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Picturing the Past : City's Ethnic History Portrayed in Library Photo Display


CRENSHAW — When Verna D. Williams went to the beach in Santa Monica with her sweetie in the 1920s, the only place she was allowed to spread her blanket was on a blacks-only section of the sand.

"They called that part of the beach the Inkwell," the Crenshaw resident recalled. "All the rest of the beach was privately owned. You couldn't go there unless you belonged to a club, and we couldn't belong to a club."

On Aug. 2, 1924, a friend took a photo of Williams, then 17, and her beau, 21-year-old Arthur Lewis, as they sat in their bathing suits in the Inkwell. Just as the picture was about to be snapped, Lewis grabbed the shy beauty by his side and pulled her to him.

"I was so embarrassed," Williams said.

The couple married two weeks later.

Instead of keeping that fragment of history to herself, Williams has given the photo, along with several others, to the Los Angeles Public Library, where it is part of a growing collection of photographs documenting Southern California's ethnic past.

According to Carolyn Kozo, founder of Photo Friends of the Los Angeles Public Library, the library has been seeking to increase its holdings of minority photographs since 1991. In that time, it has acquired about 1,500 photos from the African-American community, 1,200 from the Latino community and 1,200 from Asians and Pacific Islanders.

Like most photos, Williams' pictures are filled with smiling faces, but they are also reminders of a time when Angelenos of color were routinely discriminated against. Williams laughs when she talks about the past, but her stories bring to mind the lines from the old blues song: "The good old days, the good old days. I was there. Where were they?"

Williams, who was from Texas, loved Los Angeles because blacks had so much more freedom here than in Texas and the South. "You couldn't even go to the park in Texas," she said. She recalls that her father always insisted on traveling in the family car to keep his family from having to sit in the back of the bus or streetcar. And the family always brought their own food with them when they traveled because in Texas, African-Americans could buy food in a restaurant but they had to take it out or eat it in the kitchen, because the counter or dining room was reserved for whites.

Los Angeles was better, but not perfect. In the 1920s, blacks could go to Exposition Park at any time, Williams says. "But we couldn't go to the Exposition Park swimming pool but one day a week, and that was the day before they changed the water."

Williams' young husband got a job as a porter, or janitor, at a local auto repair shop. Williams' brother worked there as a porter too. The brother had been taught by their mechanic father how to fix cars, and he was soon working at the shop as a mechanic. But because he was black, he was still paid a porter's wage. His white co-workers told him to forget about complaining. After all, the mechanic's job was easier than the porter's. But Williams' brother would have none of it. "It isn't a matter of easy. It's a matter of what I know," he said, right before he quit.

After her husband died of tuberculosis in 1927, Williams went to work at a movie theater. "A Japanese man gave me my first job as a cashier at the Gaiety Theater" at 23rd Street and Central Avenue, she recalled. "I was the first colored cashier in Los Angeles."

In the 1940s, Williams became a real-estate agent. For much of the decade, deeds routinely contained restrictive covenants barring Jews, blacks and other minorities from the most desirable neighborhoods.

"I had been looking for a lot for years to build my dream house, but every time I found a lot it was restricted and they wouldn't sell it to me." She finally got a white friend in her office to buy a lot for her in Gramercy Park. When a neighbor-to-be reminded Williams that she couldn't live there, Williams silenced the woman by snapping back: "If I can't live here, I've got some white relatives who can." In 1949, Williams built "a beautiful, modern, California redwood house" on the lot. "I lived in it for 30 years."

Kozo will speak Jan. 10 about "Shades of L.A.," as the library's photographic history project is called, at Loyola Marymount University. The lecture will be from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the McIntosh Center on the Westchester campus. The talk is open to the public (admission is $5).

Williams is still in the real estate business, and she also works as an extra in film and television. Look for her in the first "In Living Color" of the new year, she says. She is 86, but Williams, who has dealt with descrimination before, notes that "in my movie work, I'm only 66."

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