Little Tokyo / Bronzeville, Los Angeles, California
Bronzeville was a short-lived African American enclave in downtown Los Angeles that replaced Little Tokyo during World War II after the United States government forcibly removed Japanese Americans from the West Coast into concentration camps.
Once the U.S. government excluded Japanese Americans from the West Coast in early 1942, the Japantowns up and down the West Coast became ghost towns. Since Japanese immigrants, by law, could not own property, the large majority of building owners in these vacant Japantowns were Caucasians who had to find new tenants.
A July 12, 1942 Los Angeles Times article noted that Little Tokyo building owners were discussing the possibility of turning the area into a Latin American quarter, housing representatives from the Latin American consul generals' offices and trade organizations. However, before these plans were set into motion, thousands of African Americans, mainly from the Deep South, started flooding California to work in the war defense industry, which was facing a labor shortage. The more fortunate newcomers doubled up and lived with relatives or friends but for the majority of African Americans, the empty Japantowns became a port of entry since restrictive housing covenants barred people of color from living in white neighborhoods.
Before the war, Little Tokyo housed about 30,000 Japanese Americans. During the war, the Los Angeles County Health Department reported that the area had an estimated 80,000 people. The majority of these residents were African Americans with a few Latinos. Everything—vacant store fronts, temples, churches, garages—became makeshift living quarters. It was common for 16 people to live in one room or for 40 people to share one bathroom, and the term "hot beds" came into use, to describe the overcrowded situation where a bed was taken over by someone else as soon as another person got up.
After various meetings and protests, federal officials in late 1943 proposed building temporary war housing in the unincorporated City of Willowbrook, a then-white neighborhood next to Watts and Compton, which prompted predictable protests from residents of that area. Meanwhile, city officials embarked on a five-month campaign in 1944 to improve living conditions in Little Tokyo/Bronzeville. They served abatement notices where approximately 57 buildings were condemned as unfit for human habitation and another 125 buildings were ordered repaired or renovated. Of the evicted people, some 50 families were sent to the newly-constructed Jordan Downs public housing development in Watts.
At the same time, African Americans filed several lawsuits challenging restrictive housing covenants. During one unsuccessful lawsuit, Floyd Covington, member of the City Housing Authority and executive director of the Los Angeles Urban League, testified that only the Little Tokyo district and surrounding vacated homes of Japanese Americans had opened up to African Americans since 1940.
Since the African American newcomers needed social service assistance, the Los Angeles Council of Social Agencies, under Los Angeles City's Department of Community Welfare Federation, formed a Special Little Tokyo Committee in June 1943. This committee formed Pilgrim House, a social service center that provided health, sanitation, education, housing and employment assistance to the newcomers. The committee secured space at 120 North San Pedro Street, which was the prewar Japanese Union Church building. During the war, the Los Angeles Presbyterian and Congregational Conference of Southern California held the building title and funded a part of Pilgrim House's budget.
The Rev. Harold Merrybright Kingsley, an African American minister from the Church of Good Shepherd in Chicago, was appointed Pilgrim House executive director in February 1944. Pilgrim House activities included a nursery school; Boy Scout Troop 731, sponsored by the Golden State Life Insurance which had an office in Bronzeville; a basketball team; ceramics classes; counseling; playground space; a toy loan program; a free immunization service through the city Health Department; play performances; and off-site camping activities.
One of the first African American churches to open was the Lily of the Valley Baptist Church at 121 Weller Street and headed by Rev. H. Dillard. His wife, Mrs. O.L. Dillard, was known to drive around, picking up Bronzeville children and bringing them to Sunday school.
In the spring of 1943, Los Angeles was rocked by a race riot, spurred in part by racially tinged articles in the mainstream newspapers. This incited Anglo servicemen stationed in Los Angeles to go after Latino youths in what is referred to as the Zoot Suit Riots since the servicemen targeted Latino youths wearing zoot suits, a style of clothing that included draped pants that were pegged at the ankle and a jacket with sleeves down to the finger tips. These clothes were considered extravagant during the war years when everything, including cloth, was rationed.
