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LA through the stories of African Americans

When Sandra Cox spoke at the opening of a Doheny Memorial Library exhibit Feb. 2 featuring African American families with deep roots in the City of Angels, she experienced a flashback to her days as a USC graduate student.

“I spent a lot of time reading and doing research in that library both before and after I was a USC student,” said Cox, an educational psychologist who is director of the Coalition of Mental Health Professionals. But “I never thought that in this lifetime or in the next there would be an exhibit at Doheny that included some of my family history.”

“When I walked into that exhibit, I had such a great feeling; I saw the picture of my mother there and pictures of Miss Bass [pioneering newspaper publisher Charlotta Bass]. These are people that I know to be real,” she said.

The 27-year struggle by Odessa Cox, Cox’s mother, to convince local and state officials to open a junior college in the black community is part of Cox’s family history. Odessa Cox’s refusal to give up on her dream led to the creation of Los Angeles Southwest College, which was finally built at Imperial Highway and Western Avenue in 1967.

But it is also part of the history of Los Angeles, said Jerry Campbell, USC’s chief information officer and dean of the University Libraries.

“One of our guiding goals is to preserve as much local history as possible about the families that have been instrumental in creating this great city,” Campbell said of USC’s role in gathering, preserving and displaying the photographs and other artifacts contained in the current Doheny exhibit. “Another goal is to serve as a clearinghouse for information about historic families. We want the world of scholars to view USC as the place to find historic materials.”

The exhibit at Doheny – entitled “African American Angelenos in the Greater Community: The Historic Networks of the Vernon-Central/University Park Neighborhood, 1920s-1990s” – is the first of a series that will showcase notable family histories, Campbell said.

“We are making an extraordinary effort to document the diversity in Southern California,” he said. “Two other neighborhoods we’re working with right now are Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles and Koreatown.”

The African American exhibit parallels the recently launched Historic Families Initiative, said John G. “Tom” Tomlinson, an assistant dean in the Law School.

“The thematic interests are absolutely intertwined,” Tomlinson said. While material collected for the Historic Families Initiative will become part of USC’s permanent collection, many of the items assembled for the Black History Month exhibit are on loan from the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research and from family members who retain ownership.

“The bulk of this current exhibit centers around four black families, all of whom have relationships with USC back to 1904,” he said.

The Historic Families Initiative, a project of USC Libraries, is the focus of a new entity called the Archival Research Center (ARC).

“The maturity of Southern California as a regional American culture calls for an equally mature program of collection and archival development,” said University Professor Kevin Starr, faculty consultant to the ARC project. “ARC represents a state-of-the-art response to the rich legacy, present vitality and future prospects of this great region.”

The center will preserve the legacy of historic families by organizing information in a single meta-database. With the use of software tools, original materials – text, maps, photographs, real-time videos and other information – will be scanned and digitized. Scholars and researchers around the world will eventually be able to access the material on-line.

For example, photographs and other source material that reveal demographic shifts over time might help teachers and their students understand the complex history of the city, said history professor Philip J. Ethington.

“While Central Avenue was the center of a great African American community in the ‘30s and ‘40s, it’s now probably 90 percent Latino,” Ethington said. “But the notion that the previous culture is gone or is in decline is erroneous. As the African American community moved west and dispersed throughout the city and county, this area began the transition into another culturally rich community.”

But those who truly wish to understand the present must first acknowledge the past, Ethington said. That past includes evidence that Latin Americans with African ancestry were among the founders of the Spanish pueblo in 1781. Their bloodlines are also linked to the emancipated African Americans who migrated westward from the Southern states in the 19th century, helping form a small but remarkably prosperous African American community in what is now Los Angeles. Historical chapters like this will be the subject of primary material maintained by the Archival Research Center, Ethington said.

“In a city where neighborhoods are regularly leveled or dramatically changed, it’s especially important to hang on to the community history so that we don’t assume that there was no history for the previous groups,” he said. “And by collecting and archiving these historic materials, USC will help preserve the Southland’s rich heritage, interpret its significance and ensure that the founding families take their rightful place in American history.”

In the meantime, the legendary Dunbar Hotel on South Central Avenue has become a national monument, and a rare photo of the elegant building has been preserved for posterity, Ethington said. And instead of moldering in the corner of a dark attic, basement or foot locker, artifacts that tell the stories of such esteemed black families as the Somerville-McDonalds, the Jeffersons, the Wrights, the Millers and the Coxes are likewise being preserved.

Everyone, especially children, benefits by knowing the history of his forebears, Sandra Cox said.

“Black children growing up in the South who attend predominately black colleges and schools know more about their ancestors than children in the West,” she said. “Out here, our kids, by and large, don’t know a lot of people who have accomplished great things. Archiving our history and exhibits like the one at Doheny will help our children see that we’ve done great things since the beginning of time, as well as the fact that we continue to do great things.”

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