SOUTH LOS ANGELES — The Rosa Parks Villa senior citizen community dedicated the Leo Branton Jr. Lending Library during a Black History Month celebration Feb. 17.
The Rosa Parks Villa, named for the mother of the civil rights movement, honored Branton who practiced law for 52 years and represented many entertainment figures including Nat King Cole, Dorothy Dandridge, the Platters, Inger Stevens and Dalton Trumbo.
Branton is best known for defending members of the Black Panther Party in a suit involving the Los Angeles Police Department, and winning an acquittal for civil rights activist Angela Davis in 1972.
Joyce Lamkin-Black said she is gratified to be surrounded by the personal items and history of two prominent leaders in America’s civil rights movement.
“Many seniors in the complex have said that it is a real benefit to have the library on the premises,” she saidd.
Jackie Dupont–Walker, CEO of the Ward Economic Development Corporation, the developer of the Rosa Parks Villa, said Branton owned the vacant land where the four-story complex now stands.
“Branton, Cole, and other wealthy black investors had planned to build on the site, but the project lost momentum after Cole’s death in 1965,” Dupont-Walker said.
According to Dupont-Walker, Branton asked Ward to take over and complete the Villas, which opened in 2010 as phase one of the Crenshaw Gateway Project.
“He stuck to his vision of reinvesting money in the community,” Dupont-Walker said.
City Council President Herb Wesson, retired U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, friends and family members drew nods of recognition as they reminisced about their experiences with Branton, a native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
“He did not suffer fools,” Watson said. “Branton spoke his mind and challenged those who would deny rights guaranteed by the Constitution to people of color.”
“We’re standing on the shoulders of giants … and continue to see Crenshaw come alive,” Dupont-Walker said.
Wesson said Branton would tenaciously defend his clients against all odds and would usually win.
“If he liked you, let you in, you had a friend for life,” Wesson said.
In the 1960s, the neighborhood surrounding the villas was home to middle-class African Americans, but that neighborhood was sliced in half by the construction of the Santa Monica (10) Freeway.
Today, the neighborhood south of the freeway, stretching eastward between West Adams Boulevard and the freeway, is a stable and diverse community with middle-class homeowners, well-kept lawns and historic homes protected by a historic preservation ordinance.
The vision to revitalize the areas from West Adams Boulevard to the section of freeway named for Rosa Parks is still alive.
Residents of the $17 million, 60-unit apartment complex come from many different cultures and have views in all four directions, including of downtown and the freeway.
The still-growing library collection contains books, honors, awards, photographs, historic materials and memorabilia from Angela Davis, the city of Los Angeles, the NAACP, the California Senate, the Los Angeles Tribune and more.
“Branton and his wife Gerry, and Ms. Parks would have lived in the Villas,” Dupont-Walker said. Mrs. Branton and Parks both died in the mid-2000s.
Branton died in 2013. He would have celebrated his 93rd birthday on Feb. 17. Born on Feb. 4, Parks would have been 102 years of age.
Wesson credited his election to placement of campaign signs on the formerly vacant site.
“This very spot was one of the most fought after political battlegrounds in the history of this district,” he said. “When this structure was not here, the key was to see who Leo was going to give permission to put up a big sign right behind the freeway. A lot of people have been elected because they had big signs.”
At the unveiling of the library, Watson noted Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama.
“The bus driver took the sign designating the ‘whites only’ section and moved it several seats behind her,” Watson said. “He ordered her to move, and when she didn’t, that’s when it began.”
Residents Philip Park, Zola Strickland, and Jeje Burton rounded out the Mardi Gras-themed ribbon-cutting ceremony with prayer, verse and song.
Former City Councilman Nate Holden and former Assemblyman and current L.A. Public Works Commissioner Mike Davis also attended the ceremony.