The Dunbar Hotel Was Once The Heart Of Black Los Angeles
If buildings have personalities, the legendary Dunbar Hotel on Central Ave. would be one of our most mercurial — intellectual and sophisticated one minute, wild and reckless the next.
A mecca of African American Los Angeles since its 1928 debut, the hotel played host to the NAACP's first West Coast convention and later welcomed stars such as Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway and Langston Hughes.
By the 1960s, the Dunbar had fallen on hard times as black businesses and residents dispersed throughout the city. In 1975, entertainer Rudy Ray Moore used the run-down building as a soundstage for his blaxploitation flick, Dolemite, described as "the Citizen Kane of kung fu pimping movies," by the New York Times. (The making of that film was chronicled in the recent Netflix movie Dolemite Is My Name, starring Eddie Murphy.)
As racism and discrimination raged outside its polished lobby doors, the hotel served as a home away from home for some of L.A.'s most fascinating black historical figures. For three decades, it helped culture and community flourish.
In the 1920s, Drs. John and Vada Somerville were the golden couple of progressive black Los Angeles. John, who was originally from Jamaica, was the first black man to attend dental school at the University of Southern California. Vada, whom he married in 1912, was the first black woman to graduate from USC's dental school.
The Somervilles, like most professional black intellectuals of the time, were active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They helped found the organization's L.A. branch. The couple counted W.E.B Du Bois as a friend and played an active role in civic life.
But outside their community and their spacious house in the famous Sugar Hill neighborhood, located in what is now West Adams Heights near USC, the Somervilles were treated as second-class citizens in a country riven by racism.
"Dr. Somerville, he's going to San Francisco, and he can't get lodging because of his color. So, frustrated, he decides to build his own hotel," says historian and author Robert Lee Johnson.
John chose his adopted hometown of L.A. as the site of his and Vada's new project, a first-rate hotel for black patrons, which they named after themselves. They picked the perfect time to launch the Hotel Somerville.
"From 1920 to 1930, there was an even greater influx of professional-class African Americans, performing musicians and music teachers into the community," writes Bette Yarbrough Cox in her book Central Avenue: It's Rise and Fall. These middle and upper-class African Americans settled primarily around Central Avenue, where black Angelenos had been cordoned off by racist housing covenants.
By the 1920s, L.A. had already been home to a few successful black-owned hotels including Ida B. Wells's Southern Hotel and the Clark Hotel, also on Central Ave. But the Hotel Somerville was going to be different.
The Somervilles borrowed $250,000 to create their vision — a stylish, modern hotel with more than 100 rooms, an art deco lobby, custom furniture, a café, a restaurant, a beauty parlor, a flower shop and stenographers' offices. At least 2,000 people showed up for the opening on June 23, 1928.
"It was a palace compared to what we had been used to," Dr. H. Claude Hudson, known as "Mr. NAACP," told the Los Angeles Times in 1983.
"So the Dunbar gets built and becomes the host of the first West Coast convention of the NAACP. The unique thing about the Dunbar Hotel was that it was brand new. It wasn't like they were refurbishing an old hotel. The Dunbar was the pride of Central Avenue," Johnson says.
For the Somervilles, the hotel wasn't simply a fancy lodging house, it was a nexus for culture and civil rights activism.
"It was a place where the future of black America was discussed every night of the week in the lobby," civil rights leader and future owner Celes King III told the Los Angeles Times in 1983. "There were very serious discussions between people like W.E.B. Du Bois, doctors, lawyers and educators and other professionals. This was the place where many of them put together plans to improve the lifestyle of their people."
The stock market crash of 1929 shattered the Somervilles' dream. By 1930, they had lost ownership of the hotel although their careers and civic leadership were far from over. Vada would go on to manage a newspaper and run numerous charitable and cultural organizations while John became a published author and the first black person appointed to the Los Angeles Police Board. They both died in 1972.
After the stock market crash, the ownership of the Hotel Somerville becomes murky. At some point, it was owned by a group of white investors, either before or after being sold to civic powerhouse and black Texas native Lucius Lomax. During this period, its name was changed to the Dunbar Hotel, in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the African American poet and playwright who wrote these lines, later immortalized by Maya Angelou:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
when his wing is bruised and his bosom sore-
when he beats his bars and he would be free...
Despite its new literary name, the hotel changed under the ownership of the slick, sophisticated Lomax.
"He was a gangster. He was a gambler. Before he came to Los Angeles, he had run a brothel and different gambling enterprises. So that's how he made his money," Johnson says.
Lomax made changes to the Dunbar that rubbed some neighbors the wrong way.
