L.A.’s “Black church” spans religious ideologies but is united in Black empowerment
Debates over “who” or even “what” is the Black church have persisted for centuries. Today’s Black church is an amalgamation of religious traditions influenced by tribalism, colonialism and immigration. In a place like Los Angeles—where more than 200 languages are spoken, ethnic enclaves abound and Black people have settled from all over the world—defining the Black church becomes even more complicated. This is the first story in a series about the Black church in Los Angeles, and its social, economic, political and cultural impacts.
Since my undergraduate years at Southern University and A&M College, I’ve considered myself religiously agnostic. I first heard the term during a philosophy class. Agnosticism perfectly described my religious ideology at the time. I didn’t—and still don’t—claim a faith but believe in some form of higher power.. I also believe that being the descendant of a people removed from their culture and belief systems, who had a westernized take on an Abrahamic religion forced upon them, made me hungry for as much spiritual knowledge as possible.
I consider my openness to various religious movements as a way of honoring the ancestors. (Plus, my name is inspired by a deity from an ancient epic. So, I’ve really been divine since birth…) As an Angeleno, being curious about how other people—especially other Black people—find solace in worship, is a match made in Heaven, so to speak.
The Black church family tree’s many branches
From a scholarly perspective, the “Black church” refers to congregants of seven historic independent African American Protestant denominations. But, the colloquial debate on “who” or “what” the Black church isn’t so cut and dry, especially in a place like Los Angeles. Unlike the Black Belt, there’s much more religious diversity beyond the Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) faiths that usually come to mind. L.A’.s Black church is a tapestry of worship by Black people from all walks of life. For Black L.A. transplants looking for opportunities decades ago, the Black church was more than a place to attend on Sundays. It didn’t even matter how you worshiped as there was a little something for Blacks coming from everywhere, of all different backgrounds. Though Black Angelenos faced discrimination and oppression, from redlining to police brutality, having the community of the Black church behind them was a source of support and hope.
My mother, Mary Ann Holmes, moved back and forth with my older brother and sister to Los Angeles from Camden, Arkansas in the early 1970s. She eventually settled in the Central Avenue district around 1977. Living off San Pedro Street, it made sense for my mother to attend Harmony Missionary Baptist Church (HMBC) as the family settled into their new life in Los Angeles.
Just a few blocks from their apartment, HMBC had been a pillar within the community since founding pastor Chester Hemphill opened the church in 1942. Back then, Black residents made up 70% of the Central Avenue corridor. Many of them came during the Second Great Migration, when more than 5 million Blacks fled Southern states to escape racial oppression and seek better economic opportunities. They resettled in cities across the West Coast, Midwest and East Coast.
HMBC began as a small house that sat across from Wrigley Field which hosted minor and major league baseball games, boxing matches alongside and speeches from notable figures. When the church came, 12 parking spaces were added that event patrons could use for $2 each.
Current HMBC pastor Harold T. Johnson, Sr. arrived in the Central Avenue area from San Antonio, Texas with his parents in the mid-1950s. Johnson’s father became pastor of Harmony in 1959; Johnson succeeded him in 2014. Johnson remembers helping park cars as a young man at HMBC and sitting behind Sammy Davis, Jr. as Martin Luther King, Jr. made a speech during the 1963 Los Angeles Freedom Rally.
“Every time Dr. King would make a point, he’d do that Sammy Davis, Jr. thing,” Harold Johnson joked about the iconic Rat Pack singer. During this speech— three months before the iconic March on Washington—King said, “Birmingham or Los Angeles, the cry is always the same. We want to be free.”
A powerful social, cultural and political institution
Freedom for Black folks was economic independence and a chance at upward mobility. Like many churches in the area, Harmony was a financial resource for the community. The church helped other members pay their rent and utility bills. Before leaving California for college in Louisiana, I got a scholarship from the church to help pay for school books. There was also a “share program” where each month, members would invest into a church fund. Each month, a congregant was selected to receive their money back with additional money from the fund.
The church wasn’t just financial support. It was a source of support from the hardships and discrimination faced outside church walls. My sister, Dr. Erica Holmes, is a clinical psychologist who works as a counselor for another well-known South Los Angeles church today. In a lecture she gives entitled, “The Black Church: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” she explains five historical roles of the Black church:
- Meet the needs of the family
- Meet the needs of economic leadership
- Meet the need for political power
- Meet the need for education
- Meet the need for healing the community
Arguably, the most influential church for Black Christians living in the Central Avenue area was First African Methodist Episcopal Church. First A.M.E. was founded by Biddy Mason, formerly enslaved, in 1872. The church has moved several times and was at one time located in the neighborhood once called Sugar Hill, home to wealthy and prominent Black Angelenos during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
According to First A.M.E.’s current pastor J. Edgar Boyd, the church is a “historic institution” that is well-respected not just because of what it is, the oldest Black church in Los Angeles, but because of what it stands for. In First A.M.E.’s early days, those who worked for the church were most concerned that opportunities were accessible to those who weren’t as well-off as the Black residents of Sugar Hill and that the church served as a “voice for people who were voiceless.”
