A black crow is in the foreground, with symbolic illustrations of American institutions as part of the pink and orange background. Artwork by Lyne Lucien.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several million African Americans left the South for the North and West. They wanted to raise their kids in a place where they could live and work undisturbed by violence and out from under a racist social order. And California was advertised as the land of milk and honey.

But, contrary to what they had been sold, Black migrants to California—like Verna Deckard and her family, who left Texas for Los Angeles in the 1920s—had to fight to live and to play. They faced segregation in public spaces like beaches, Klan violence, government interference and racist housing covenants.

But they continued to fight for their freedoms, staging public protests and finding clever ways to circumvent the racism that had followed them to the west coast.

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Kidada E. Williams: Verna Deckard Lewis Williams was born in 1906 in Tatum, Texas, to Eula and Jule Deckard. Her mother worked at home. Her father was the town blacksmith.

Verna Deckard Lewis Williams: He started his blacksmith’s shop about 1902 and then when cars came in about 1908, he bought a car, tore it down, put it back together and taught himself how to be a mechanic.

KEW: By 1919, car ownership started to rise. And Jule’s business had grown so successful that his resentful white neighbors wouldn’t stand for it.

VDLW: Well, he was making so much money that they just couldn’t stand the idea of this Black man making all this money. So they burned his buildings down.

KEW: Resilient and determined, Verna’s father moved his family to a new town, Terrell—just outside of Dallas—to start again. Jule opened an auto repair shop there, leaving the blacksmithing behind. 

In five hours of interviews she did with the Shades of L.A. Oral History Project in 1992, Verna’s dad’s impact on her life is clear. He shaped her understanding of the world and guided her through growing up in the Jim Crow era. But after just three years settled in Terrell, Jule was, again, living above the station white people had thought he should. 

VDLW: My mother was real light and had a lady to come and visit us who was also real light…So Papa was taking her around sightseeing this town of Terrell…they saw my dad with this other real light lady, carrying her around town, and they assumed that she was a white woman and he had his nerve, you know, taking a white woman around.  

KEW: It was one thing to be living well; it was another to be doing it with what they presumed was a white woman. 

VDLW: So that night, they came to my father’s garage and said, “Deck, look at my battery,” and when he went to look at the battery, he stooped over and took the floorboards out of the car. They hit him in the head with a sledgehammer, trying to knock him out and trying to push him in the car. 

KEW: Verna’s big brother ran to his father’s rescue and the two of them fled. Their attackers started shooting.

VDLW: And they did shoot my father in the meat part of his arm—the flesh part of his arm—but it wasn’t a serious wound. But where they hit him in the head was serious because they had to take stitches in there, in his head.

But my brother, he ran zig-zag across the vacant lot, he said he’d seen that in the silent movies and he thought about that while they were shooting at him. He said, “If I run zig-zag, they won’t hit me.” 

So he ran zig-zag and they didn’t hit him. But they did hit my father. And the next morning he and my brother left to come to Los Angeles…That’s what caused him to leave, because he figured they’d come back, since they didn’t succeed that night, he figured they’d come back later and try to kill him. 

KEW: This is Seizing Freedom. In this episode: how African Americans had hoped to make better lives for themselves, and their kin, by heading west. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several million African Americans left the South for the North and West—escaping lynching, convict leasing, Jim Crow, and the dwindling of Black freedom and futures.

They wanted to raise their kids in a place where they could live and work undisturbed by violence and out from under a racist social order. And California was advertised as the land of milk and honey. 

As early as 1901, the white-owned Los Angeles Times printed such progressive dreams:

The Los Angeles Times: Is it not time that this absurd, illogical, unreasonable and unjust discrimination against a man because he happens to have a dark skin should be dropped?

KEW: California had land, jobs, and opportunity. Black people could vote there, even if it would take a while before their small numbers would translate into actual political power. Between 1900 and 1910, the city’s overall population skyrocketed—and Black LA grew from 2,000 people to 7,500.  

TLAT: …here, in this land of liberty and equality, with a population composed of people from every corner of the globe, with skins varying in color from that of the fair-haired Scandinavians to the coal-black negro, how preposterous it is to ostracize a man simply because his hide happens to be of a different color from ours. 

KEW: Would changing the scenery improve African Americans’ possibilities for living as they wanted? Or would the shadows of racism stalk them wherever they went? 

