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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."

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