Since the church was founded 150 years ago, numerous social programs have helped congregants and the surrounding community. In 1918, the Sojourner Truth Center welcomed young Black women coming from the South.
“Many of them wanted to get an education,” Boyd said of the center, which is still open today. “Others were trying to break into the movie industry. So, they migrated here and that institution gave them a place to stay and work until they found a job and helped them [move out on their own later],” explained Boyd.
Still today, First A.M.E. is active in community projects geared toward helping residents become more self-sustaining. The church was integral in the construction of the $17 million Rosa Parks Villas housing complex for seniors completed in 2010.
For decades, national and local political figures have courted L.A.’s Black church and its congregants. Besides King, Los Angeles’s first Black elected official, Gilbert Lindsay, also used HMBC’s pulpit to reach the Black community. Once a janitor for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Lindsay served in City Hall for 27 years as the self-proclaimed “Emperor of the Great 9th District.” Through the years, First A.M.E. has also become a gathering spot for Black celebrities and political elite from around the nation. It’s a megachurch that boasts 19,000 members. Today, political candidates running for office can’t expect to gain much traction with Black L.A. voters without stepping foot through the church’s doors.
The Black church’s unity around Black liberation—across religions
Former HMBC Pastor Harold Johnson described his church as a “beacon of light” for Black residents in the area searching for a more traditional Southern religious experience. But, over time, the Central Avenue corridor became a melting pot of religious ideologies with a singular goal of establishing true autonomy and rights for Black Americans.
Masjid Bilal Islamic Center, in its physical location and ideology, is emblematic of this eclectic mix. The building sits near the very end of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and faces Malcolm X Way to the north and Imam Hasan Square—named for the center’s founder—to the south.
“Our goal was to introduce people to the Islamic way of life,” said founder Imam Abdul-Karim Hasan. “What we taught them is there was a better way to save their lives and save their time to save their money and make progress as a family and make progress as individuals,” explained Hasan. “And, they liked that concept. And, they liked the moral position that we were taking on different things as we explained it to them. And, they began to accept it.”
Hasan worked with other religious organizations. He became friends with many religious leaders in the area as they bonded over a shared goal of fighting oppression. “The most powerful thing that was common interest was injustice. It wasn’t an idea of resolution and wasn’t a revolutionary idea. It was an idea of evolution,” said Hasan. “We could evolve out of [injustice and oppression]. It was about doing something for ourselves to start building up our community instead of living there until it falls down on us, and we have to move.”
Though Protestants made up the majority of Black worshippers decades ago, the Catholic Church also played an important role. The year after Second Baptist Church, one of L.A.’s oldest Black churches, opened, St. Odilia Catholic Church was established as the “Negro National Church of Los Angeles.” Located at Hooper Avenue and 53rd Street, it was founded by Archbishop John Cantwell in 1927. St. Odilia was the “mother church” for Blacks who migrated to L.A. following World War II for good-paying jobs in the defense industry. Livelier music and preaching were characteristic of the parishes that welcomed these Blacks who settled in South and Central Los Angeles. St. Odilia also became home to the first chapter of the Knights of St. Peter Claver, a Catholic fraternal order with mostly Black members.
Black Catholics had a hard time finding a place to worship before St. Odilia opened, according to African American Catholic Center for Evangelization director Anderson Shaw. “A lot of priests and administrators that came over to Los Angeles really didn’t know how to deal with Black folk,” explained Shaw. “Black Catholics were placed in some situations where they were not welcome.” St. Odilia founder Cantwell saw an opportunity in large groups of Blacks coming from Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, said Shaw.
Over time, St. Odilia and the surrounding Central Avenue neighborhood saw a massive demographic shift. Since 1970, the South Los Angeles population that was once 80% Black has become two-thirds Latine, according to a USC report on Latine demographics and identity in South Los Angeles. “Much of the demographic change happened in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly due to an influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and an exodus of black residents from a historically disinvested neighborhood,” said Pamela Stephens, a data analyst and a report co-author. Freeway construction that decimated Black neighborhoods, police brutality and job losses resulting from the closure of industrial plants drove Regan-era disinvestment.
Black Angelenos who identify as Baptists (and other Protestant denominations), Catholics and Muslims may worship according to different religious traditions, but they’re unified in a common goal of Black social and economic elevation. Historically, the Black church was a home for many who left the segregated South searching for better opportunities. Today, L.A.’s Black congregants, regardless of who or what they believe in, still support and serve their neighbors. Today’s Black church is still a critical resource for Black Angelenos. From civil rights activism and politics to business, the Black church is enmeshed in the fabric of Los Angeles.