YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Ferdia Harris, 90; Longtime Activist, `Mother of the Block Club Movement' in L.A.

April 28, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Ferdia Akins Harris, a longtime community activist in South Los Angeles, known by some as the "mother of the block club movement," died April 20 after a brief illness. She was 90.

Harris, a onetime key aide to former Los Angeles City Councilman Billy Mills, started her network of block clubs in the late 1950s after black families moved into the southern parts of the city, replacing whites who had moved to the suburbs. Eventually, some African Americans also would leave for more upscale terrain.

The rallying cry of Harris and the block clubs was: "Don't Move, Improve."

The clubs encouraged residents to stay and build stable, healthy neighborhoods. Residents of city blocks banded together to help reduce crime, promote pride and push the city to address problems that cause flight: trash-strewn alleys and streets, abandoned cars, graffiti.

Decades later, block clubs helped inspire the creation of a citywide, city-sanctioned network of advisory groups designed to promote local empowerment and civic engagement.

Harris "was part of the first wave of groups that could be seen as laying the groundwork for Neighborhood Councils," said Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), who, as a councilman, was instrumental in promoting the councils, which voters approved in 1999 as part of the new city charter.

Harris' work began with a simple desire to make life better -- and the environment more beautiful -- for residents of South Los Angeles. The effort paid off, and was evident to anyone who drove through an area that had an active block club.

There were manicured lawns, clean-swept alleys, a neat, orderly appearance, recalled Ridley-Thomas, who in 1991 won a seat on the City Council representing the 8th District, where Harris lived and block clubs flourished.

"They were making a statement that there's worth and value in these communities," Ridley-Thomas said. "We ought to let the world know it, and whatever resources we have, we ought to invest them wisely in making our communities the best that they can be."

If the city failed to deliver needed services, the club did the work. Block club members planted saplings they had pooled their money to buy in an effort to improve the appearance of the block.

Sometimes the groups even paid to have a resident keep their block free of trash.

The message resonated with homeowners who seemed to be "waiting for somebody to take the lead, take the initiative," said Alice Williams, a longtime friend who worked with Harris in the block club. "They stayed right with her. People worked together. They networked across the city."

Harris, who served as president of the East 94th Street Block Club, was bold in her desire to keep her neighborhood beautiful, once approaching a young man repairing a car on the street.

"I got out of my car and said, 'You know, you can't do that here,' " Harris recalled in a 1989 interview with The Times. " 'You're going to have to move that to your back yard.' .... He was very apologetic and said he didn't know he was doing anything wrong. We haven't had a problem from him since."

Over time, the clubs became something of a liaison between the city and its residents. Their functions also expanded to include employment counseling and voter registration drives.

In 1963, Harris founded the Council of Community Clubs, an umbrella organization for the growing number of block clubs in the city. By the late 1970s, about 78 block clubs belonged to the council and others operated independently, many in the 8th District.

As president of the Council of Community Clubs, Harris pushed in the 1970s for laws that would reduce the number of liquor licenses granted to businesses in South Los Angeles. Liquor stores created problems, attracting the "kind of frustrated people who go out in back and drink wine and throw bottles," she told The Times in 1970.

Mills, the councilman who later became a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, said he hired Harris not because she was his sister-in-law, but because of her impeccable community organizing skills.

"No one I know is able to get things done the way Ferdia does," Mills told a Times reporter in 1989. "We used to pray for organizations like hers."

The clubs' success also got the attention of city leaders, who by the 1980s were tapping the groups for help in the fight against crime and deteriorating communities.

Those early groups explain why some blocks in South Los Angeles have thrived and others -- sometimes just one block over -- suffer from blighted conditions, Ridley-Thomas said. The idea that improving a community's appearance can help deter crime was later embraced by law enforcement officials.

"From the beginning, we realized that you had to nip the problem in the bud," Harris told a Times reporter in 1989.

Harris worked for many years as a management specialist with the city's Community Development Department. After her retirement, Harris and the Council of Community Clubs operated an earthquake preparedness program that trained community members to respond to disasters.

Harris was born Sept. 12, 1915, in Arkansas. She attended Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and later moved to California. She earned a master's degree in administration from Pepperdine University and was a civil rights activist and a union organizer at Douglas Aircraft Co. during World War II.

Harris is survived by a sister, Rubye Maurine Mills; a niece, Joann Golden; four grandnieces; and a nephew.

A funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Angelus Funeral Home, 3875 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Council of Community of Clubs.

Los Angeles Times Articles