Black Migration and the Black Church
By Mark Kendall
Los Angeles’ Black population saw its greatest growth
during the first half of the 20th century, as African Americans left the
South seeking better lives in what became known as the Great Migration.
When they reached L.A., these migrants typically turned to churches, not
only for spiritual uplift, but for practical help with everything from
finding a job to learning etiquette. These secular roles are the focus
of Professor Lorn Foster’s latest project: “Black Migration to Los
Angeles, 1910-1950: the Role of the Black Church in Social Mobility.”
With few other community institutions for people to turn to, the church
served as “the place where African Americans could be themselves,
accumulate capital, speak their peace and have a role to play that they
couldn’t have in any of the other places,” says Foster.
But so far, histories of the region have given short shrift to the role
of Black congregations, according to Foster, whose work focuses on eight
major L.A. churches. One of these, People’s Independent Church, helped
to found the Golden State Life Insurance Company, which became the
largest Black-controlled insurance company in the U.S. Another, Second
Baptist Church, hosted the city’s first NAACP convention in 1927.
As part of his research, Foster is conducting oral history interviews
and helping several churches catalog and digitize their archives. A pair
of students, Becky Dale ’09 and David Brown ’08, assisted with the
project last summer. Brown grew up in Los Angeles and “being
African-American myself, it’s been pretty cool to see the church has
been an instrument of change, an instrument of mobility in the Black
community,” says Brown.
Foster, who also grew up in L. A., expects the project will lead to a
book: “This has taken on a life of its own.’’