Sunday, March 1, 2009

Once All White, Now Full Of Color

L.B. historian details Long Beach's early black history in North Park

By Joseph Kellard

One particular moment from the day in 1958 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took part in the ceremonial opening of the Christian Light Baptist Church remains etched in Roberta Fiore’s memory.

The media and many Long Beach politicians gathered for a photo op in front of the new church, in the city’s predominantly black North Park community, but King suggested another backdrop: the neighboring homes with no front doors.

“What I remember distinctly was that across the street from the church was the worst section in Long Beach,” said Fiore, who was then 18 and is now a Long Beach historian. “Dr. King had Newsday take photos of those houses instead of the church. He knew enough to say, ‘I don’t want my picture taken in front of this new building. I want it taken showing how blacks live.’”

Still, a new church in the black community was a far cry from Long Beach’s beginnings. William Reynolds, a former state senator who since 1906 had owned most of Long Beach island, sold property exclusively to the wealthy. “The laborers — the Italians, the Greeks, the blacks — were escorted out of town at night to Barnum Island,” Fiore said.

But before his business went belly-up in 1918, Reynolds asked the City Council to allow a black man named Ben to stay overnight. Ben was a servant for a woman who owned an estate on Edwards Boulevard that became a boarding house. She demanded that Reynolds accept him, and the council voted unanimously in Ben’s favor. Thereafter his black brethren called him “King Ben.”

Fiore described Ben not only as “a colorful character” who led the annual Memorial Day parade, but as one of the first influential blacks in Long Beach. “He became a very respected person in town,” she said.

Other early black influences were Dan and His Boys, a jazz quartet that entertained at Long Beach establishments and traveled with Reynolds, and James Reese Europe, an internationally known conductor and writer for Vernon and Irene Castle, a ballroom dance duo who owned a nightclub on the boardwalk. “Long Beach had an early history of music that was given by the African-American people,” Fiore said.

Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, as entertainment thrived and Long Beach developed homes and industry, Southern black migrants worked at the hotels lining the boardwalk or as domestic servants. While some lived in the stately homes where they worked, a handful began renting and even buying homes, many of which were converted garages, in what is now North Park, the area north of Park Avenue between Magnolia Boulevard and Long Beach Boulevard.

“The political idea back then was to keep the blacks concentrated on the other side of the tracks,” Fiore said. “North Park was where the railroad and the more industrial section of the city were located, and the blacks didn’t have cars, so they traveled by train.”

During the summers, fishermen stayed at the Bayview Hotel on Reynolds Channel, and black laborers moved into the dilapidated structure the rest of the year. Around World War II, a wealthy black woman, a Mrs. Reeder, invited them to board in the garage of her nearby stucco estate. “She gave these domestics comfort, warmth and clothing,” Fiore explained. “This was the beginning of the black community in Long Beach.”

During the 1940s, however, the Ku Klux Klan was active on Long Island, and when a black woman moved into a home on Pine Street, Klansmen burned a cross on her lawn, according to Fiore. The woman soon left town.

But around the same time, one of Long Beach’s most celebrated African-Americans, the Rev. Jesse Evans, moved with his family to an estate house that he rented in North Park. An Army chaplain who became the spiritual leader at Christian Light, Evans originally traveled from Jackson Heights, Queens, on Sundays to preach to the black laborers at the former First Baptist Church. Evans and his first wife were acquaintances of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta. “Evans was a good man who believed in peaceful resistance,” Fiore said. “Some thought he was too nice.”

In 2000, Fiore, then the president of the Long Beach Historical Society, interviewed Evans’s two daughters; the then 20-year-old organization had no documented history of North Park, and Fiore thought it important to create an oral record. That same year, the Long Beach NAACP Youth Council learned that a community journal created for the city’s 75th anniversary made no reference to their neighborhood. They responded by making a video documentary called “Long Beach in Color.”

Among the many black elders and leaders the young people interviewed was Hazil Garrie, who moved to Long Beach in the 1950s. On the video, Garrie called King’s visit to Long Beach the most significant event during her years in the city. “That was a happy day in my life,” Garrie said, “to see him in person, and he was very, very charming.”

In 2002, Patrick Graham, who was raised in Long Beach and is a former director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center on Riverside Boulevard, completed his doctoral thesis on the growth of the city’s black community. “The majority of African-Americans in Long Beach, from 1940 to 1980, were migrants from the South,” said Graham, who is now a college professor and president of the Urban League of the Central Carolinas in Charlotte, N.C. “Southern migrants in Long Beach and other parts of Long Island used their cultural knowledge of the civil rights movement to pursue human rights initiatives in Long Beach.”

Bill Owens arrived in Long Beach in 1960, and found that housing for blacks was scarce. He joined the local NAACP and took part in the organization’s sit-ins in the lobbies of apartment buildings that refused to admit blacks. Others picketed on the streets.

“Police came and arrested some of our people and took them to jail,” Owens recalled in “Long Beach in Color.” But after the demonstrations, inter-racial relations gradually improved, and, Owens added, “Things did start to open up.”

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