After a year of working and living with his brother and sister in L.A., Jule Deckard decided to return home to Texas to be with his people and tend to his business. His son stayed out west. Jule wouldn’t return to L.A. until 1924, when he visited for the summer. This time, the whole family—including Verna—got to come along. 

They left Texas in two cars: one of them was a little Ford coupe that Jule had bought for Verna. Jule, knowing they couldn’t stay in motels or eat in restaurants along the way, bought a tent that fit them all. They stopped every night to camp.

VDLW: …and if he’d see a rabbit on the way, he’d stop and kill the rabbit and we’d cook the rabbit—Mama would cook the rabbit—for dinner. She had a little coal oil stove. It was really fun, it was just like a camping trip, only it took us seven days to get out here… 

KEW: Verna’s family had an edge on many migrants who were forced to travel on segregated public transportation. With their own personal vehicle, they escaped the indignities of Jim Crow trains and buses.

But they were exposed to the familiar hazards of “Driving While Black”. The potential for racist white people to harm Black people for having their own personal vehicles, especially nice ones that might carry them as far as Los Angeles, was high. 

Black drivers and their families were crashed into. Driven off roads. Assaulted. Shot at. And they faced denials of service at hotels, diners, camps, and gas stations.

VDLW: Well the first thing my dad would do when we would drive into a service station, he would find out if we could use the restroom—because we had a problem using restrooms. And some of them would say, “We don’t have restrooms for colored.” So he wouldn’t buy any gas if they didn’t have any restroom for us to use. 

KEW: To avoid the indignity of denied service and potential violence if he protested—and sometimes even if he didn’t—Jule always stopped for gas before the cars ran out. He carried an extra five gallon can of gas in his car just in case they came across segregated service stations. 

VDLW: My dad was just so proud. He was…That was just his own little way of trying to break it down. 

KEW: At one station in Arizona, they let his family use the restroom. While he was getting gas, Verna spied a little eating place on the side of the station. She loved milkshakes, and so while her father filled up the tanks, Verna went in and sat at the counter and ordered herself one. The soda man asked her to sit at a table instead. 

VDLW: Well, I’m out of Texas and I didn’t realize that I was being segregated when he said I had to sit at the table. Sitting at the table, it looked like I was getting special service, you know? I didn’t realize I was being segregated. [laughs] 

So I went over and sat at the table and he came over and waited on me right away, you know? [laughs] So Papa came in looking for me and he saw me sitting at the table drinking this malt and he says, “What are you doing sitting over here by yourself and everybody else is at the counter?” I said, “Well he told me to sit over here.” 

“Well you shouldn’t have bought it! You shouldn’t have bought it!” He realized right away what they were doing, you know. I said, “Well I paid for it now.” “C’mon, let’s get out of here!” And he was loud talking, then. We left and had to leave some of my milkshake because I hadn’t finished it.

But he was so mad. And so he gave me a good lecture: “Don’t you ever buy anything when they start doing you like that.” 

KEW: This was the kind of treatment Jule wanted a break from. This California vacation was supposed to be a respite for the Deckards: ripe with possibilities for Black southerners looking to seize freedom. 

Verna felt the thrill of being somewhere wholly new, for the opportunity of a summer not bound by the parameters of white supremacy. 

VDLW: The highway brought us right through downtown. The people saw this dusty car with the luggage on the top and the sign, “Texas to Los Angeles,” and they all hollered, “Hello, Texas!”

And we just felt we had a welcome committee waiting for us because the crowd was just hollering, “Hello Texas.” [laughs] We were definitely from Texas with that dirty car and all this luggage and the sign on it, you know. So right away I fell in love with Los Angeles because everybody was so friendly. 

KEW: The LA vacation was full of sun and fun, even though Jule made Verna go to summer school.

VDLW: And I was a very popular girl because I was the new girl from Texas with my own car. And I’d take my little car to school everyday. And all these kids would get in my car, we’d have about four of them inside…two, four…there’s eight of us here. We’d have about four inside and the other four would be hanging on the outside on the little running board. 

KEW: When she wasn’t in class, Verna would spend her time at the beach. 

VDLW: You see, we only had that one little spot we could go to. That was the segregated part of the beach in Santa Monica. And the Blacks could only go to that one little section. And all those other parts of the beach had signs up there, “Private,” they were private clubs.

