When Pacoima Was Negro

Georgia Taylor, "Negro", leading the fight for fair housing

Georgia Taylor, “Negro”, 1965

We think of the term today as antiquated. An othering expression.  But this was the politically neutral, dispassionate term used widely in the media, and not in uncomplimentary way, to describe participants in the civil rights movement.

When the Valley was White, the Negroes lived in Pacoima.

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Consequently Pacoima was once the hotbed of political activity in the Valley. Face it, the hotbed was never going to be Sherman Oaks.

Signing up Freedom Riders, 1961

Signing up Freedom Riders, 1961

We think of Pacoima today as the home of Richie Valens and Danny Trejo, and the muralist Levi Ponce. We don’t think of black people.  But it was one of the few places in the Valley which rented to them.

Housing segregation was enforced by an honor code among real estate agents.  As a remedy the state legislature passed the 1963 Rumford Housing Act, which challenged restrictive practices.  The first challenge of the law took place in San Fernando, where landlords were holding the line against any bleed through from the black population of nearby….Pacoima.

In response, the following year the California realtor lobby put Proposition 14 on the ballot:

Neither the State nor any subdivision or agency thereof shall deny, limit or abridge, directly or indirectly, the right of any person, who is willing or desires to sell, lease or rent any part or all of his real property, to decline to sell, lease or rent such property to such person or persons as he, in his absolute discretion, chooses.

It passed overwhelmingly.  By two thirds in Los Angeles County.  Three years later, Prop. 14 would be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Reitman v. Mulkey.

By then, the Watts riots had happened.

After Watts, Negroes were Black.  The beatific and patient visage of Georgia Taylor, local NAACP, was no longer the face of progress.

The Mohammed Mosque, 1961, now Iglesias Vida Y Luz

The Mohammed Mosque, 13209 Van Nuys Blvd,  now Iglesias Vida Y Luz

In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed, the Dodgers won the World Series, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek met at UCLA. Of lesser note, but more lasting consequence for Los Angeles, was the quiet passage of the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act.  Nominally it abolished the quota system on national origins in place since 1924. In practice Latinos and Asians flooded into California, first as a trickle, then in a tidal wave by the mid-1980’s, rendering the feud in the courts and the ballot box between whites and blacks academic.

In the 1970’s Pacoima would produce USC All-American tailback Anthony Davis and Heisman Trophy winner Charles White. The city was three-quarters black. By 1990, it was 70% Latino, and no longer produced NFL draft choices.

Today, you can enjoy the cuisine of three continents in a single strip mall, cheaply.  It’s part of what makes Los Angeles special.   When you step outside, the kids roll by in their cars,  windows down, hip-hop thumping: nigger this and nigger that and bitches and hos and money and guns.  If there is any lingering social discomfort over this, it remains tucked within an ironic framework people have grown used to.

I guess that’s progress. Just not the kind Georgia Taylor was thinking of.

(All photos courtesy of the Valley Times Collection)