In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Americans in Los Angeles

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources

African American Studies African Americans in Los Angeles
Keenan Norris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0069


The word “California” derives from Spanish novelist Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s bastardization of the Arabic “khalifa.” Montalvo’s use is probably a relic of the Moorish occupation of Spain. Calafia, the black warrior queen of Montalvo’s 1510 novel Las sergas de Esplandián, ruled the mythic island of California. The mythos of an island populated solely by black Amazons persisted among the conquistadors, who brought with them a contingent of actual Africans, enslaved persons whose free mestizo descendants would one day help to found El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the settlement that would become Los Angeles, California. While African-descended people today make up less than 10 percent of Los Angeles’s population and have, in the city’s iteration as American territory, never comprised more than 20 percent of Los Angeles citizens, Black Angelenos have played a remarkably centrifugal role in the city’s history. In 1931, while a University of Southern California graduate student, Jessie Elizabeth Bromilow published a thesis on a man little recognized in American annals, the black mestizo Pio Pico, the last governor of the Mexican state of Alta California. Based in Los Angeles, heir to a leading family un Mexican California, Pico nevertheless died forgotten. The scholarship of historians concerned with California’s black history has recovered his story and the stories of other black mestizos of Mexican California. In the 20th century, large-scale African-American migration from Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas to work in the Second World War defense industries reshaped the city. Scholarship that has focused on post–Second World War Black Los Angeles’s music, jazz and hip-hop, and its gang violence has garnered great attention. Yet, equally important is the record of the civil rights struggles in the city, which spurred changes in local and national law. Emerging from an era of widespread protest, Tom Bradley attracted a multiracial constituency and became the city’s most impactful mayor, maneuvering Los Angeles to the center of the Pacific Rim’s economic network, bringing the Olympics and an international airport to the global mega-city. But Bradley’s tenure has long come under criticism from scholars and cultural commentators on multiple fronts, not least for the disenfranchisement of the black working class and the concurrent rise of Los Angeles’s black gang culture that it witnessed. The record of Black Los Angeles is, thus, a record of its manifold complexities, racial, spatial, political, cultural.

General Overviews

It is surprising, given Los Angeles’s centrality to America’s and, indeed, the world’s culture and economy, that more comprehensive scholarship has not been produced about African-American history and presence in the city of Los Angeles. Jack Forbes, primarily a scholar of Native American history, also devoted much study to the confluence between black and Native American peoples in the colonial era Far West, in particular his work Afro-Americans in the Far West: A Handbook for Educators (Forbes 1966). Taylor 1998 is also concerned with this same time period and the confluence between the subjugated peoples of the American West. Wagner 2007 chronicles the lives and accomplishments of ten particularly influential 19th-century black women of the Far West, highlighting the often primary role that black women have played in Black California’s abolition, civil rights, and political and economic self-determination movements. Sides 2006, Flamming 2006, and Cox Yarborough 1996 (Central Avenue: Its Rise and Fall, 1890–1955) examine the Great Migration of African Americans out of the American South to Los Angeles. Wilkerson 2010 also adds to this literature, profiling Dr. Robert Pershing’s journey from Louisiana to Los Angeles and relaying the major scholarship on the westward migration of African Americans during the mid-20th century. Hunt and Ramon 2010 and Nanda 2011 are ambitious edited interdisciplinary anthologies that seek, through collection of historical documents, the writings of leading literary lights, as well as lesser-known journalists, scholars, novelists and poets, to provide a comprehensive record of Black California’s history, subjugation, artistic, cultural, and political ascendance and complexity. Most recently, Campbell 2016 chronicles the prehistory and pre–Great Migration history of Los Angeles’s black population.

  • Campbell, Marne L. Making Black Los Angeles: Class, Gender, and Community, 1850–1917. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

    Campbell chronicles the mythic prehistory of Black California and then in subsequent chapters examines African Americans’ formation of communities in 19th- and early 20th-century Los Angeles, with specific attention to Charlotta Bass’s work and DuBois’s “Colored California.”

  • Cox, Bette Yarbrough. Central Avenue: Its Rise and Fall, 1890–1955. Los Angeles: BEEM, 1996.

    Cox provides the history of Central Avenue’s heyday as a black cultural and economic thoroughfare in the first half of the 20th century and its decline after the Second World War.

  • Flamming, Douglas. Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America. Oakland: University of California Press, 2006.

    Charlotta Bass’s life and work is used as a prism through which to examine black migration to Los Angeles, the civil rights movement in the city, the pre–Second World War Central Avenue commercial district and black life during the Great Depression.

  • Forbes, Jack D. Afro-Americans in the Far West: A Handbook for Educators. Berkeley: The Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, 1966.

    A proposed curriculum and annotated bibliography for educators developing a curriculum focused on African-American migration and contributions to America’s western region. The handbook is now available for free online in PDF form.

  • Hunt, Darnell, and Ana-Christina Ramon, eds. Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

    This anthology collects multidisciplinary scholarly essays on the historic and contemporary breadth of Black Angeleno experience, from the city’s founding under Spanish rule to the diverse, complicated metropolis faced by African Americans in the 21st century.

  • Nanda, Aparajita, ed. Black California: A Literary Anthology. Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 2011.

    This literary anthology presents primary source historical documents, articles chronicling major events in the history of African Americans in California, and well-known novelists and poets chronicling black experience through creative and journalistic literature.

  • Sides, Josh L. A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present. Oakland: University of California Press, 2006.

    With specific chapters on the migration of a family out of Louisiana, DuBois in California, Second World War migration, the black working class in Los Angeles, etc. Sides examines the totality of the 20th-century black experience in Los Angeles.

  • Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier African Americans in the American West 1528–1990. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

    Though the black population out West is relatively small, Taylor argues that African Americans have been central figures in the settlement and development of the American West.

  • Wagner, Tricia Martineau. African American Women of the Old West. Guilford, CT: TwoDot, 2007.

    Wagner’s work examines the lives of Western pioneers doubly under-discussed due to their race (black) and gender (female) in the annals of the American West.

  • Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York: Vintage, 2010.

    Wilkerson profiles black migrants, Ida Mae Gladney, who migrates from Mississippi to Chicago; George Starlling, who leaves Florida for Harlem; and Robert Pershing, whose journey takes him from Louisiana to Los Angeles, and examines the totality of the Great Migration.

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