When the servicemen went on a rampage from the end of May to early June 1943, those in the Little Tokyo/Bronzeville were not immune. One of the more graphic incidents was reported in the June 17, 1943 California Eagle, where a mob attacked Lewis W. Jackson, 23, an African American resident of Little Tokyo/Bronzeville. He had moved from Louisiana that February and was working in the shipyards. The newspaper reported that a mob of servicemen severely beat Jackson and knifed out one of his eyes. He was not wearing a zoot suit. Racial tension continued to simmer in the months following the Zoot Suit Riot, and in the fall Mayor Fletcher Bowron called for a citywide race unity program.
The Little Tokyo/Bronzeville area also saw an increase in strong-arm robberies, rapes or attempted rapes, especially against female graveyard shift defense workers, and hit and run accidents. Minutes from an October 8, 1943 Little Tokyo Committee meeting also made note of the increase in shoeshine parlors, which were fronts for prostitution. Laura Long, who had been voted Miss Bronzeville in 1943, captured headlines in November 1945 when she stabbed Vivian Smith with a butcher knife in front of Long's barbecue restaurant at 354 East First Street. The victim had allegedly made unwanted advances towards Long's husband. She was acquitted in a jury trial.
Overcrowding in Bronzeville/Little Tokyo gave rise to health problems, particularly the spread of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and venereal diseases. To combat this, various organizations and city offices offered free lectures and services. African American newspapers such as the California Eagle assisted by publishing educational cartoons on venereal diseases. It was also common to see advertisement targeting those with gonorrhea, syphilis or tuberculosis.
In an Aug. 10, 1943 mayor's meeting report, Dr. George Uhl, Los Angeles City Health officer, stated that in Little Tokyo/Bronzeville "much tuberculosis and venereal diseases discovered" and that they had two public health nurses and two sanitary inspectors assigned to the area. Uhl also noted that the city health officer had written up more than 140 evictions and abatement notices in the area so that substandard living conditions could be cleaned up.
Leonard Christmas is credited with opening the first African American business in Bronzeville/Little Tokyo in early 1943 as the Digby Hotel, 506 1/2 East First Street, on the corner of Alameda and First Street. Christmas, a Special Little Tokyo Committee member, started his hotel business after learning that African American railroad workers needed housing. He secured a loan from the Security First National Bank and approached Little Tokyo building owners who were eager to have any business. Christmas became president of the East First Street Chamber of Commerce and later helped organize the Bronzeville Chamber of Commerce in August 1943. Other co-founders included Dr. A.E. Johnson, an investigator for the district attorney; C.W. Smith, a traffic officer in the "Little Tokyo" section; and Major Bowles.
The formation of the Bronzeville Chamber of Commerce received publicity not only in the African American newspapers but in the mainstream press as well. By January 1944, the Bronzeville Chamber of Commerce boasted 125 members, with an office at 111 North San Pedro Street. At an Oct 8, 1943 Special Little Tokyo Committee meeting, Christmas officially declared the area as Bronzeville.
Another notable African American business was the Crown Point Department Store, which opened its doors in September 1943. Crown Point was a cooperative venture of 19 African American women. Clara W. Brown, who headed the group, had run a successful retail store in New Orleans before moving to Los Angeles. The department store, on the corner of First and Los Angeles streets, sold groceries, meats, dry goods, medication and clothing.
With the defense industry demanding workers 24 hours a day, Little Tokyo/Bronzeville was a hive of activity with the mingling of day and graveyard shift workers, who found themselves flush with disposable income. This gave rise to a thriving night life in Little Tokyo/Bronzeville that competed with African American clubs around 42nd and Central Avenue. Many of these clubs stayed open well into the morning hours, giving rise to the term Breakfast Clubs. The Los Angeles City Council unsuccessfully passed several ordinances in an effort to curb breakfast club businesses.