And unless you belonged to that club you couldn’t go over in that section at all. And naturally you couldn’t join the club, you know. So we just had to go to this little spot.

They called that little spot where we could go the “Ink Well,” you know, because it was a segregated part of the beach where we colored could go…All the colored people called it the Ink Well…”We’re going down to the Ink Well.” [laughs] 

KEW: Beach segregation was the first sign that maybe things weren’t going to be as different out in California as they had been in Texas. 

Further south there was Bruce’s Beach Resort, another alternative for Black beachgoers. It was founded in 1912 by Willa and Charles Bruce: entrepreneurs with a dream to own their own business. Willa was a local cook and Charles was a chef for the Union Pacific Railroad.

They saved up their money and bought a strip of land on Manhattan Beach—just south of where LAX now sprawls—sold to them at ten times the standard price because they were Black. 

The Bruces’ business started small; just a snack shack and a few changing tents at first. But it opened with fanfare, excitement, and a mission that was shared in The California Eagle, one of the best-known “race papers” in the country.

California Eagle 1: They, after securing their property site, set about to prepare a place where members of the race might spend their spare time enjoying the ocean breeze under their own vine and fig tree. 

KEW: Unlike the Ink Well, Bruce’s Beach was owned and operated by Black Angelinos for Black Angelinos. But that didn’t keep white opposition at bay—the resort was challenged almost immediately after opening. The hostility was so bad, it was reported in the L.A. Times, not just the “race papers.”

TLAT: June 27, 1912: Yesterday when a good-sized Sunday crowd of pleasure seekers had gathered and donned their bathing suits to disport in the ocean, they were confronted by two deputy Constables who warned them against crossing the strip of land in front of Mrs. Bruce’s property to reach the ocean.

For a distance of over half a mile from Peck’s Pier to 24th Street, a strip of ocean frontage is owned by George H. Peck, who also owns several hundred acres of land in the Manhattan addition where Mrs. Bruce’s property is situated. This strip has been staked off and “no trespassing” signs put up and consequently the bathers yesterday could not get to the beach without walking beyond Peck’s strip of ocean frontage. 

This small inconvenience, however, did not deter the bathers, on pleasure bent, from walking the half mile around Peck’s land and spending the day swimming and jumping the breakers. All along the beach in front of the prohibited strip which was patrolled by the constables, the light hearted Colored people frolicked in the breakers or lay on the warm sand enjoying the sea breezes. 

Mrs. Bruce says most emphatically that she is there to stay and that she will continue to rent her bathing suits to people of her race. All they desire is a little resort of their own to which they might go and enjoy the ocean. “Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort we have been refused, but I own this land and I am going to keep it…”

KEW: Mrs. Bruce not only kept her resort—she expanded it. By the time the Deckards were summering in LA, she was taking out huge, half-page advertisements in The California Eagle.

California Eagle 1: “ANNOUNCEMENT!” – Mrs. Bruce has built a new and up-to-date Bath at the famous resort known as “Bruce’s Beach,” or formerly Peck’s Pavilion. Surf bathing, those good, bounteous fried fish meals, and many other attractions. A modern life line with every safety device will be installed. Come and enjoy the day, weekend, or longer at this home-like outing place.

California Eagle 2: The beautiful seashore resort, Bruce Beach is where for the past few seasons those of us who want real pleasure and recuperation, away from the heat and dust of the city, during the hot summer season, take pleasure in going. 

California Eagle 1: Each season the management of this resort adds to the beauty and comfort of this place—the bathing facilities installed last summer added more comfort and completeness, and now that the season is ready Bruce Beach throws wide its doors, bidding you welcome to spend the day, week, or month.  

KEW: Over at the Ink Well, Verna was enjoying the sun and the social scene. A photo of her was even printed in L.A. Style magazine—sitting in the sand, wrapped in the arms of a handsome boy named Arthur Lewis. 

VDLW: Oh yeah, that’s really nice. That was August the second, 1924. And that’s the first time I ever hugged up with a boy out in public. Oh, my dad saw that picture…He really balled me out. “What are you doing hugged up with a boy out in public like that?” He just thought that was terrible. So I said, “Well, Papa, I didn’t do that. He just grabbed me.” [laughs]…I didn’t look like I was trying to get away, huh? [laughs]

KEW: She…doesn’t look like she was trying to get away at all. 

