workshops for kids and adults, in addition to an art exhibit every Sunday.

Watts Towers Art Center

1727 E. 107th St., L.A., (213) 847-4646. Rotating exhibits, along with a permanent collection of African sculpture and ethnic instruments, and cultural programming.

The World Stage Performance Gallery

4344 Degnan Blvd., L.A., (323) 293-2451; theworldstage.org. Home to concerts, classes and workshops on literature, music and the arts, it's a Leimert Park hub for live jazz.

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