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Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (George Gund Foundation Imprint in African American Studies). University of California Press; January 2005; 472 pp.; $29.95


Paul Bontemps decided to move his family to Los Angeles from Louisiana in 1906 on the day he finally submitted to a strictly enforced Southern custom -- he stepped off the sidewalk to allow white men who had just insulted him to pass by. Friends of the Bontemps family, like many others beckoning their loved ones West, had written that Los Angeles was "a city called heaven" for people of color. But just how free was Southern California for African-Americans? This splendid history, at once sweeping in its historical reach and intimate in its evocation of everyday life, is the first full account of Los Angeles's black community in the half century before World War II. Filled with moving human drama, it brings alive a time and place largely ignored by historians until now, detailing African-American community life and political activism during the city's transformation from small town to sprawling metropolis. Writing with a novelist's sensitivity to language and drawing from fresh historical research, Douglas Flamming takes us from Reconstruction to the Jim Crow era, through the Great Migration, the Roaring '20s, the Great Depression, and the build-up to World War II. Along the way, he offers rich descriptions of the community and its middle-class leadership, the women who were front and center with men in the battle against racism in the American West. In addition to drawing a vivid portrait of a little-known era, Flamming shows that the history of race in Los Angeles is crucial for our understanding of race in America. The civil rights activism in Los Angeles laid the foundation for critical developments in the second half of the century that continue to influence us to this day.


Los Angeles Times: The celebrated jazz scene that flourished along Central Avenue in Los Angeles during the 1940s is emblematic of what historian Douglas Flamming calls "the Paradise Lost narrative" of the black experience in Southern California. Once upon a time, the story goes, black people fled the racism, poverty, and violence of the Deep South in search of the good life in Los Angeles -- they flourished briefly during World War II and then slipped into an ever-deepening despair that reached a flash point during the Watts riots.

"I have come to distrust the Paradise Lost narrative," writes Flamming in Bound for Freedom, a masterful and moving account of the black community in Los Angeles during the first half of the 20th Century. The real story is more subtle. "Regardless of the time period, the basic rights of black Angelenos always faced attack from some quarter," he explains. "Knowing they were not free enough, black Angelenos set out to change that, and therein lies the tale." Flamming, a history professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, did much of the research for Bound for Freedom at the Huntington Library and other California archives and libraries while on the faculty at Cal Tech. His book is a solid work of scholarship, but it is also urgent and intimate, lively and even endearing. The sweeping saga comes into sharp focus again and again as Flamming introduces us to real men and women whose life experiences, sometimes charming and sometimes alarming, embody the larger themes of his book.

"I have always wanted to understand," notes the author in a characteristic aside, "how real people at the corner of First and Main saw their world." At the same time, he readily concedes that as a white observer some aspects of the black experience are simply beyond his grasp. "In the America we live in, I have come to doubt that any white person, or any non-black person for that matter, can fully understand the African-American experience," he writes.


Douglas Flamming is associate professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of Creating the Modern South: Millhands and Managers in Dalton, Georgia, 1884-1984, winner of the Philip Taft Labor History Award.


Douglas Flamming was born in 1959 in Eastland, Texas, a tiny dot on the map in West Texas. Professor Flamming went on to explain, "I only lived in Eastland a few weeks and my family moved. My father was and remains a Baptist minister. Both my grandfathers are Baptist ministers. My mother's father was Southern Baptist and definitely not a fundamentalist. My father's father was an Independent Baptist and a fundamentalist. My father rebelled against the fundamentalists and became a Southern Baptist. That was before the Southern Baptists were taken over by the fundamentalists, which they still remain. But my dad remains a Southern Baptist minister, although I suspect they disown him and he doesn't own them either."

I laughed and asked, "So, did you become an Episcopalian?"

"That's a great question because I very nearly became an Episcopalian. Right now I'm leaning toward Quakers. I'm not an Episcopalian, but I certainly moved more in a liturgical direction."

As for where the professor grew up, he lived as a youngster "mostly in Abilene, which is a rural and cattle town. Abilene is big-sky, open country, very rugged, and very much as a landscape has gotten in my bones. I often feel claustrophobic back East because there are so many pine trees you can't see the horizon."

"When did you get interested in history?"

"I had little interest in it. My father was always interested in it. But I wasn't seriously interested in anything. I was an undeclared liberal arts student at the University of Texas at Arlington, Texas. I was thinking about going into art as a career. But the art department was geared toward commercial art. That's not where my head was. I stumbled into a History 101 class at 8:00 in the morning."

