Edna Aliewine dies at 90; Watts community activist founded Christmas parade

Edna Aliewine, a small woman who left a large imprint on South Los Angeles as founder of the Watts/Willowbrook Christmas Parade and co-creator of the Watts walk of fame, died at her home Tuesday. She was 90 and had lymphoma, her family said.

The longtime Watts resident "got a lot of things done," said former U.S. Rep. Mervyn Dymally, who knew Aliewine for five decades. "She started a project, and you joined or the train would leave the station."

Aliewine stood by her community through two riots, adopting as her slogan "Don't move, improve." Acting on her own advice, she devoted herself to creating focal points for civic pride, beginning with the parade.

That event had its roots in a question she posed to her father when he took her to the Hollywood Christmas parade as a child. "Daddy, why isn't there anybody like me in the parade?" asked Aliewine, an African American.

In 1964 she scraped together a handful of volunteers and a fistful of dollars to create Watts' answer to the Hollywood parade. She recruited neighborhood youths to form a drill team, and they marched down Central Avenue in home-sewn Santa hats.

The second parade was nearly derailed by police concerns about security after the 1965 riots, which resulted in 34 deaths and widespread destruction. But Aliewine persevered, obtained the necessary permits and turned the parade into an annual event that has continued for 46 years, led by celebrity grand marshals who have included Sammy Davis Jr., the Jackson 5 and the stars of TV shows such as "The Beverly Hillbillies."

At last year's parade, Aliewine, at 89, still reigned supreme. Or, as her daughter Paula put it, the 4-foot-11 community leader was "still large and in charge," blocking off streets, checking on the bands and making everyone mind.

When the honorees in one convertible started throwing candy to bystanders on the parade route, she rushed in and confiscated the candy jar, fearful of an accident if children got too close to the moving vehicle. She held the jar behind her back until master of ceremonies Rory Kaufman persuaded her to give it back.

Kaufman, who hosted the parade for 27 years, said that "99% of the time it was a no-incident parade. Imagine low riders and Santa Claus going down the street and everybody is happy. All that was because of her."

In 1988, Aliewine and Dr. James Mays, a cardiologist from South L.A., decided to create a shrine to community heroes, similar to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They called it the Promenade of Prominence and installed it along the edge of what is now Ted Watkins Memorial Park, at 103rd and Success streets.

The first honoree to have his name carved on a granite heart was the late Kenneth Hahn, the long-serving Los Angeles County supervisor whose district included Watts. Two dozen others followed, including former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. and Darryl Strawberry, the former Dodgers outfielder.

The daughter of a sanitation worker, Aliewine was born in Los Angeles on Jan. 1, 1921. After graduating from Jefferson High School, she attended Los Angeles City College and Cal State L.A.

She worked as a real estate agent and later as a private nurse, but "her second job was always being in the political arena," her daughter said. Aliewine belonged to a small circle of Watts mothers who pushed local officials to build parks, medical facilities and a shopping center in Watts. She founded the Watts-Willowbrook Chamber of Commerce and the Watts Community Beautiful Corp. She also served as president of the Los Angeles County Commission for Women.

In addition to Paula Aliewine of Los Angeles, she is survived by two other children, Marsha Feaster of Las Vegas and Wilnora Ewell of Temecula; eight grandchildren; 14 great-grandchildren; and a great-great-grandchild.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Praises of Zion Baptist Church, 8222 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles.