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Calm Amid Storm Known as Compton

Tradition: 'First Church' marks its 134th anniversary with hopes of rekindling its stature in the community.

April 20, 2002|GARIOT LOUIMA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sitting in the cushiony living room of her home, Julliett Tucker remembers Compton.

It's not that she ever left the city, mind you. In fact, her ranch-style house is in an area she and her neighbors once called the Hollywood of Compton.

What the 69-year-old grandmother remembers is a Compton of four decades ago, a Compton that people were fighting to move into, not escape. A Compton whose collective face was nothing like hers, but welcomed her and her family warmly when they bought their house in the early 1960s.

It's a town that for Tucker is wholly intertwined with the First United Methodist Church of Compton, which celebrates its 134th anniversary this weekend.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 9, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Compton church-A story in the April 20 California section about the 134th anniversary of the First United Methodist Church of Compton incorrectly identified Cleo and Julliett Turner as Cleo and Julliett Tucker.

In one of Southern California's most tumultuous cities, the primarily black church of 300 is a reminder of the aspirations of the civil-rights era that seem to have eluded Compton in recent years.

The Rev. Odis Fentry said the celebration, to be marked with a gospel concert tonight and a special sermon Sunday, aims to rekindle the church's historical stature in the community.

Both the city and the church were founded in 1867 by a group of Methodist settlers from Stockton. The city was incorporated that year, and the church was formally organized a year later. One of its original trustees was the city's namesake, Griffith Dickenson Compton.

Compton was primarily white when residential segregation began to fade in the 1950s in Southern California. Blacks seeking better housing moved in, some attracted to First Church, as it was known, because there was "structure to the worship," said Julliett Tucker's husband, Cleo. "It wasn't all wild and crazy like some other churches we went to."

Maxcy Filer, a 71-year-old church member and onetime Compton city councilman, said blacks also joined First Church because there weren't any African Methodist Episcopal churches in the area. "Methodist was Methodist to us."

First Church, which was in downtown Compton, became one of the city's earliest integrated institutions. The Filers, who arrived in the mid-1950s, were one of two black families in the neighborhood and at the church, Filer said.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Earl Isbell, not only accepted the change but encouraged it, said Filer, who served as president of the Compton NAACP for five years, beginning in 1960. "He was for it. Some of the whites didn't like it."

During Sunday services, the black families would sit together, Filer recalled. But Isbell forced integration, sometimes beginning his sermon by asking the Filers or one of the other black families to sit in a section of the church occupied by whites.

White flight followed in Compton and other integrating communities such as the Crenshaw District. Filer's son, Compton Municipal Court Commissioner Kelvin Filer, said he doesn't remember the exodus. "What I remember is seeing more people like me showing up," said Filer. "After a while, there were a lot of us there. We used to all go to church together, and hang out in the neighborhood together."

Nancy Goff remembers those days too. She moved into the neighborhood the same year as the Filers. Today, the 69-year-old grandmother, who has since moved to Lakewood, is among the handful of whites who remain with First Church.

"This is just the one place that I wanted to go," said Goff. "There are a lot of churches on the way. But this one ... I just feel at home there."

In 1956, a contingent of the church's white members left to form Temple Methodist Church. Goff didn't see any reason to leave. For her, First Church has always been about "the spiritual growth and fellowship," she said. "I've met so many good people here."

A few years later, Julliett Tucker and her family left the west side of Compton and bought a house on the primarily white east side of the city on Poinsettia Street. They joined Temple Methodist, which was still largely white. Julliett Tucker said she didn't mind the differences in race. She had been brought up in the Methodist Church, she said, and most of her life had attended services with mixed congregations.

Cleo Tucker, who worked in a Long Beach shipyard at the time, said he was only interested in the message being preached by the church's pastor, the Rev. Bill Henderson.

The first week in their new home, the Tuckers were called on by Henderson, who was white.

"I'm Baptist," Cleo Tucker told Henderson.

"Well, that's all right," the pastor said. "I hear Baptists make the best Methodists."

In 1969, the city of Compton purchased First Methodist Church's property downtown, and the church merged with Temple Methodist to form First United Methodist Church. Cleo Tucker, who became the first black man to join Temple Methodist, said the merger resulted in the departure of most of the remaining white congregants--and numerous black families too.

"Some of them [blacks] resented the Temple church because they understood why it was there," he said.

Tucker and his family stuck it out. So did the Filers, the Goffs and several dozen others.

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