A History of Black Americans in California:
Black people engaged in the full range of contemporary businesses for at least three decades after statehood. Interest in business pursuits attracted many early Black immigrants to settle in towns where they could provide goods and services for the swarms of people who came during the Gold Rush years. San Francisco, in the nineteenth century, was the city where most Black business activities were centered.
Black entrepreneurs, like their contemporaries, entered businesses they believed the White majority would patronize. As long as the population was growing, and need for goods and services exceeded supply, Black entrepreneurs could enter most business areas with relatively little difficulty. Toward the close of the century, however, Black entrepreneurs found their business pursuits restricted to a narrow range of services as Whites, emigrating from mining districts and other jurisdictions and seeking a competitive edge, began a campaign to intensify the prevailing racial prejudice. Before long, the few areas where a Black entrepreneur could reasonably expect sufficient White patronage to develop a prosperous concern were limited to service-related enterprises such as tonsorial, boot black, livery, restaurant/ catering, and drayage businesses.
Institutionalized racism began to emerge in the latter decade of the nineteenth century, and by 1920, even displaced Black barbers from the prosperous luxury shops operated for White businessmen in choice down town locations. For more than 50 years prior to that, Black men enjoyed a near monopoly on this trade.
Residences owned by these nineteenth-century settlers stood on lots along city blocks in the downtown districts where they worked. Frequently, though, they clustered three or four families in a city block, often in certain wards or districts. This scattered residential pattern began to change as institutional racism began to encroach further upon California Black life.
Restrictive city ordinances, real estate covenants, and other racially discriminatory measures that came into practice at the turn of the century and continued in effect for more than six decades, dramatically limited access by Black people to local resources such as housing, employment, education, and public accommodations. Housing restrictions gradually limited the size of Black residential areas and thereby created overcrowded neighborhoods and depressed economic growth. Real estate interests refused to make mortgage money available for property in certain "red-lined" areas and thus turned many Black neighborhoods, especially those with older housing, into slums. Urban renewal programs during the 1960s targeted ethnic neighborhoods in downtown districts, wiping out most nineteenth-century neighborhoods in or near downtown business districts. Around the periphery of various cities' business districts, an occasional structure representing these early neighborhoods survives.
Nineteenth-century commercial structures were more likely to survive the 1960s urban renewal blitz than were residential properties.
This was particularly true in the Gold Rush districts where Black settlement antedated the period of racially restrictive land use patterns. As a rule, nineteenth-century Black-owned businesses were scattered through out downtown business districts. One Northern California town where several nineteenth- and early twentieth-century commercial properties have been identified in the original business district is Red Bluff in Tehama County. San Diego, in the southern region, also has nineteenth-century business properties in the original downtown business district, known historically as the Horton Addition.
Black business districts were developed after the turn of the century to provide services for Black communities in cities like Oakland and Los Angeles where populations were substantial and growing. These businesses soon found their economic opportunities constricted by the same city ordinances and covenants that precipitated residential neighborhood deterioration. Business development trends in Los Angeles during the first decades of the twentieth century were not only a microcosm of the racial discrimination practices that emerged in California after the turn of the century, but also reflected the evolution of Black businesses created to serve neighborhood clienteles.
Black businesses established after the turn of the century were initially located in downtown Los Angeles near the original Black settlement. As industry began to encroach on the old settlement, businesses and residents were forced to move further south. Central Avenue then became the major Black business section. In 1929, when Dr. J. A. Summerville built the town's first major Black hotel, Hotel Summerville (now known as the Dunbar), the central business district coalesced around the hotel. The A. J. Roberts Funeral Home was among the first businesses established during this era. Andrew J. Roberts, who for years had operated a successful drayage concern, Los Angeles Van, Truck and Storage Company, sold the business sometime after 1905 to establish a mortuary. When the establishment opened, it was the town's first Black mortuary. The Roberts Funeral Home conducted an apprenticeship program to train persons for the profession, and also provided technical services to other mortuaries. At one period, the staff performed most embalming services for Los Angeles's Japanese morticians.
Insurance companies, with few exceptions, denied Black people insurance coverage. Those companies that did write policies for Blacks did so at discriminatory premium rates. Golden State Guarantee Fund Insurance Company of Los Angeles, a company expressly created to provide life insurance coverage for Black people, received its charter July 23, 1925. Entering a non-competitive market, the company soon established branch offices in various California cities and even in other states.
Responding to the Black community's need for quality medical care, three Black doctors established the Dunbar Hospital in 1923. Shortly thereafter, two other medical facilities were opened. Two pharmacists affiliated with the Dunbar Hospital opened the first pharmacy in the state owned and operated by Black women. White institutions at that time denied Black patients full medical service and equal accommodations, and barred Black doctors from affiliation.
Private medical offices began to appear in the 1920s. The earliest was opened jointly by a medical doctor and a dentist in the Hudson-Ledell Building, designed by Paul Williams. The use pattern of this building reflects the economic changes that occurred over a 40-year period in the Central Avenue business district. Professional offices were located in the building until World War II. During World War II, Central Avenue became a major entertainment hub, and a nightclub known as the Club Memo occupied the building. When the Club Memo closed, the Hudson-Ledell Building was again converted to professional offices. Since 1963, the building has been the field office for Los Angeles City Councilman Gilbert Lindsay. The area is now undergoing revitalization.
A major break in the pervasive occupational racism that restricted workers, both educated and uneducated, to low-paying menial jobs came through the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The brotherhood was created August 25, 1925, as a union for Pullman porters and maids. It was the first Afro-American labor organization to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor. The union was an advocate for Black men and women employed by the Pullman Company.