"The Dunbar didn't have a club until Mr. Lomax took it over. As a matter of fact, some of them [the people of Central Ave.] were against him opening a nightclub. They thought it would stigmatize the hotel," Johnson says.
Lomax would hear none of it. Visiting musicians were increasingly staying at the Dunbar while playing engagements at white owned L.A. nightclubs and restaurants, where they often couldn't have a drink or enter through the front door.
"Lucius was a street businessman. He saw that it made sense," Johnson says. "He probably walked in in the middle of the night and here is all this music and all these people are sitting up, and he realized the place needed a club, right?"
Many people were wary of Lomax's brash reputation but were willing to overlook his approach because they were pleased to see a black businessman succeeding.
"In the 1920s, with the Marcus Garvey movement, there was a very pro-black economic movement taking place. And with the hotel being the pride of the community, they wanted it to stay in black hands. The problem was, [Lucius Lomax] didn't know how to run a hotel," Johnson says.
By 1935, Lomax had lost ownership of the Dunbar although he remained a major player in its operations for the rest of his life, regaining control of the Dunbar's club into the 1950s. In his place came the controversial International Peace Mission.
It was led by the self-styled Reverend Major Jealous Divine, known to his followers as Father Divine. The flamboyant, mysterious Divine, who claimed to be the second coming of Jesus, preached in a hypnotic, rhythmic cadence, spreading a gospel of racial integration, communal living and community development. While promoting "practical Christianity" (which included no drinking, smoking or sex), Divine would open more than 150 Peace Missions across the U.S. and in Europe. At these outposts, black and white men and women lived together, feeding the hungry while giving all their money to the magnetic Divine.
In 1931, the local authorities arrested Father Divine and dozens of his disciples in Sayville, Long Island, for "invading the county with his religious practices," which included black men and white women living in the same house together. Divine was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail by a biased judge, Lewis J. Smith. Three days after imposing the sentence, however, Judge Smith, 55, dropped dead. When a reporter asked the jailed preacher for a comment, Divine replied, "I hated to do it."
After his release from prison, Divine and his followers headed West.
"He had moved to the West Coast and he was living right around the Van Ness and Adams area, but they bought the hotel to use as a mission. So, it wasn't a hotel anymore, it was basically a hostel for his members," Johnson says.
Divine, who called these missions "heavens," was a novelty to the people who lived on and around Central Ave. "He was more of a celebrity than anything else, and he did a lot of giveaways and things like that, so the community wasn't hostile towards him. Many people were just upset that they didn't have the club and the hotel like they used to, especially the club part," Johnson says.
Father Divine's tenure at the Dunbar would be brief. By 1936, the International Peace Mission had packed up and left. Father Divine continued to attract followers, despite the fact that he was accused of taking money and possessions from members and of fostering an atmosphere rife with sexual misconduct. Father Divine eventually settled in Pennsylvania, in a French Gothic estate known as Woodmont, attended to by his loyal followers until his death in 1965.
Stability finally came to the Dunbar in 1936, when James "Jimmy" Nelson bought the property from the Mortgage Guarantee and Trust. A businessman and moneylender originally from Chicago, Nelson was known as a kind and connected sports enthusiast. He was "very capable, progressive — but reserved and unassuming" according to the Los Angeles Sentinel. Nelson and his wife, Katherine, lived in a suite in the hotel with a giant indoor patio perfect for outdoor entertaining, which the amiable couple did frequently.
With the help of Nelson's nephew, Celes King Jr., the couple restored the Dunbar to its former glory and added a dash of glitz. "The Dunbar was known as a cross between the Waldorf Astoria and the Cotton Club, and it became the gathering place for both visitors and residents," Cox writes in Central Avenue. "It was considered the center of rendezvous for the affluent blacks of Los Angeles."
Nelson was a boxing nut. His friend, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, briefly brought his club, The Showboat, to the Dunbar in the mid-1930s. Soon, Nelson's other famous friends from the sports and entertainment worlds were staying at the hotel. White clubgoers, like W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby, a good friend of Nelson's, would pop in to have a nightcap in the lobby after patronizing the flourishing nightclub scene on Central Ave.
The Dunbar of the late 1930s and '40s pulsed with excitement and music. Nelson's grandnephew, Celes King III, who "grew up in the lobby," would discover a passion for flying when bandleader Jimmy Lunceford took him up in his private plane (King later became a WWII Tuskegee Airman). Bandleader Duke Ellington threw raucous parties in his suite, with "chicks and champagne everywhere," according to trumpet player Buck Clayton.