VDLW: I had only known him about two weeks, and we had been seeing each other every night. He worked during the day and every night he’s coming over to see me because I only had a month left to stay here. And so he’s making hay while the sun was shining. [laughs]

KEW: As August 1924 drew to a close, Verna realized she didn’t want to go back to Texas. But her parents wouldn’t agree to let her stay in L.A. with only her brother as supervisor. So she started making hints to Arthur… 

VDLW: …”Oh, I’d just do anything to stay out here. I don’t want to go back to that Old Bad Texas.” And he said, “You’d do anything?” I said, “Yeah, I sure would.” And he said, “Well, what about marrying me?” [laughs] 

And that’s when I ran off and got married ‘cause I didn’t want to go back to that Old Bad Texas—I called it “Old Bad Texas”  back then ‘cause of the way they treated us, you know?

KEW: At 18 years old, the night before she was supposed to leave for home, Verna Deckard eloped and became Mrs. Arthur Lewis. Her parents were surprised, but they liked Arthur. Verna’s dad wouldn’t let her stay with her new husband that first night, but Verna didn’t care much.  

VDLW: All I was thinking about: “I’m getting to stay out here,” you know? [laughs] And then it dawned on me, “Oh, I got to sleep with this man.” [laughs] And then I started getting nervous. Oh…

And so that day we went to the beach. After we saw my parents off. They went on, they let me stay and they went on back home, drove their car back to Texas. …So we just got in the car and went to the beach. Spent all day at the beach.

KEW: As Verna was beginning a new life with her new husband, the KKK was establishing itself as a formidable force along the L.A. waterfront. The Eagle wrote:

California Eagle 1: At first it was understood that at least the ocean was free for all; but recently part of Texas has been transplanted, along the waterfront of California, and it has decided that Colored Americans have no rights, civil or otherwise, that it should respect. 

A few weeks ago three Colored men were fishing on the pier at Redondo when they were approached by a white man who handed one of them a little booklet entitled “The Ideals of the Ku Klux Klan,” written on the margin of which was “Colored Folks Beach: three miles North.”

The Colored men who received this un-American, cheap document immediately packed up their fishing tackle and moved on. The Colored folk of California must fight this sort of propaganda, which is working its way into the courts of this state, a vivid example of which is the Bruce Beach case. 

KEW: At this point, the Bruces had operated their resort for more than a decade. Black visitors to Bruce’s Beach had spent that time in leisure, enjoying swims and fish fries. This didn’t sit well with the Klan. They developed a two-pronged approach to rectify the threat of Black leisure: First, attack beachgoers. Second, try to influence the city council to condemn Black-only spaces.  

California Eagle 2: Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Bruce and their son, owners of Bruce’s Beach, are facing an action in the Superior Court in which that city seeks to condemn all the property owned by colored people at Manhattan Beach, under the pretext that it is to be named for a public park. 

The fact that the city seeks to restrict its proposed park to the property owned by colored people only is a palpable attempt to use the condemnation proceedings as a ruse to carry out the racial prejudice which has taken this particular form of objection to members of our group having the right to enjoy bathing in the Pacific Ocean. 

KEW: In the middle of the fight to defend Bruce’s Beach—and after a year of living without their children—Eula and Jule Deckard closed up shop in Texas and moved to L.A. permanently. 

VDLW: Papa was really a very good dad. And he just wanted to be around where we were, you know? So that’s when he moved out back here. 

KEW: But any hopes Jule had that life would be different in L.A. wouldn’t last. 

VDLW: Los Angeles wasn’t as nice as he thought it was going to be, because he came with his cash money and he bought a house…paid cash for the house. He bought it in an area where they didn’t want colored, but he didn’t know it.

KEW: The Deckard’s new neighborhood wasn’t redlined—mortgage-seeking Black folks could legally live there. But most of the properties were governed by restrictive covenants—agreements between white neighbors and developers. They would pledge to one another not to sell or rent to Black and brown folks or religious minorities. And they codified those promises in their mortgages and leases.  

VDLW: So this house he bought was from a white family. And it was not restricted, they hadn’t signed the restrictive covenant, but all the other houses on that street were restricted. But he didn’t know anything about any restrictions anyway. 

KEW: Over the course of the 20th century, restrictive covenants gave way to modern home owners’ associations. Blaming housing discrimination on policies like redlining and restrictive covenants on real estate agents and banks is easy. But that erases all the active work of government officials—and all of the white people who elected them—who put segregation into writing and law. 

