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Black (living) history

L.A. looks to its African American past for the future.


A few weeks ago, the powers that be in Leimert Park polished off a five-year project evoking 500 years of history. The Sankofa Passage, a stylized pathway swaying along Degnan Boulevard, pays tribute to a who's who of artists, musicians, actors, poets and others whose reputations are global, but whose talents shaped the local. (Think Charles Mingus, Paul Williams and John Outterbridge.) Unlike on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, though, the names here aren't adorned with microphones, LPs or cameras; they're ringed with slave brands. And at their apex sits the mythical Sankofa, a symbol -- originating with the Akan people of Ghana -- of a bird gazing backward.

"The whole idea of the Sankofa is that, in flying forward, it looks back to identify what its future path should be," says Clint Rosemond, who helped oversee the project as manager of Leimert Park's business improvement district.

The image is especially poignant on the eve of Black History Month, for African American history and the power of the places from which it sprung perennially inspire Angelenos. Certainly, the influence of contemporary African American culture can be felt virtually anywhere, but to fully appreciate it requires a deeper understanding of how at least some of it began.

That theme is explored in two exhibits opening today at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park -- "The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present" and "Common Ground." Both examine connections between African and Latino cultures via paintings and mixed media tracing a five-century history.

But while CAAM's exhibits offer context, telling artifacts from the multicultural past are scattered throughout the streets themselves. Just look at the bronze plaque on Olvera Street stating that, of the 44 founders of El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles del Rio de Porciuncula in 1781, 26 were of African descent.

Or take the popular bus tour offered Saturday by Our Authors Study Club, a historical organization that championed L.A.'s first black history week in 1949. The locations are as diverse as some of the city's oldest adobe structures (in Baldwin Hills), the J. Paul Getty mayoral mansion (where Tom Bradley once lived) and the oak tree at 11th and Hobart streets -- reportedly once a 3-inch sapling given to Jesse Owens' team by the German Olympic Committee during the 1936 games. To cover the territory, club president Genevieve Shepherd says, "we really need six hours, but we try to do it in four."

Another tour stop is the site of the former home of Biddy Mason, a Mississippi slave whose owner marched her out to California behind his wagon train in the mid-1800s. Mason sued for her freedom and reinvented herself as a businesswoman in downtown L.A. Today a park stands on the site, next to the Bradbury Building, and her life is charted on its courtyard wall.

Before dying a wealthy landowner, Mason also founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church -- now claiming a congregation of 19,000 souls -- in her living room. First AME became an anchor of swanky West Adams, along with the mansions of Sugar Hill, while close-by nightclubs on Central Avenue testified to the area's heyday as a multiracial, cultural focal point in the 1920s through '40s. "It was a hub of the city, unapologetically and unquestioningly," says Christopher Jimenez y West, CAAM's history curator. "It was the place to go for speak-easies, after-hours clubs."

By the 1960s, the area was declining, but pockets of great night life survived. One was Babe's and Ricky's Inn, a blues joint run by "Mama" Laura Mae Gross (shown on the cover). Widowed in 1954 after her husband was murdered trying to cash his paycheck, Gross went into business for herself in 1957, migrating to Central Avenue in 1964, where she took over the Atlantic Club's site and created a neighborhood institution, the sort of place B.B. King might just drop by.

A Mississippi native and preacher's daughter, Gross says she knew good blues but lacked a certain urban sophistication. "The police and everybody looked out for me because they knew I was country," she says with a laugh. That's why authorities gave her a pass when they found out patrons were smoking pot in the club's bathrooms. "They knew I didn't even know what marijuana was," she says. Pot became the least of Central Avenue's problems and, like many, Gross headed west, in her case to set up shop in Leimert Park, where her new location still beckons. "My customers are white, Japanese, they come from all around," Gross says. "Last night I had a couple in here from Santa Barbara."

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