From Louisiana to La La Land: Black migration’s impact on today’s L.A.
Editor’s Note: This is the first piece in an ongoing body of work related to Black Angelenos’ indelible impact on Los Angeles as the the city and culture we know today, including the roles of slavery, migration and gentrification.
The Second Great Migration, which lasted from 1940 to 1970, brought 4.3 million Black Americans from the South to the Midwest, North and West Coast. People spread to all corners of the country, but gravitated toward large urban centers like New York, Detroit and Philly. The migration of Black southerners to Los Angeles helped transform the city forever. “As World War II commenced, defense production skyrocketed in Los Angeles with more than $11 billion in war contracts, which called for labor in the automobile, rubber and steel industries,” according to reporting from KCET. Thirty years of westward migration increased the Black population of Los Angeles from 63,700 to 763,000—more than 1,000%.
Many of the southerners that fled the racial injustices of Jim Crow segregation migrated from Louisiana—my family included.
While in graduate school at UCLA, Dr. Faustina DuCros began a research project about Black Americans migrating out of Louisiana to California. She took specific interest in this topic because her own paternal grandparents moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles in the 1940s.
“‘No one’s talking about this, so I’ll look into it,’” said DuCros. The project became her sociology dissertation topic.
Connecting to New Orleans roots from Los Angeles
The “LA to L.A.” migration brought Louisiana’s rich southern culture to the palm-tree lined City of Angels. Many decades later, this culture and resulting community in SoCal is thriving and reminds other L.A. transplants—like me—of their Louisiana roots.
Jefferson Boulevard, between Arlington and Tenth Avenue, was once affectionately known as Little New Orleans. This small enclave boasted several Black-owned businesses including Marine Cleaners, Harold & Belle’s and the Big Loaf Bakery.
Like DuCros, journalist Lonnee Hamilton has family native to Louisiana, but her grandparents migrated to California.
“We don’t know what part of Africa we came from, but, what we do know is that we came from New Orleans, Louisiana. That’s why most of us have that connection and love for the state.”Harold Williams, civil engineer and president of the West Basin Municipal Water District
Hamilton’s paternal grandfather, Liney Hamilton, came to Los Angeles in hopes of a safer place to live and better job prospects. “My grandfather became a red cap [baggage assistant] for Amtrak at Union Station,” she said. “That was a really good job for Black men back then,” because they could earn tips to supplement their paychecks.
Learning of my own paternal family’s history in Louisiana when I was growing up was fascinating for me. It always seemed like this mystery that I couldn’t wait to solve. As a descendent of the formerly enslaved, any piece of history or connection to my ancestors is incredibly valuable. I know a lot about the maternal side of my family (because of my mother, the family historian), but I know considerably less about the paternal side. As an adult who’s never been to Louisiana, I am incredibly excited for the day I finally visit.
“I had never really been to New Orleans when I was younger so, it kind of felt like this mythic place,” said Hamilton. And, even though she grew up in Pasadena, nearly 2,000 miles away from New Orleans, Hamilton’s family taught her about her Creole roots.
Creole is a mixed racial identity of French, Black and Indigenous ancestry. With a fairer complexion and lighter eyes, Creoles were often alienated by the darker-skinned Black community and rejected by the white community for not being 100% white.
During the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1960s, many people began to abandon the term Creole because they believed it caused derision within Black communities. “People didn’t really talk about being Creole as much during that era because of the historical divisions” it stirred, said DuCros.
Harold Williams, a civil engineer and president of the West Basin Municipal Water District, moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles when he was 4 years old. “We were returning from Vancouver, Washington back to New Orleans,” Williams said. “When we pulled into Union Station, the sun was shining and the weather was beautiful. My mother then said, ‘We’re going no further.’”
Even though Williams was born in New Orleans, California is all he knows. Organizations such as LA LA (formally known as the Louisiana to Los Angeles Organizing Committee) and local events like crawfish boils and Mardi Gras parades help to connect Louisiana transplants with others in the area who share a similar heritage.
In 2019, Williams was crowned king at LA LA’s annual Mardi Gras Scholarship Ball.
“We don’t know what part of Africa we came from, but, what we do know is that we came from New Orleans, Louisiana,” Williams said. “That’s why most of us have that connection and love for the state.”
Holding on to tradition, through food and pilgrimage
Southern food, especially Louisiana fare, is known for being spicy and flavorful. Gumbo, beignets and jambalaya are staples at the table.
When Hamilton’s family moved to Los Angeles, they brought their family fish fries with them. In an article for food magazine Saveur, Hamilton describes the importance of keeping her family’s tradition alive.
“Fish fries were casual, a mingling of family and close friends. My mother wasn’t one to do much cooking. It cramped her style. But, when we were putting on a fish fry, she was all in and got the family assembly line prepared,” wrote Hamilton.
Since her childhood, Hamilton said that she’s had to make some adjustments to continue this time-honored tradition. “We actually don’t go fishing as much anymore. So, instead we’ll go and buy catfish. But, we still have [fish fries] because [they are] an important part of our culture,” she said.
Food plays a major role in connecting descendants with their ancestors. As descendants of the formerly enslaved, recipes are sacred because they’re one of the few things that could be passed down to future generations.
Over the past 10 years, DuCros has connected with and documented families’ their choice and experiences making the cross-country move. “I did qualitative interviews with folks around L.A., [at] the different festivals that are Louisiana-themed and started to try to recruit with flyers,” she said.
For DuCros, what stands out in her research is the lasting impact Louisianans have had in Los Angeles. The once-flourishing community now dwindles in size. But, what remains are beloved institutions like Harold & Belle’s and little reminders of New Orleans like fleur de lis carved into local Catholic church railings.
“It’s a place where all sorts of people come together for better or worse. It’s a beautiful culture and is something that deserves to be treasured.”Lonnee Hamilton, journalist
For those who are generations removed from migration, holding on to southern traditions help connect them to a culture that isn’t visible to them on a daily basis.
“There’s something that happens with the first generation; there’s a lot of preservation. The second generation gets a little bit less of it because they’re growing up in this new place,” said DuCros.
In her research, DuCros found many people born in L.A. who have made a sort of pilgrimage back to Louisiana. “We’re seeing people do this kind of return to the homeland, in a sense. They’re returning [to Louisiana] for things like college or whatever it may be, but they’re making sure there’s still some of those ties.”
Louisiana is home to a rich, diverse culture that deserves to be celebrated for more than just Mardi Gras. And, it’s inextricably linked to the diversity and cultural richness of Los Angeles.