The Los Angeles Edition

Project Details

Black city: the Los Angeles edition

Black city: the Los Angeles edition traces settlement patterns from the founding of the city to the present day. The project contains elements of an atlas including dictionary excerpts that define the Black city, dictionary plates recounting significant events of Black settlement, a timeline of civil and spatial rights events, and ghost maps that represent the areas settled over time. In the installation, the maps and timeline of events are indexed within a three-dimensional construct.

Black city dictionary

The Los Angeles edition recounts a series of intertwined place-based narratives that illustrate efforts to build Black settlements. The black city dictionary describes words and phrases that have defined, and prescribed or limited Black settlements and communities in America. 


Azusa Street

In 1906 the preacher William Seymour arrived in Los Angeles, where he established The Apostolic Faith newsletter and founded the Azusa Street Mission. At 312 Azusa Street, once home to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, he hosted Azusa Street Revival services daily for an interracial and immigrant congregation of up to fifteen hundred worshippers. After the defections of a series of feuding ministers and their followers, his congregation dwindled to a small group of loyalists. Although the Azusa Street Mission was short-lived, many who visited the Revival went on to spread the word in missions throughout the world, giving rise to the global Pentecostal movement.


Born enslaved in Georgia in 1818, Biddy was sold to a Mississippian who converted to Mormonism and moved his homestead west to Utah and later to the free state of California to help populate the Mormon settlement in San Bernardino. On San Bernardino farms, Biddy, her children, and other Mormon slaves worked while remaining property. In 1856, when her owner attempted to move his homestead to Texas, a slave state, free Blacks in the San Bernardino settlement assisted Biddy in legally contesting her enslaved status (and that of thirteen others) by petitioning the Court of Los Angeles, which granted her freedom. 

Bridget “Biddy” Mason 

Upon winning her freedom, Biddy took the surname Mason and used her knowledge of herbal medicine, midwifery, and animal husbandry to become an invaluable citizen of Los Angeles. Mason accrued wealth valued upon her death at $300,000. She devoted herself to community and philanthropic work, attended to the poor and imprisoned, and founded a church, a refuge for settlers, and an orphanage. Robert Owens, a prominent Black business man in Los Angeles, and his wife opened their home to Biddy and her family. By 1861, following Owens’s example, she bought a share in a one-acre property between Fort Street (Broadway) and Spring Street, bordered by Third and Fourth Streets, and moved her family to a wood-frame house at 311 Spring Street. 


Calle de los Negros

As American settlers migrated to Los Angeles, the street name that designated the occupants’ caste shifted to the pejorative Nigger Alley. By the late 1850s the street included a mix of settlers and immigrant miners, farmers and railroad laborers. By 1870 the majority were Chinese. In 1871 the murder of a white man who inadvertently stepped in between warring Chinese tongs led to the lynching of eighteen Chinese residents. The “Chinese Massacre” was global news. In 1877 the extension of Los Angeles Street erased the street name. In 1926 Chinatown was leveled to build Union Station and with it most of the street; in the 1940s, with the expansion of the 101 freeway, Calle de los Negros disappeared altogether.


In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, African Americans, who migrated in great numbers to cities following new job opportunities, were met by customs and laws that were extensions of slave codes and effectively policed their behavior and restricted where they could settle. Study of the settlement patterns of African Americans in Los Angeles and other cities reveals the ways in which density has been a tool used to enforce domination over resources. Inadequate salaries, profiteering landlords, lack of services, the inability to move, and the threat of violence all contributed to impose dense, substandard living conditions on African Americans. 

During the military conquest of the Aztec Empire and the establishment of New Spain in 1521, the Spanish crown bolstered its reign over the territory of Las Californias, Mexico, by establishing a necklace of missions along the Camino Real, using military force, religious conversion, intermarriage, and slave labor. The Mexican War for independence from Spain, fought between 1810 and 1821, was led by Vicente Guerrero, the commander in chief of the Mexican army, who was of African and Indigenous ancestry. In 1829 Guerrero was elected Mexico’s second president. Before he was assassinated in 1830, he abolished slavery in his country. Under Mexican rule, California was a slave-free territory. 


The oldest African-American church in Los Angeles, First African Methodist Episcopal Church (F. A. M. E. ) was co-founded in 1872, by Biddy Mason and her son-in-law, Charles Owens. After hosting the first meetings in her home, Mason donated land to the Church at 312 Azusa Street. The church moved to Eighth Street and Towne Avenue in 1902 and the building was used as a warehouse and livery. In 1906, William Seymour procured the building for the Azusa Street Apostolic Mission. 

Free State

With the signing of the treaty ending the Mexican-American War on 
February 2, 1848, Mexico ceded the lands that constitute present-day California to the United States. Nine days earlier, gold had been discovered in the north of the territory, setting off the Gold Rush. In 1849 the California Constitutional Convention voted to outlaw slavery, preventing the state from being split (by extension of the dividing line established in the Missouri Compromise of 1820) into two economies—one supported by slave labor in the south, the other by free laborers in the north. The US Congress’s Compromise of 1850, admitted California to the Union as a free-labor state, but it also included a Fugitive Slave Act so stringent that it imperiled the status of all African Americans in the state, whether enslaved or free. 

Great Migration

The exodus of six hundred million Blacks from Southern states occurred in waves that began in 1910 with migrations to the east, followed by migrations to the midwest and west. The migrations wouldn’t come to a halt until 1970. Histories of Los Angeles reveal that the migration of African descendants West coincided with larger currents of westward expansion brought about by the Gold Rush, railroad construction, oil booms, and increasing agricultural and defense production both before and after plantation slavery ended in the nineteenth century. The city’s early Black settlers established and built settlements and communities that were almost completely eradicated by the early twentieth century. 

Indias, Archivo General de

In 1781 an expedition of eleven settler families—a group of forty-four men, women, and children from Sonoma (in present-day Mexico), escorted by four Spanish soldiers—reached the territory of Las Californias, home of the Tongva/Kizh people, where they established the Pueblo de Los Angeles on behalf of the Spanish Crown. The census of 1790 in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain, lists the settlers by head of household and caste, documenting their diverse Spanish, Indigenous, Native American, African, and mixed ancestry. Of the streets in Los Angeles that were named after the original settlers, only Lara Street remains.
Prieto, El

The canyon in Altadena called El Prieto (Spanish for “the dark-skinned one”) got its name when Robert Owens, a former slave who had bought his freedom, settled there in the early 1850s. Working odd jobs until he had saved enough money to purchase the freedom of his family, he brought his wife and children to Los Angeles in 1852. He built a house in the city and bought property on San Pedro Street, where he opened a livery and secured government contracts. His son, Charles, married Ellen Mason, Biddy Mason’s daughter. Upon his father’s death, Charles inherited the livery business. He sold the livery buildings at a profit and bought property at the edge of town. Upon Charles’s death, his two sons continued running the livery but sold their downtown property and reinvested in new real estate on the city’s outskirts; they also upgraded the Mason homestead that they inherited on Spring Street.