Clayton remembered in his autobiography the time he and his bandmates heard their new single while eating at the Dunbar's cafe:
"So much rhythm I've never heard, as guys were beating on the tables, instrument cases or anything else they could beat on with knives, forks, rolled-up newspapers or anything else they could find to make rhythm. It was absolutely crazy."
The scene would spill out to the sidewalk, where touring musicians often spent their days between nighttime gigs. "When I passed by the front of the Dunbar Hotel, they'd be hanging around talking," trumpet player Norman Leland Bowden remembered in Swingin' On Central Avenue. "On my way back from school, [trumpeter] Claude Kennedy — he came from Houston — would say, 'Where are you going? To give somebody a headache with that horn?"
The Dunbar sidewalk would become a Central Avenue legend. Established artists as well as aspiring big shots and looky-loos passed the time "holding up the wall."
"The reason you had so many people that would just hang out in front of or around the Dunbar or in the bar was because sooner or later, you would see a Lena Horne or an Ella Fitzgerald or a Sammy Davis Jr. That's where they all stayed," Johnson says.
It was also a place to make connections and find work. "The Dunbar was the flagship for everything. When the studios would want to cast black extras, like for a Tarzan movie or something, they had the casting calls at the Dunbar Hotel," Johnson says.
Celes King III said, in 1933, that careers had been made there:
"One day comedian Jack Benny called the hotel looking for an actor named Johnny Taylor. But Taylor was in jail so Eddie [Anderson] took the call. That's how he became Rochester."
As the enormously popular character Rochester van Jones, Anderson played Benny's valet and sidekick on radio and television from the '30s to the '60s.
Actress Hattie McDaniel, who had been the recipient of cruel taunts from the "Central Avenue Playboys," told the L.A. Times how she got her revenge on the first day of filming for Gone With the Wind.
"I just couldn't help driving by the Dunbar that day. I felt mighty happy driving that Packard to the studio. I just had to show them all standing around [the Dunbar] dressed up so big. I had to show them I done it."
After Jimmy Nelson's death in 1953, management of the Dunbar fell to his vivacious widow, Julia. In the meantime, Celes King III, the little boy in the lobby, had grown up. "He became a bail bondsman and very active in the community. Even when most black people left the Republican Party and became Democrats, he stayed a Republican," Johnson says.
In 1957, Celes and his wife, Anita, took over the Dunbar. A year later they changed its name to King's Hotel. But Central Avenue's decline had begun a decade earlier, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional.
"Duke Ellington used to keep a suite at the Dunbar whenever he came to town. After the covenants are struck down, he's staying at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset. That became the attitude, 'Hey, the white man's ice is colder, let's go with him,'" Johnson says.
The Central Ave. nightlife scene also faced an increasingly hostile police force in the post-WWII era.
"A lot of businesses and a lot of the clubs, because of the harassment of the police and then the loss of business, they began to shut down. By the '60s and '70s, there's nothing left on Central Avenue," Johnson says.
In the mid-'60s, the King family finally sold the Dunbar and by the early '70s, it had become a dilapidated apartment house. One of its residents was Rudy Ray Moore, a former soldier turned aspiring musician turned rapping comedian. "Dolemite is my name and rappin' and tappin', that's my game," was his famous refrain. "I'm young and free and just as bad as I wanna be."
When he wasn't working at the famous Dolphins of Hollywood club, he would invite friends to his sprawling, nine-room apartment at the Dunbar where he would record X-rated party albums with titles like Close Encounters of the Sex Kind. His albums were, according to Biography, a "blend of dirty jokes and funk groove overdubs that became a surprise hit on the Billboard soul charts."
Moore would eventually use the Dunbar as the primary location for his ultra-low-budget 1975 film, Dolemite. The film stars Moore as a pimp who beats up bad guys alongside a posse of karate-chopping call girls. Moore turned the Somerville's sophisticated dream into a makeshift set filled with "garish erotic paintings on black velvet and fake wood paneling, transforming the rooms into bordellos and police stations."
With his rhymes and sex jokes, Moore would influence everyone from Snoop Dog to Eddie Murphy. "What you call dirty words," Moore once explained, "I call ghetto expression." Moore died in Ohio in 2008.
In 1990, the Dunbar was repurposed as a low-income apartment complex for elderly people. In 2012, it underwent a multi-million-dollar upgrade that included the restoration of its facade and lobby, along with a new residential layout. Today, the Hotel Somerville name can still be seen on the sidewalk in front of the building. Although it's now a mellow retirement home, it still serves its purpose as a haven for often overlooked Angelenos who need a welcoming place to stay.