Pomona College Magazine
Volume 44, No. 2
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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.’’

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