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Morning Brief: The Importance of Juneteenth in L.A.

Juneteenth
Los Angeles' NAACP Valley Branch members plan to Juneteenth festivities in June 1964.
(Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection )
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Good morning, L.A. It’s Friday, June 17.

In a couple of days, I and so many other Black Americans around the country will be celebrating an important holiday: Juneteenth. Now, before I delve any deeper into that, I do want to get something straight: Juneteenth is first and foremost a Black Texan holiday. After all, the federal troops told the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas they were indeed free two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

But of course, after a brief stint of reconstruction to integrate 4 million newly-freed people into the United States, there came the backlash: The Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws and the Ku Klux Klan. Black people wanted refuge so they went North and West. One of the places many Texans – and other southerners – migrated to was Los Angeles. 

Tyree Boyd-Pates is a historian and the associate curator of Western History at the Autry Museum of the American West. He told me that between the late 1800s and into the 1900s, Black migrants came to L.A. primarily from Texas, New Orleans and Atlanta. Black residential neighborhoods began to take shape south of downtown L.A., which is now known as Central Avenue. This area became known as the heart of Black Los Angeles“They were refugees, to be very frank, and were seeking to escape the Jim Crow era, and laws and Black codes that they had seen all of their lives since the abolition of enslavement and so they just fled to greener pastures,” Boyd-Pates says.

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In 1910, the Black population in L.A. was considered the largest of any urban area in the West, at around 7,500 people. But the 1940s witnessed the biggest wave of migration of Black southerners to L.A. That’s around the time my own paternal family moved to South L.A. They left Arkansas and Louisiana to escape the harsh racism of the south. 

Sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois once described the Black population living in this city as “energetic” and “without a doubt the most beautifully housed group of colored people in the United States.” But L.A. did not come without issues for him.

He could see the color line. The struggles that Black people faced even in what was known as a naturally beautiful “liberal paradise.”

“Women have had difficulty in having gloves and shoes fitted at the stores, the hotels do not welcome colored people, the restaurants are not for all that hunger,” Du Bois wrote in the NAACP’s The Crisis Magazine during a visit in 1913.

This still stings. Juneteenth is a celebration of joy and freedom from slavery, but Black folks, including in this liberal paradise, have not been given what they’ve been due for years. 

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Now, more than a century and a half after slavery officially ended, California could be the first state to give reparations to its Black American citizens. I talked to Dr. Amos Brown, vice-chair of the Task Force charged with figuring out what those reparations should be, and he emphasized to me that in 1865 Garrison Frazier was the one who led the call to have land as a reparation for slavery. Frazier and 19 other Black ministers met with Union General William T. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and said they wanted massive land redistribution after slavery, otherwise known as ‘40 acres and a mule’.

Unfortunately, after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination that same year, the order was reversed by Andrew Johnson and the land that was promised to those thousands of formerly enslaved Black families was given back to the white landowners. “It was a promise that we were supposed to get land,” says Boyd-Pates. “But we never actually got that land and/or resources.” 

Boyd-Pates says over the years – through the Watts Uprisings in 1965, and the LA Uprisings in 1992… even the war on drugs, there have been promises made, and then broken. “This is a group who has, one, naturally contributed over 200 years of free labor to the United States of America,” he says. But even the policies gained from the Civil Rights Movement “didn't actually enfranchise black people collectively and so that further perpetuates how the very promises and really commensurate promises have always been unfulfilled.” 

In its initial report, the state's task force outlined that future reparations could come in the form of work grants, paid tuition, and more. I spoke to some Black residents around L.A. about what they’d like to see.

Sonya Sessions is a program coordinator for a nonprofit called Village of Promise in San Diego. Her idea of reparations sounds very similar to what the Black ministers concluded in 1865: land distribution. “It looks like for me, funding our schools and our communities for sure. It looks like, again, putting a lot of that investment into the black businesses and in housing,” she says. “One of the biggest things that was promised to us was land. And it's like, where's that?”

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Mackksaray Macksa is a designer for Neighbors Skate Shop in Leimert Park. For him it’s something simple and sustainable: “Honestly, money and maybe a place to stay. And a job.”

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In the meantime, as we wait anxiously to see what might be given back to us, many Black Angelenos will be celebrating a day of freedom and joy this weekend.

“California has such a rich history of Black contributions that those of us who have migrated here, recognize that the history doesn't work in a vacuum, and it's still being built out,” says Boyd-Pates. “I would say that… areas like Leimert Park serve as black cultural spaces where there seems to be currently so few and it allows for black folks to celebrate our vibrancy and our joy and our resilience. Where we may not always feel allowed to in other spaces even in the city.”

As always, I hope you stay happy and healthy, folks. We will be taking Juneteenth off and will be back on Tuesday. 

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There’s more news below the fold.

What Else You Need To Know Today

Before You Go...Take Your Pick of Juneteenth Events

Juneteenth concert poster
The LA Phil presents Juneteenth: A Global Celebration of Freedom on June 19.
(Courtesy of Live Nation)

  • Attend a screening of 42, a film about baseball star Jackie Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) who defied major league baseball’s color barrier
  • Take your kids to reading hour at the Juneteenth Prosperity Market while you enjoy a relaxing sound bath
  • Watch history being made at the first-ever performance of an all-Black symphony orchestra in the Hollywood Bowl’s 100-year history. 

Check out the full list of events on LAist for more in downtown LA, Santa Monica and Hollywood Park.

Also, as you drive to whatever activity you choose, I challenge you to listen to this Juneteenth playlist all the way through without getting goosebumps. From a musical portrait of the Great Migration to tunes inspired by the 2020 protests against police violence, experience Black history — and future — through song.

As for me? I’ll see you at the Leimert Park Juneteenth Festival, of course!

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