Lead Story West Edition

Blacks in California – 1900-1940: Brave activists accelerate fight for social justice

LOS ANGELES – It was the dawn of the 20th century and blacks in Los Angeles and across the nation were stepping up their fight — sometimes putting their lives on the line — to become first-class citizens in the land of freedom and opportunity.

Few Californians personify this crusade better than Sadie Chandler Cole.

A daughter of a conductor on the “Underground Railroad” and a vocalist in an elite choir created by abolitionists and their supporters, Chandler Cole moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1902 and began almost immediately to make her mark.

On one occasion, she became enraged after seeing “Negro Trade Not Wanted” signs in downtown stores and ultimately fought successfully to have one such sign removed from a shop window. She then petitioned and persuaded then-Mayor Arthur C. Harper to have all such signs removed from downtown store windows.

In another instance, she sat down at a lunch counter on Broadway, ordered a glass of buttermilk and challenged the proprietor when he tried to charge her 50 cents rather than the nickel white customers paid. When the proprietor refused to budge, Chandler Cole proceeded to trash the place, tossing cups and plates around while demanding that the storeowner charge her the same as white customers.

When police officers arrived, they listened to Chandler Cole’s story, sided with the activist, and ordered the proprietor to serve her the drink for five cents.

Such fierce tenacity and unrelenting determination — sometimes in the face of danger to herself or her family — would come to define her fight for civil and equal rights in Los Angeles. In fact, she once told prominent black journalist Delilah Beasley that she was not afraid to die if death was the sacrifice she had to make to win justice and equality for African Americans.

Shortly after the buttermilk incident, Chandler Cole’s activism turned more political.

One of her early forays into black and feminist political organizing in Los Angeles came in 1908 when she spoke before the National Negro American Political League about “The Part Women Have Played in the Settlement of World’s Greatest Problems.”

Founded by heralded civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter, the NNAPL fought laws that discriminated against people of color and inspired the formation of the NAACP.

Five years later, the state’s first NAACP branch was founded in Los Angeles and Chandler Cole was elected as a vice president and later as an executive board member. With Chandler Cole’s support, the branch became the leading advocate of legal protest against discriminatory and segregation practices in Los Angeles.

As the 20th century progressed, activists like Chandler Cole and the organizations they supported would increasingly employ legal actions and public protests to dismantle legally sanctioned segregation and informally imposed discrimination in public accommodations.

One such protest involved African-American access to beaches along the Pacific Ocean shoreline.

Throughout the nation, black access to resorts and beaches — and demand for recreation space free from white harassment and intimidation — had become a hot button socio-political issue as many white Americans fought to keep beach shorelines and ocean waters lily-white.

In nearby Manhattan Beach, for example, officials launched a covert plan to bar blacks from using local beaches — in clear violation of California law. Officials uprooted the popular black-owned Bruce’s Beach resort community and evicted nearby residents using eminent domain condemnation laws (purportedly to build a public park). Then, these same officials attempted to enforce illegal discriminatory policies prohibiting African Americans from using the public shoreline.

Chandler Cole and her colleagues weren’t having it.

By then a fiery matriarch of 62, Chandler Cole, local NAACP president Dr. H. Claude Hudson and several other black Angelenos decided to test the waters in July 1927 by launching a “swim-in” at the Bruce Beach area. Some of the protesters were arrested and temporarily jailed; but officials capitulated a month later and announced that city beaches would remain free and open, without racial restriction.

It was the chapter’s first act of civil disobedience and one of its first profound victories. But it would not be its last.

The city’s black community was empowered by the Manhattan Beach win, as the NAACP national office announced in a press release that this militant stand for civil rights in Southern California set a good example for the backdrop of the 19th NAACP National Convention that would be held in Los Angeles in 1928.

Meanwhile Chandler Cole would continue her fight unwaveringly.

In 1929, at the San Francisco meeting of the National Conference of Social Workers — once led by acclaimed feminist Jane Addams — Chandler Cole drafted a resolution submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives for endorsement of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill.

Throughout her four decades in Los Angeles, she also was a founder and board member of the Eastside Mother’s Home for Girls, a chaplain for the California branch of the National Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, and a vice president of the Forum, a powerful black civic group that supported new black arrivals to Los Angeles and challenged racial bias in the city.

Her political and civic engagement would continue through 1941 when she died at age 76, leaving a robust legacy of activism and achievement that future generations would honor, celebrate and build on into the 1950s and beyond.

Next week: Amid assaults on black cultural identity, historian Miriam Matthews amassed a collection of books, art and photographs that helped black Angelenos develop and maintain a sense of racial and cultural pride.