According to Verna, her parents’ white neighbors didn’t realize that a Black family had moved in at first. Jule left the house early every morning and came home late—trying to get his new garage off the ground—so they rarely saw him.

Eula could pass as white, so they didn’t pay her much mind. But then Verna and Arthur, who were expecting their first baby, moved in. The neighbors were incensed. 

VDLW: They came, a committee…a group of them came and talked to my dad and said they don’t want any coloreds living in the neighborhood and they would like to buy him out…And so, papa said, “Yeah, I’ll sell it to you; if you don’t want me here, I’ll sell it to you.” 

And they finally got around to the price and he wanted $4,200 for it… They said, “But you didn’t pay but $3,200.” He said, “Well, I have to have some extra money for moving expenses.” Says, “I can’t sell it to you for what I paid for it because I’ll have to go out and probably pay more.” And they said, “Well, we’ll think about it.”

KEW: Instead of coming back to accept Jule’s offer, they came back with menacing reinforcements. Fifty people showed up on the Deckard’s lawn. Two of them rang the doorbell. Jule wasn’t home. Verna’s mother answered the door. 

VDLW: She saw those fifty people out there, that frightened her! So she started shaking, you know. Oh boy, they just looked like to me–they just gloated over that. “Oh, we got her now, you know.” And then they got real big then talking like, “Get out before daylight in the morning.” And mama just said, “O.K,” you know and shut the door. And they went on away. They jumped in their cars and drove away right quick, did it all real fast.

KEW: Eula called the police, as one does when strange people are threatening your family inside your home. But it took them two hours to show up. The neighbors on either side of the Deckards hadn’t been part of the mob. 

VDLW: And they told us, well, “Some of the sheriffs were in the gang that came there. That’s the reason it took them so long to come back when you called for the sheriff.” And by the time they got there, my father was home by that time.

KEW: The sheriff walked in to Jule cleaning and loading a Winchester rifle. They exchanged a few words, and the sheriff left. Unsure if the sheriff would return with reinforcements or the Klan, Jule went down to 12th and Central Avenue, the heart of Black Los Angeles at the time. He told everyone he saw out on the street what had happened, and they volunteered to come back with him and protect the Deckard home. 

VDLW: They took turns at sitting up watching and waiting for them to come back. If they had come back it would have been a race riot. Because they were ready. They had their guns and those who didn’t have guns, Papa got guns for them. And they sat up every night waiting for them. And Mama would do the cooking. 

But nobody ever came back. So after a month Papa figured, “Well, I guess this has died down.” In fact, the neighbors next door said, “Well, they’ve given up. They’ve decided they’re not going to bother you anymore.”

KEW: And they didn’t. Verna and Arthur welcomed their child, Arthur Lewis Jr., into the world shortly afterward. On the weekends, Arthur and Verna played piano and violin for their church, dropped in on friends, and went for drives along the coast.

But in 1927, after only three years of marriage, and when Verna was just 20 years old, her husband died of tuberculosis. Verna got a job as a ticket taker at a theater and spent a lot of time at the beach with her little boy. 

Meanwhile, across town, the Bruces had been fighting to hold onto their resort. After three years of debate in the papers and a bureaucratic nightmare in city council and in court, they were forced to give up their land in the spring of 1927.

An 800-person party at the resort was the last straw for the white neighboring community. The city’s board of trustees condemned Bruce’s Beach for use as a public park, paying $75,000 to compensate any owners, Black or white. The Bruce’s resort closed. 

And then, the city leased the entire park to one white man, Oscar Bassonette, for a grand total of one dollar per year. He immediately established it as a segregated space, put up “no trespassing” signs, and started calling the cops on any Black Angelinos who tried to swim there. The California Eagle reported it all:

California Eagle 2: The taking down of the names and addresses of some 25 bathers at Bruce Beach on Memorial Day by the Police Department appears to have been nothing more or less than a bull-dozing attempt in disguise to coerce and browbeat the Negro into keeping away from those quarters.

The attempt failed of its purpose, for none left the water and it is to be hoped in the future that if further attempts are made the bathers will take the same stand. 

California Eagle 1: For some little time, a gang of white terrorists in the name of the law have infested the surrounding territory of Bruce Beach, threatening to arrest Negroes who dared to take a plunge in the ocean.

