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Photo Project Sheds Light on Early Black Life in L.A. : History: Community responds to library's call for snapshots in an effort to document a neglected portion of the city's past.

October 20, 1991|BERKLEY HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Little pieces of history--photographs that had been slipped away in drawers, attics, garages and family picture albums--emerged by the boxful Saturday at a library in South-Central Los Angeles, where a delighted team of librarians launched a project to recover a neglected part of Los Angeles' ethnic past.

Edward Toney brought his 1930s and 1940s pictures from the jazz clubs of Central Avenue. Rosalind Harris gathered up her two hulking photo albums that told the story of her family's migration from the slave times of the 19th-Century South to a better life in 20th-Century Los Angeles. And Enda Carr Taylor, with her 4-year-old granddaughter Britney Taylor in hand, offered up decades-old photographs that her father took of family trips to the beach.

Project coordinator Carolyn Kozo said the black and white treasure troves that about 20 people brought to the Vernon branch of the Los Angeles Public Library will begin to fill a significant gap in the Central Library's massive photography collections, used by researchers as well as the public.

In the past, she said, "photographs just weren't collected from the ethnic neighborhoods."

Saturday's effort was the first in a series of daylong sessions designed to get people to share their family pictures with the project, whose mission is to collect photographs that speak about social, political and cultural contributions of the city's African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans from 1860 to 1960.

The first year of the project, which is funded with a $9,000 grant from Security Pacific Bank, emphasizes the African-American communities of the city. Next year, the project will concentrate on pictures from the Latino and Asian-American communities.

The photographs brought into the libraries are copied on the spot and returned to their owners.

"When you have a good sense of your community, it is sort of like going back to roots," Kozo said. "Children need to know more about their community and have a sense of coming from someplace, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride. History projects remind us that Los Angeles has a history and we should be proud of it."

Edward Toney, 72, was proud of the history he brought to the library in plastic grocery bags that crinkled noisily when he removed the pictures.

One by one, he laid out photos from jazz clubs that once lined sections of Central Avenue, not far from the Vernon library. Nightclubs, he said, had photographers that took pictures of patrons.

He opened a folder from the Club Alabam that showed him, cigar in hand and dressed in a pin-striped, double-breasted suit. Then there was one from the Downbeat, and from Shepp's Playhouse and the Zenda Ballroom Cafe in downtown Los Angeles. "This is one of the little ladies I knew," he said of a photograph of him in white tie and tails, with a woman dressed in equally formal attire.

He ticked off the list of performers who regularly appeared in the clubs: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole and Dexter Gordon.

"This is when the city of Los Angeles was in full bloom," Toney said. "Movie stars would come from Beverly Hills over here. We had everything you wanted. This street you see out here, was all businesses," he said motioning toward the street outside. "My goodness, it looks like a dump yard now."

Then he took out a picture of himself and two friends at the old Wadsworth School just off Central Avenue. He pointed out that one of his buddies was white and that the other was black. "This is the way we came along, " he said. "We didn't come up with all this craziness of today. We knew all kinds of races and were friends."

Across the room, volunteer Shanda Fernandez, 43, went page by page through Harris' two photo albums. Harris, too, had a photograph of the jazz club scene, labeled: "Daddy and Mama at an affair at the Alabam nightclub."

"These are wonderful," Fernandez said. Then she came upon a small, yet sobering photograph of a burned down building. Dated Aug. 15, 1965, it was captioned, "The drugstore where Rosalind worked." She was a clerk there, she said, and the day after the Watts riots began, she took the picture.

Looking at a photo from earlier times, an image of the five-bedroom, wooden-frame house where her family lived for decades on Imperial Highway, she said: "They look like they were hard times, but they were good times."

The project is important, said volunteer Earline Campbell of Inglewood, to show the positive aspects of black community life.

And, she said, it is important for young blacks to know--through photographs--about the vital contributions made by their black Los Angeles predecessors. Because, she said, "if you see nothing, hear nothing, read nothing good, then you have no desire to do good." Gathering together the old photographs, she said, helps rectify this.

Taylor, 49, said that the project, and collecting family pictures for it, reminded her of the importance of being a grandmother. Looking at her pony-tailed grandchild, she said: "I tell her stories about her grandmother, her great-grandmother. I have to pass on that history. It's a legacy that you pass on."

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