"You thank him in your book."
"Elliott West. That's him. He was funny, he was witty, he was smart, and I was a clueless undergraduate, but I knew what I liked. When I went in and sat in his classes, I felt alive. I felt like I was getting in touch with something that was important. Once I had taken several of his classes and I said, 'That's it. I want to do what he does.' I never looked back after that, and I never regretted it. He's been a tremendous positive influence on my life."
For graduate school, Professor Flamming went to Vanderbilt University. "It was a big move for me. I like to say -- 'When I moved 800 miles northeast, I discovered the South,' and the South, as you know, is an important part of the book. I began to study Southern history under Don Doyle, a social historian, there at Vanderbilt. There was a group of us graduate students -- this was in the early 1980s -- and we rallied around Don Doyle. He was doing what was then called 'The new social history,' history from the bottom up."
"Where you showed every rickrack-trimmed apron and every battered frying pan."
"That's right, that's right. And every strike. We focused on migration and adaptation from rural to urban environments and labor conflicts and what have you, ethnic and immigrant moves. Of course, in Southern history race relations, race conflicts."
The professor received his Ph.D. in history at Vanderbilt and met his wife there while she was working on her psychology Ph.D. "Then," he said, "I went on to teach and taught a year at Virginia Tech, and then I got a tenure track job in Pasadena at Cal Tech. That was an outstanding job and a great place to work. It was a career lifesaver. I'll always be grateful to Cal Tech. That's where I started the Los Angeles Project.
"I had begun to study race seriously in graduate school, and particularly, race in the South, which was a very black/white subject. I said, 'Well, you know in Abilene it was a lot more complicated because there were more Latinos or Hispanics, Mexican-Americans, and Mexican immigrants than there were African-Americans. It was a triple kind of deal. I thought, 'I'm going to try to get at that and look at the roots of how race relations worked when you added the other...'"
"Gosh," I said, "you must have felt like a blessing had fallen over your head when you came up with that subject."
"That's a good word for it -- blessing. And that's a good word for the way I feel about lining up with the project. Almost as soon as I got to Pasadena I fell for L.A. as just this incredibly fascinating place. Eventually, I narrowed it down to the African-American community as my focus. Like you say, it was a blessing. I've always followed my heart. I guess Joseph Campbell would say, 'Follow your bliss.'
"I couldn't not do this project. Part of me said, 'I have to understand this community.' I decided I'd blend my earlier work on the South, and I'd look at Southerners who came west to Los Angeles to try to create a different sort of racial environment in a new Western home. And it was, it was just a blessing to work on it. It was one of those things that once I got going, I couldn't stop."
"You worked on this book for ten years."
"I don't remember ever not working on the book. I got my first grant to work on the book in 1990. At that time, I was not as focused -- I couldn't envision what eventually came of it. It was a big project. Los Angeles is a hard city to know. It's multilayered and it's spread out and..."
I interrupted to say, "There are many different eras in time in the same geographic spaces."
"That is exactly right. That's very well said. I hadn't thought of it that way, but you've hit the nail on the head there. So it took a long time for me to begin to get a grasp on L.A. generally. I knew nothing about it because I had never studied Western history or Los Angeles history."
"Who was the Jim Crow in your title?"
"Jim Crow, I think to the best we know, was not a real person. There was, before the Civil War, a Northern minstrel group, led by a white guy, who went in blackface. He adopted a character that was a classic demeaning stereotype of a Southern black person. He would do a routine and sing a song, and that went with the routine -- 'I jump up, I jump back, I jump Jim Crow.' I can't give you the details off the top of my head, but we know that Jim Crow became a derogatory word for the foolish black person -- the smiling slave. It was a put-down."
"I always took for granted Jim Crow was some way of saying, 'Go to the back of the bus.'"
"That's what it became, and it became that way very quickly after the Civil War, after Emancipation. During, and particularly after, Reconstruction."
"That horrible period."
"Oh, it was a devastating, devastating period. We don't know how the notion of the ridiculing minstrel use of Jim Crow became associated with racial segregation, 'Get to the back of the bus,' or, before there were buses, 'the back of the streetcar.' We just don't know -- maybe somebody knows, but I don't."
"And you're back in the South, at Georgia Tech, after years of teaching at Cal Tech."
"I am. I'm in Atlanta. I'm in one of those oases of blue, blue Georgia. Atlanta is a fascinating town. There's a lot to like about it. Because I'm interested in black migration out of Atlanta and to the West Coast, I'm fascinated now that Atlanta's a top magnet for African-Americans. There's tremendous growth, particularly among the professional class."