California Eagle 2: Sooner or later the bathing question must be settled. Why not now? Stand on your rights with both feet. If they solicit your names, refuse and give them a chance to make a showdown and you’ll find that some of the present obstacles will evaporate overnight.

KEW: Elizabeth Catley, a Black college student staying at a nearby boarding house owned by the Slaughter family, decided to test Bassonette’s resolve by showing up for a swim anyway. She was arrested and tossed in jail for five hours in nothing but her wet bathing suit. 

Responding to public outrage, Henry Claude Hudson, the white president of the L.A. NAACP, rallied people “who didn’t mind going to jail” for the branch’s first official protest: a swim-in at the park formerly known as Bruce’s Beach.

Police quickly made arrests—old and young, men and women, were dragged out of the water and off the beach. Even Hudson faced charges and was jailed for “resisting an officer.” The NAACP covered everyone’s bail and bonds. 

The protest had the impact Hudson intended: On August 15, 1927, the city revoked its lease to Bassonette and took over the land itself for a public park. Nothing was over, though. The NAACP called the effort a “militant stand on behalf of Civil Rights” and championed Hudson and the L.A. branch.

California Eagle 1: The various clubs and organizations and individuals which rallied to the call are all indeed worthy of the highest credit for their most splendid work for justice and the square deal. We suggest a testimonial gather is in order for all concerned.

KEW:  Race leaders—like the NAACP’s National Field Secretary, William Pickens—wrote that “every colored person in Los Angeles should get himself and herself arrested” over this issue. But Black Angelinos in L.A. were divided on the impact of the swim-in.

Some thought breaking the law and getting arrested on purpose was disgraceful. There was also a divide about the impact of the city’s decision to make the beach open to ‘all’ despite its origins as a Black space. The L.A. Times called the decision a “fine example.”

TLAT: August 16, 1927: Through a perpetual lease, the city has secured for the recreation and enjoyment of all the people two miles of foreshore, free from private exploitation or the erection of barriers, assuring residents and visitors an ocean playground in keeping with the spirit of American democracy.

KEW: But that was the utopian pipe dream of someone who had never faced discrimination. Just two months later, The California Eagle reported more beachfront Klan attacks—this time at the Slaughter’s boarding house. 

California Eagle 2: …On the night of October the 18th, in the dead hours of the night the motley hooded cowards crept up to the residence of Mr. and Mrs. James Slaughter and literally covered the gas meter under the house with oil soaked waste, excelsior and cotton and applied a match to it. Fortunately the fumes of smoke awakened the family; they turned in the alarm, but succeeded in extinguishing the fire before the department arrived. 

The very next night, right across the street, the fiery cross of the KKK was burned. We are pleased to note that the Slaughter family is not of the running kind and the cowardly midnight prowlers will meet their just desserts before they get far with the rough stuff they are attempting to pull off. 

KEW: A police investigation got underway. But as was—and is—almost always the case, the cops were part of the mob that attacked the Slaughters. And so “evidence” that would convince all-white juries of wrongdoing was hard to come by. In fact, those who were determined that justice and decency should not prevail endured until 2007, when the city renamed the park “Bruce’s Beach” in an attempt to acknowledge its history. 

After George Floyd was murdered in 2020, Manhattan Beach city council and the California State Senate approved a bill that would return the land to descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce. 

Transformative change is slow, especially when the shape of the cage preventing your freedom is being built around you and you still lack political power to do anything about it.

Black folks, like Verna, who arrived in the 1920s were “free-er” in the land of milk and honey. But it wouldn’t be until the 1940s and ‘50s when enough Black migrants from the South moved to California that white elected officials would be forced to take them seriously. 

Until then, Verna was left to continue to fight individual battles that her father had taught her to wage against Jim Crow. After her first husband died, she worked odd jobs and went to night school to get her real estate license. She sold houses to Black folk, mostly on the east side of town.

And then, one day in 1946, she spied a vacant lot for sale on Gramercy Park. Verna had designs on building her dream house there, so she called up the agent in charge to buy it.

VDLW: So, when I gave her my phone number, it was on the east side, and she said, “Oh, are you colored?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Well, we can’t sell it to colored.” And I got so mad, but not to her. She didn’t know I was mad. Within myself I was mad.