"So you truly did stumble."

"Yeah, my one goal in going to college was no 8:00 a.m. classes. That was my principal aim. I'd been getting up early all my life. I was going to drop it. I went to the first class, and this guy just took off. I said, 'Maybe I'll think about it before I drop.' This guy hooked me in, and I never missed. I said, 'I don't know what this guy teaches, but whatever he teaches, I'm taking it.' He was a great storyteller. He still is. He's a very well-known historian now."

"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."

"In Atlanta now do you ever run into that sort of thing where older black people will get off the sidewalk if a white person is walking on that same sidewalk?"

"I have never seen that in Atlanta. I don't know what would happen if I went to some of the older, rural towns. I would just not take a guess one way or the other. But in Atlanta I find not a segregated city in the sense of Jim Crow so much as I find a separated city in which race relations are actually, well, let's just say they're a heck of a lot better in the South than they used to be.

"There's a reason why hundreds of thousands of African-Americans are moving to the Atlanta area. One reason is economic opportunity. Another reason is that many African-Americans, particularly from the Northern cities, believe that racial tensions are lower. But that does not mean that the neighborhoods aren't pretty separate and that parts of the city aren't pretty separate. Race, of course, will always be an important factor in Southern society."

"That Bound for Freedom is character-driven, told through the words and eyes of many different people, makes it particularly readable," I said.

"That's what I wanted to do, to make it a very human read and to try to get those scholarly points across, right? To sort of teach it and storytell it. And in truth, there was a point where I said, 'You just have to think about preaching this book.' Given my background, I come by it honestly. The sound has to cascade, it has to flow, it has to have a rhythm. I think that comes from listening to a lot of good preaching. And just thinking."

"And," I said, "a lot of research."

"I had access to some terrific autobiographies, like that of Charlotta Bass. I was lucky with that. It's one of those books that is a real stroke of luck but also creates a lot more work than you expect because it jumps around. Sometimes it leaves out exactly what you want to know. It puts in what you don't care about. But it was a wonderful starting point not just for information but for a feel for the attitude of the community in the early part of the 20th Century. She was such an amazing person and so central to the community over the whole period of time that I study. She serves as an archetype -- the race leader, the race woman.

"It didn't take long for me to figure out that if I was going to write this, if I was going to forefront the characters and their stories, that she could be the central thread. She had a hand in just about everything. And somewhere along the way -- I think it was very late in the game -- I realized, 'Begin the story with her riding in on a train, and end the story with her riding in on a train.' And at that point, then I realized what my bookends were and how to structure it.

"It's funny because I just taught a course on research methods to history majors here at Georgia Tech. What I told them on the first day is that I have no clear method to teach. You have to be creative, and you have to think hard about what you have to work with and think about how to use it creatively. And then you need to work very hard to find things that other people haven't found."

"And," I said, "you have to talk to everybody."

"You really do. And you have to mull it over. I used a lot more statistical materials in my first book, but I decided in this case -- no. Take them out. Just talk it. Talk the numbers. Which is what I wound up doing. I had really long sections, for example, on migration data and employment data. I realized that people would have skipped them. I worried that even if I spent too much time just talking about them that I would lose the characters."

I noted that Professor Flamming also interviewed people who were on the edges of important events.

"The edges matter too," he said, "because you know if someone is on the fringe, then the fringe tells you about the center."

"Do you have some final words?"

"Come to think of it, I will say this, that this is a very inspiring group of people. I say in the book that one of the key themes is civil rights as a way of life. But I wonder if there's not a more pointed lesson, which is, 'Never give up. Never give up on freedom.' Think about how many battles the community leaders lost. Yet in ways that just seem to me to be remarkable, particularly in America today, they wouldn't give up. They never quit. That's an inspiring lesson.

"Not just for African-Americans, not just for people in L.A., but for everybody. I had to say after the recent presidential election, when I was so devastated personally, and thought -- it's all over; everything is lost, everything is suddenly gone -- but it struck me, literally walking to class one day, that the lesson of the book I just wrote was 'Never give up.' 'Never give up on freedom.' And I said, 'Well, are you just going to ignore that lesson, or are you going to take it to heart and say to yourself, "You'll never give up either"?'

"I'm not a big public figure. I'm very much of a homebody. I love to teach. I love to write. I love to spend time with my family. I can't imagine what it would be like to live a very activist life. That's not who I am. But I owe it, I think, to those who came before, including the people I write about, to have hope and to have determination and to do what I can and never give up, never give up on freedom."

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