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Opinion

Op-Ed: Hal Miller kept a key piece of L.A.’s black history alive. Now he’s gone

Dunbar Hotel
The Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue, as seen in 1928.

More than 20 years ago, I asked my father’s good friend Hal Miller to take me on a driving tour of Central Avenue, a street that when he was young had boasted every black business of note as well as a world-famous jazz scene. Tall and rangy, Hal barely fit into the front seat of my Mustang coupe, but it didn’t matter: At almost every corner between Adams and Slauson, he leapt out to eagerly describe points of interest such as the Dunbar Hotel, Downbeat Club, the Blodgett building, Jack’s Basket Room. Most of these places were long shuttered or completely gone, but not to Hal. In his mind, it was all still there.

Hal died in December at the age of 87. His career was in criminal law, but he considered his greatest mission in life to keep alive the legacy of Central Avenue and the area once known as the Eastside.

In the early and middle part of the 20th century, the Eastside wasn’t East L.A. — not by several miles. Its boundaries, forged by segregation, were Washington Boulevard on the north, Slauson Avenue on the south, Long Beach Avenue on the east and Main Street on the west. The whole neighborhood, a slice of what came to be known as South-Central, lay east of Main, hence the name Eastside.

Generations of black migrants from the South and other parts of the country settled in the neighborhood when they came to Los Angeles, chiefly because they were barred by redlining and housing covenants from living in many other parts of the city. Hal and my father were at the tail end of those generations, but they considered themselves Eastside Boys long after they left the neighborhood. It was a title for life.

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I had heard Hal’s name growing up, one of many names in my father’s vast network of people who figured one way or another into his racial justice work. For an Eastside Boy, the endeavor for justice wasn’t so much a profession as a daily necessity. Black people seeking to stake a claim to the L.A. good life, which in theory was possible for everyone, first had to fight to break the barriers that thwarted that possibility.

But even as they fought for residential freedom, Eastsiders had a fierce pride of place — and nobody venerated the place more than Hal. He was a natural optimist who considered the era of the Eastside the L.A. black community’s finest hour, segregation notwithstanding.

To Hal, the prominence of Central Avenue in its heyday, especially the music scene that attracted people from all over Los Angeles, was a powerful argument against racism as well as a powerful argument for racial cohesion.

Hal came from a family that represented the best of the Eastside: His uncle, Loren Miller, was a well-regarded lawyer who spent his career challenging legal discrimination, notably in the 1948 Supreme Court case that outlawed racial housing covenants. Hal’s cousin, Leon Washington, founded the Los Angeles Sentinel, the city’s oldest and longest-running black newspaper.

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Hal’s activism, though more social than political, had no less an impact. For decades, his law office in Leimert Park doubled as a drop-in center for the Eastside Boys — my father among them — a place where they could relax and reminisce, as well as update each other on the mostly frustrating pace of racial progress in modern times. For all of them the Eastside was not merely a place, it was an enduring symbol of both struggle and success.

One thing they all recalled fondly and often was the Eastside’s economic diversity — doctors and lawyers lived easily among sanitation workers and housekeepers. The stabilizing diversity that flourished within the larger, destabilizing dynamic of segregation was just one of the many contradictions Eastsiders lived with.

And then in the late 1940s, things began to change. Justice prevailed. The covenants that Hal’s uncle fought against, the covenants that had formed the Eastside in the first place, fell; black people were free to go.

And go they did. The Eastside that Hal celebrated at annual parties at his house started caving almost immediately as the more well-to-do and ambitious black residents moved out to the places from which they had been barred for so long. Though the exodus wasn’t exactly surprising, it stood as a paradox of progress — call it an unintended negative consequence of freedom — that still looms large today.

Hal always acknowledged the paradox, but he never knew quite how to respond to it. He unapologetically idealized the Eastside, cherished it, boasted about the advantages of black people hanging together in bad times and good. Yet he had no illusions about why it all ended. Hal, after all, was among the many Eastsiders who eventually left. “We got what we wanted, but lost what we had,” was how he described the decline, sounding more perplexed than grieved or sorry.

The stubborn optimist in Hal didn’t dwell on paradoxes or problems. Ultimately he believed that the striving, thoroughly L.A. spirit of his old neighborhood was eternal, that it would — and should — live on in the new places to which black people moved, and in all the other reconstituted battles for justice. The Eastside, like those battles, was forever.

In recent years, Hal had begun to suffer from acute memory loss — perhaps the worst thing possible for a devoted local historian like him. In a reversal of his role as perpetual host in Leimert Park, he started showing up frequently — sometimes unannounced — at my parents’ home in Inglewood to see my father and pass the time. My father was struggling with his own health issues, but he never turned Hal away. This was his friend, his collaborator and fellow activist, and most important, a fellow Eastside Boy.

Their neighborhood was no longer what it had been, but what it had given them remained. The legacy held, and it was those memories that sustained Hal until the end.

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Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to Opinion.


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