Pitzer College was the location for The Claremont Colleges Intercollegiate Department of Black Studies (IDBS) annual conference. This year’s theme, “Buried Treasure: Discovering Los Angeles Through Its African American Past,” brought together more than one-hundred attendees, including scholars, students, community leaders, museum officials, heritage organizations and archives managers, to discuss little-known aspects of Los Angeles’ African American heritage important to the development of the region. The conference was organized by Visiting Professor Susan Anderson.
A highlight of the event was the participation of audience members, exhibitors, and representatives of organizations that preserve and disseminate African American heritage in L.A. Such representatives included the Dunbar Economic Development Corporation, Our Authors Study Club, the League of Allied Arts, the Southern California Library, Facing History and Ourselves, the Black Resource Center of the County of Los Angeles Public Library, the African American Society of Long Beach, the University of Southern California, the Friends of Allensworth San Diego Chapter and Eighth and Wall. Representatives of the offices of Assemblywoman Karen Bass and Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry also attended. The conference was covered in stories by reporter Kitty Felde, who broadcast over two days on NPR affiliate radio station KPPC in Pasadena, and received mentions in the Los Angeles Times.
The morning session kicked off with a welcome by Anderson and IDBS Chair and Professor of Psychology and Black Studies Halford Fairchild. The keynote address by University of California, Riverside, Historian Ralph Crowder was titled “Inside and Outside: Self-Trained Historians, Black Intellectuals and the Rescue of African American History” and explored the pioneering black history advocacy and collecting activities of John Edward Bruce (1856–1924) and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874–1938)—namesake of the famous Schomburg Research Institute of the New York Public Library—and why they are relevant for the L.A. region today.
The morning panel, moderated by Scripps College History Professor, Rita Roberts, scrutinized “More Than Fleeting Impressions: Preserving Physical Monuments to the Black Experience.” Panelists Alison Rose Jefferson, associate historian, Historic Resources Group, and Alma Carlisle, cultural heritage commissioner, City of Los Angeles, presented a background of preservation activities in L.A.’s historically black neighborhoods including how historic preservation practices have changed, and images of landmark buildings including one-hundred-year-old Phillips Chapel, CME, African American Firefighters Museum, the Dunbar Hotel and Lady Effie’s Tea House.
Following lunch, the afternoon began with a multimedia presentation and talk by Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts for the Huntington Library. In “Don’t You Want To Be Free? African American Classical Arts In a Divided Society,” Hodson examined three Huntington Library collections comprising the papers of poet Langston Hughes, donated by the Miller family; composer and author Harold Bruce Forsythe; and the First Negro Classic Ballet, founded by Joseph Rickard. Participants were able to learn about the thriving classical arts scene in the early twentieth-century African American experience in L.A. and encounters with a white arts structure that disparaged black involvement in the fine arts. Officers of the League of Allied Arts, founded in 1939 in L.A. by Juanita Miller and Dorothy Johnson with their friend Langston Hughes, contributed to Hodson’s discussion. Speaker Daniel Widener, assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, explored “The Afro-Asian City,” examining the interconnected history of Japanese, Japanese American and African American communities in southern California.
The day’s final panel, “Archives and Collections: Reclaiming and Reframing the Los Angeles Story,” included presentations of current research by Judge William C. Beverly Jr. (ret.), director and founder, Eighth and Wall; Christopher Jimenez y West, program manager, history, California African American Museum; and Lorn Foster, professor, Pomona College. Judge Beverly discussed his oral history project documenting the vitality of community life and leadership on L.A.’s “Eastside” or Central Avenue area. Jimenez y West presented from his dissertation regarding the post-WWII rise in African American political strength, leading to the emergence of figures such as Tom Bradley, Billy Mills and Gilbert Lindsay on the Los Angeles City Council in 1963. Foster detailed his research into the role of eight historic black churches in social mobility and civic influence of African Americans starting at the turn of the twentieth century. Students from Anderson’s class, African American Utopian Imagination, 1877–1917, led the question and answer period.
The conference concluded with closing remarks by Anderson. Participants were encouraged to consider why, in the words of Nobel Laureate novelist, William Faulkner, the past isn’t past. Anderson spoke about “Contemporary Meaning and Urgency in the Black Historical Project,” and the importance of regions like Los Angeles helping America regain all of its history.