Lawrence B. de Graaf Taylor, Kevin Mulroy, eds. Quintard. Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. xiii + 537 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-98083-6.
Reviewed by Josh Sides (Assistant Professor, History Department, Cal Poly Pomona )
Published on H-California (December, 2001)
New Directions in the History of African Americans in California
New Directions in the History of African Americans in California
Both California and African American historians will benefit greatly from Seeking El Dorado, published by the University of Washington Press in conjunction with the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles. Growing out of a series of lectures presented at the Autry in 1994, this collection of fourteen essays skillfully excavates the rich, diverse, and often-contradictory history of blacks in California. This is no small task, given the natural tendency to lean on California^Òs ever-growing archive of myths, particularly those describing the state^Òs racial history. Since the early nineteenth century, generations of African Americans have migrated to California with the expectation that the western state provided greater housing and employment opportunities, and greater racial harmony, than either the South or the North. Self-servingly echoed by many white Californians throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this notion has been casually accepted by many students and scholars of the far West. Part of the staying power of the myth is its solid grounding in historical fact. Although few blacks found "El Dorado" in California, they certainly found an area where anti-black racial violence was minimal, home ownership was a real possibility and where the state's classrooms and public accommodations were not segregated by law. While reaffirming California's special place in nineteenth and twentieth-century African America, the contributors are also sensitive to the ways blacks interpreted, rejected, and responded to the real and mythical allures of the state.
Many of the essays in Seeking El Dorado add great texture and depth to an old, but still too unfamiliar, story. There is, quite simply, some great history here. For example, in "Harvests of Gold: African American Boosterism, Agriculture, and Investment in Allensworth and Little Liberia" Delores Nason McBroome explores two fascinating black colonization schemes in early twentieth-century California. In 1907, Colonel Allen Allensworth, a former slave, Spanish-American war veteran and ordained Baptist minister, negotiated with white real estate brokers in the San Joaquin Valley, purchased farmland, and established the townsite of Allensworth. Promoted as an all-black, self-governing, agricultural community, Allensworth sustained a population of two hundred until its demise in the late 1920s. During World War I, black Los Angeles attorney Hugh Macbeth envisioned the creation of a similar all-black agricultural community in Baja California (Mexico). Drawing from California^Òs black business elite, Macbeth organized the Lower California Company and purchased plots north of Ensenada, but poor financial management and the increased antipathy of the Mexican government doomed the project almost before it had begun in earnest. Clearly, both Allensworth and New Liberia were anomalous in California, and neither was successful, even by the most generous definition of the word. Nor is McBroome the first to write about Colonel Allen Allensworth and Hugh Macbeth. Yet, McBroome skillfully extracts the larger significance of these ventures and evaluates the influence of racial ideology and politics in their rise and fall. In some cases, the Washingtonian (Booker T.) thrust of these agricultural enterprises simply did not fit in California. The biggest problem facing both communities was African Americans' distaste for rural California. Having sacrificed everything to leave the South, few blacks had any interest in returning to the farm as either laborers or farm owners. Furthermore, most African Americans in California were uncomfortable with the self-imposed segregation of black colonies. In one fascinating example, California's black leadership vigorously denounced, and ultimately derailed, a proposal to build an all black Tuskegee-like State Industrial School in Allensworth for fear that that it would establish a precedent for school segregation in the state.
Similarly fascinating and instructive is Douglas Flamming's "Becoming Democrats: Liberal Politics and the African American Community in Los Angeles, 1930-1965." Flamming explores the California contours of a much larger national story: the shift in black political allegiances from the Republican to the Democratic Party during the Great Depression. In Los Angeles, the vehicle for that transition was Louisiana-born Augustus (Gus) Hawkins. Having grown up in middle-class black Los Angeles and attended UCLA for his undergraduate degree, Hawkins was devastated when the Depression wiped out his father's savings and his own chances going on to graduate school. Flamming explains the remarkable ways Hawkins cobbled together support from diverse constituents in his multiracial district, ultimately ousting black Republican Assemblyman Fred Roberts in 1934. Hawkins^Ò greatest asset, as it turns out, may have been his very light skin color, which allowed him to garner significant support from white voters interested in his pro-labor, pro-welfare politics and unaware of his racial background. Flamming follows the evolving relationship between blacks and the Democratic Party from the 1940s and early 1950s, when Hawkins and others labored in vain, into the late 1950s, when liberal Democrats rose to power in the Sacramento, and into the 1960s, when major civil rights victories were finally scored. Particularly important was the gubernatorial election of liberal "Pat" Brown in 1959, which ushered in a new era of state support for racial equality. In that year alone, the California State Assembly approved the creation of the California Fair Employment Practices Committee, and passed bills outlawing discrimination in public housing and raising the fine for racial discrimination in public places. But these victories were quickly forgotten in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Riot, which unleashed a strong anti-black, and often anti-Democrat, backlash in California. California and African American historians have written a great deal about the 1950s and 1960s, when the relationship between the Democratic Party and blacks was triumphant. This view, Flamming rightly suggests, obscures the slow and tedious work of Hawkins and others to make the Democratic Party responsive to its black constituents before it was popular to do so.
Most impressive and innovative is Lawrence B. de Graaf's "African American Suburbanization in California, 1960 through 1990." Like the other selections in Seeking El Dorado, de Graaf's piece makes a topical contribution to African American history in California: de Graaf explains the complex array of forces shaping black out-migration from central cities. Unlike the other selections, however, de Graaf also introduces new methodological tools to the study of African American history in California and elsewhere. His careful, methodical quantitative and qualitative research yields a wonderfully nuanced portrait of black residential mobility. For too long historians have relied on an inner city/out suburb dichotomy to understand race and urban space. This made good sense through the 1950s, when most suburbs were thoroughly restricted by race. But that model does not work well in the period from the 1970s through the present, when African Americans in California and elsewhere become an increasingly important part of a particular kind of American suburb. De Graaf's thorough but comprehensible quantitative analysis leads him to a subtle discussion of the distinctions between what he describes as the "older/larger suburbs" and the "newer/fastest-growing" suburbs. In the 1960s and 1970s changing racial attitudes among whites, legal challenges to residential segregation, and new Federally-funded state programs like the Section 8 grants, opened doors to suburbs that had been restricted to blacks through the 1950s. These developments allowed blacks entry into bona fide American suburbs, but, as de Graaf points out, these were the suburbs of yesteryear, often hobbled by economic decline and rising crime. Nonetheless, blacks experienced opportunities for comfort and sometimes safety that were unimaginable in Watts or Willowbrook. Thus, the traditional view that Carson and Inglewood, for example, were simply manifestations of "ghetto sprawl" seriously undervalues the meaning of those communities to blacks who fled the hardcore ghetto. This is a superb article that should set a new standard of scholarship for current and future scholars of California history, African American history and urban history. It is fitting that de Graaf's article should play that role since his 1962 dissertation, "Negro migration to Los Angeles, 1930 to 1950" has been read by hundreds of graduate students and scholars beginning research on African Americans in California.
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Josh Sides. Review of Taylor, Lawrence B. de Graaf; Mulroy, Kevin; Quintard, eds., Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California.
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