Lead Story West Edition

Black L.A. comes to life on legacy bus tour

LOS ANGELES — The rich legacy of African Americans in Los Angeles came to life Feb. 24 when members of the Black Cultural Events website held the first Historic African American Heritage bus tour to spotlight the city’s African-American contributions.

“Black Cultural Events promotes and highlights black events in the greater Los Angeles area,” said Pamela Ashe-Thomas, co-founder of Black Cultural Events. “We recognize that tours like this allow people to learn about the history of blacks in our area.”

A group of nearly 50 traveled to historic Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles to view a Founder’s Plaque inscribed with the names of the city’s multiethnic settlers who traveled from the San Gabriel Mission to establish the city of Los Angeles in 1781.

“African Americans in the city may not know that 26 of the 44 original settlers were of African descent,’’ said Toni-Mokjaetji Humber, who served as tour guide. “They were known as the Los Pobladores.’’

African roots figure prominently in the early days of Los Angeles. Humber pointed out that the first black mayor of Los Angeles was Francisco Reyes, who presided over the city from 1793 to 1795.

Pio Pico, who had one black and one white parent, served as governor of California from 1845 to 1846 and built Pico House, a swanky 33-room hotel. Tour participants noted that the hotel is still standing, part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park.

Tour participants then disembarked at downtown’s Pier building on Spring Street to view a monument dedicated to early settler Bridget “Biddy” Mason, who arrived in Los Angeles by foot after trudging through several states behind her master’s wagon train.

Humber said that Mason, a slave, won her freedom when she arrived in California in 1856, which was then considered a free state.

For the next 10 years, Mason carefully saved her money by working as a midwife and accrued $250 — considered a fortune at the time — and bought several parcels of land that made her one of the wealthiest land owners in Los Angeles.

She then co-founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872, considered the oldest African American church in Los Angeles. She dedicated the rest of her life to feeding the homeless as well as helping flood victims and the incarcerated.

Tour participants then traveled to the Watts Labor Community Action Committee where they viewed a huge bronze monument of the Mother of Humanity. Created by sculptor Nigel Bens, the two-ton statue, draped with a scarf shaped like the continent of Africa, was inspired by the 1992 Riots.

Entering the re-creation of a slave ship was the next destination, where lifelike statues of captive Africans stared from the bowels of the darkened vessel. The tour guides called for a moment of silence to reflect on the ancestors that crossed the Atlantic Ocean and survived the perilous trip to America.

Attendees then entered a rustic site depicting Meridian, Mississippi, the birthplace of WLCAC founder Ted Watkins, who fled the South in his youth to avoid a lynching.

Tourists viewed a dusty abandoned car, which symbolically represented the vehicle driven by James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, three civil rights workers who traveled south to register blacks to vote only to be murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in June 1964.

A replica of an early southern 1950s diner was prominently displayed, symbolizing the era when blacks were historically denied service.

“We were not allowed to sit at lunch counters back then,” said WLCAC tour guide Toni Love. Love recalled that in the early 1960s, angry young blacks challenged Jim Crow laws by staging sit-ins throughout the South to demand equal treatment and eventually helped to desegregate public establishments.

The next stop was the Hall of Shame, which contained historically negative African-American images, including a Little Black Sambo board game, Darkie toothpaste, slave shackles, photos of Amos and Andy, plates depicting alligators devouring black babies and spoons featuring unflattering images of blacks.

“That was sad to see that back then people made a mockery of us,’’ said attendee Danyel Jackson. “They were making money off of our images.’’

Tourists also viewed a replica of the jail cell where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail’’ as well as a replica of King’s flower-enshrined casket.

A wall of black-and-white photos featuring the Black Panthers at a rally in 1968 drew an attentive crowd. Taken by the late photographer Howard Bingham, the photos captured revolutionaries such as Stokeley Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Ron Karenga and Huey Newton.

Attendees were then taekn to Leimert Park, considered the African-American cultural home of Los Angeles, where rhythmic drumming and the strains of jazz frequently fill the air.

The next stop was the historic Vision Theatre, an Art Deco masterpiece built by millionaire Howard Hughes in 1932.

Tourists gathered outside the California Jazz and Blues Museum founded by legendary singer Barbara Morrison, which features regular concerts and a permanent picture gallery of notable black musicians.

The final stop was at Eso Won books, one of the oldest black book stores in the western United States.

Co-owned by James Fugate and Thomas Hamilton, Eso Won, which stocks hundreds of books on black history and culture, holds book signings throughout the year and attracts some of the most prominent African-American authors in the country.

“People are amazed that we’re still here,’’ Hamilton said. “But we work hard at the business. And thankfully, we have a loyal following that supports us all the way.’’

Black Cultural Events plans to repeat the tour again in the summer.