So I made up my mind, I’m going to get this lot one way or the other. I said, “I’m sick of these,” I said “peckerwoods,” [laughs] “trying to keep me from enjoying life and having what I want and I’m willing to work and pay for it.”

KEW: A white man in Verna’s real estate office offered to call back and buy it for her, under his girlfriend’s name, with Verna’s money. 

VDLW: I took him over to show him the lot. I said, “Because when you call to talk about buying it, you want to know what you’re talking about.” So I took him over and showed him the lot. And one of those nosy neighbors, who was a prejudiced white man, saw us. And he called the real estate agent and said, “Now if he calls you about this lot, don’t you sell it to him because he had a Colored woman over there showing it to him.”

So sure enough when the man called about the lot she knew all about him over there with me looking at the lot. And she said, “Well I’m sorry. I can’t sell you the lot.” He says, “Why?” “Well, one of the neighbors said he saw you over there with this colored woman looking at the lot.” 

He said, “That was no Colored woman, that was just a dark-haired white woman…That old man needs to change his glasses.” [laughs] It was about dusk dark, you know. And he could have made a mistake, and I’m not all that dark anyway. And so she fell for it. You know, she believed him…And so she went on and sold him the lot.

KEW: Once the deed was transferred over to Verna, she laid low for a while. The white agent started to get suspicious that no one was building on the land and eventually looked up the record of sale.

She discovered that the new owner had the same phone number—that east side number—that Verna had called from. The agent was furious and screamed at Verna that she couldn’t live in the lot; the deed had a restrictive covenant.

VDLW: And I just said to her, “Well, if I can’t live in it, I have some white relatives who can.” [laughs] Oh boy, she shut up then. She didn’t bother me anymore. Well I wasn’t able to build yet anyway. And I knew the lot was restricted and I had made up my mind, “I’m going to build on it if I have to live there as the maid.” 

Cause I was just determined…that was the last straw that broke the camel’s back, because I had been looking for years to buy a lot in a nice neighborhood so I could build the kind of home I wanted. And every time I’d find one that I wanted, they wouldn’t sell it to me, you know? And so I decided, I’m going to get this lot before I’m too old to enjoy it.

But it so happens that while I’m waiting to save my money to build the house—which was two years later—the restrictive covenant was broken down, in 1948…and so then I just rejoiced and jumped for joy (that I could build my dream house now. 

KEW: Verna lived in her dream home for the next 30 years. And even though enforcement of restrictive covenants ended, white supremacy persisted. Ending racist policies and laws is one thing, but Verna knew that wiping out the prevailing sentiment behind them was another.

VDLW: There was still a problem because the white real estate brokers would get together and say—have what you call a gentleman’s agreement. They wouldn’t say, “Well, we can’t sell it to you because you’re colored.” If they were having an open house, they’d let you look and if you were interested in buying it, they would say, “Oh, I’m sorry I already got an offer on it.” 

They were lying, they didn’t have an offer, but they would just say that, you know. And the people would…some of them would accept it, and some of them would call their hand on it, and got caught, too! And got sued for doing it. So we still had a long ways to go.  

KEW: Black Angelinos like Verna had the example of their parents from which to set the stage for future generations. 

VDLW: Sometimes I’d cry. I’d think about the things that were done to him, you know, to my dad. Because he tried so hard in his little way to break down the segregation. See, he was dead before all this came about—before the restrictions were broken down, you know, like they are now.

Papa always said, “Don’t stand there and worry about spilt milk, get busy and clean it up and go get some more.” And that’s the way I look at disappointments in life because we’re all going to have some disappointments. Life is not perfect. When something happens, well, just don’t sit there and start worrying about it, just get busy and try to do the next best thing, you know. 

KEW: Black migrants to California in the 1920s had to fight to live and to play; contrary to what they had been sold. Some people like Verna got through. But personal, individual wins aren’t the same thing as liberty and justice for all. 

Black people’s right to play in public, their ability to do what they want with their money, and their fight against Jim Crow and racist violence—wherever it existed—would remain at the forefront of the civil rights movements ahead.

Voice Actors

Constance Swain

Constance Swain

Voice of California Eagle 1

Frank Harrison Jr.

Jasmine Bracey

Voice of California Eagle 2

Tim Jenkins

Tim Jenkins

Voice of The Los Angeles Times

Seizing Freedom is a co-production of VPM and Molten Heart