Little Tokyo/Bronzeville's best known breakfast club was Shepp's Playhouse, which was on the corner of First and Los Angeles streets, the prewar site of the Kawafuku restaurant. Gordon Shepphard, an African American who had been a former Hollywood cameraman, opened Shepp's on Sept. 12, 1944. In 1946, Billy Berg, a well-known Hollywood club owner, purchased a half-interest in Shepp's. Many notable musicians performed at Shepp's including Coleman Hawkins, Herb Jeffries from the Duke Ellington band, and T-Bone Walker, to name a few. Gerald Wilson made his debut with his own orchestra at Shepp's in 1944 after he had left the Jimmie Lunceford band. Shepp's customers included the likes of Count Basie, Helen Humes, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly, among others.
The Finale Club was most notable for booking Charlie Parker on March 21, 1946. This fly-by-night establishment closed and re-opened its doors at different addresses. While in Little Tokyo/Bronzeville, Parker stayed at the Downtown Hotel on North San Pedro Street. It was at the Civic Hotel that Parker had his infamous drug-induced breakdown where he set his bed on fire and walked out into the lobby naked. The Civic Hotel was also popular with other musicians such as the Lionel Hampton Band and African American railroad workers such as porters and cooks since it was close to the train stations.
The Cobra Room, the Linda Lea Theatre, and the Theatre Arts Building were among other nightspots in Bronzeville.
Return to Little Tokyo
As the war began to wind down, the government began allowing Japanese Americans to return to the West Coast in 1945. Japanese Americans were able to re-open businesses in Little Tokyo/Bronzeville when building owners did not renew lease agreements with African Americans or the returning Japanese Americans bought out the Bronzeville business leases.
On occasion, there were lawsuits. Some of the more notable lawsuits included the Nishi Hongwanji Temple and the New Olympic Hotel, both of which involved a dispute over ownership. In the case of the former, the temple—which was run by non-Japanese American Buddhist minister Rev. Julius Goldwater during the war—had rented space to a number of institutions including a Baptist Church, but refused to renew leases after January 5, 1945. The Baptist Association sued the temple, with the case being dismissed in September 1950.
The Home Protective Association, headed by California Eagle publisher/editor Charlotta Bass, pushed for racial harmony by passing a resolution in January 1945 recognizing the Japanese American right to their properties and requested that the government offer more housing opportunities.
When the war ended in August 1945, war industry jobs dried up and many African American war workers found themselves laid off. By 1947, fewer children were attending the Pilgrim House nursery school since laid off women workers had time to look after their children. By November 1947, the Los Angeles Presbytery and the Southern California Congregational Conference voted to return the building to Union Church members. Pilgrim House did not challenge this and contacted African American news media to quell any false perception that Pilgrim House was being forced out. On Sept. 1, 1948, Pilgrim House relocated to 150 North Los Angeles Street, which was also home to a Filipino center and church. No sooner had Pilgrim House made the move, however, when they received notice in 1949 that the 150 North Los Angeles building was targeted for demolition to make way for Parker Center. Pilgrim House closed their doors on Oct. 16, 1950, at their final location at 600 East First Street.
The fate of Pilgrim House mirrored what occurred to other Bronzeville organizations and businesses. As Japanese Americans returned to Little Tokyo, the African American newcomers moved out for other opportunities.
The longest-running business from the Bronzeville era was that of James Hodge, who opened a newspaper stand during the war on the corner of First and San Pedro, in front of the Civic Hotel, now the Kajima Building, and didn't close shop until the 1980s.
For More Information
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Yokota, Kariann. "From Little Tokyo to Bronzeville and Back: Ethnic Communities in Transition." M.A. thesis, UCLA, 1996.
- The Bronzeville research was originally funded through a grant from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program.