Institute for Arts and Media

  • AAPC

African American Collections

The African American Collections

During the “Great Migration,” 1916 to 1919 over half a million blacks fled the South to escape the deprivations of Jim Crow.  In the 1920s an additional million fled to the Midwest and the North. During the Great Depression black sharecroppers were turned off lands in the South. Thousands migrated to Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York, and Los Angeles to join relatives and friends.

Escaping Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana where most of them had lived, they hoped for economic opportunity, living free of racism and unequal treatment under the law.  While there were some employment opportunities in the war industries of the 1940’s they were generally confined to the most menial jobs. In addition, they were limited to living in a small section of South Central Los Angeles due to racial restrictive covenants on the rest of the properties in Los Angeles.  Life for them was incrementally better but not what they had dreamed of.  They were often refused service, women were once again limited to domestic service, and there was widespread unemployment.

World War II brought new strains for African Americans.  Men who had volunteered or were drafted found themselves in a segregated army and were confined to doing the most unglamorous and unpleasant jobs.  They worked as janitors, cooks, and doing the back breaking work of construction and road building until they were formed into fighting units late in the war.  The Black press, in response to this and unequal treatment at home launched the Double V Campaign seeking victory against enemies abroad and racism at home.  When Black men returned from the war in 1945, they had a new sense of empowerment and self-respect, expecting to enjoy the full rights of citizenship and the dignity every veteran deserved.

These circumstances combined to energize a decades long struggle for equality and liberty that led to significant changes in the lives of African Americans in Los Angeles as well as the rest of the country.  They confronted the structures of inequality in the courts, on the streets, and in mass rallies.  They embraced the arts and formed social organizations that provided support and encouragement. They pressed the schools for better education and established breakfast programs so children would be better able to learn.  No area of life was left unexamined.

The Harry Adams and Charles Williams collections document the entirety of this period, that is one of the most important and dynamic eras of African American history in Los Angeles.

The Harry Adams photograph collection contains 150,000 images for the period 1958-1988. The collection is rich in its depiction of the unique lives of African American life in and around the Los Angeles area. Adams worked as a free-lance news photographer for the California Eagle and the Los Angeles Sentinel.  He photographed events for churches, social organizations, and private clients in the African American community. As one of the best-known people in the community, Adams was able to capture the inner circles of society, photographing politicians, entertainers and society figures in the City of Angels.

As an official photographer for the California Eagle and the Los Angeles Sentinel, Charles Williams photographs shaped stories of the Los Angeles communities beginning in the 1930’s. In the 1940’s, it wasn’t just his pictures, but his story that made papers as he and his Japanese wife, Yoshi Kuwahara, were forced into a Japanese internment camp. After the war, Williams continued his career as a photographer for more than 40 years. The Williams Collection is approximately 10,000 images from 1940-1970 and features community events, celebrities, politicians, weddings, and churches.

The Guy Crowder collection consists of approximately 391,000 images produced from 1967-1996. This collection boasts expansive coverage of celebrities, political subjects, former presidents, and civil rights leaders to City Council members and county supervisors.  Crowder worked as a photojournalist for the Metropolitan Gazette, Los Angeles Sentinel, and the Wave. He also covered thousands of news events including the Watts riots, Black Panther shoot-out, and musical figures from Motown and the world of jazz.

The Jack Davis collection features 100,000 negatives from 1960-1981. In both his freelance work and work for the Herald Dispatch, Davis chronicled the Africa-American community, notable political, and entertainment figures. He was active in the community working to promote photography and producing what he called “people pictures.” Davis had a flair for capturing character, within common surroundings and at graduations, weddings, social, and local church and sporting events. In capturing such events Davis documented the changing taste in style and fashion over several decades.

The James Jeffrey collection consists of 50,000 negatives, prints, and manuscripts made up primarily of his commercial work, but also containing documentary and fine art photography.  In 1995 Jeffrey created and designed a traveling exhibit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Tuskegee Airmen. Archives of the Tuskegee Airmen contain his correspondence with the legendary airmen.  Jeffrey trained at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. His work has been exhibited at the Simon Rodia Gallery, the Cunningham Memorial Gallery, and the William Grant Still Community Arts Center and is part of the permanent collection of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The Roland Charles collection consists of approximately 10,000 images dating from the early 1960’s.  Charles was a founding member of the Jazz Photographers Association, Photo Friends of the Los Angeles Public Library, and the founder and executive director of the Black Photographers of California and the “Black Gallery.”  His photographs have been included in numerous national and international exhibitions as well as books and private collections. Exhibitions include: The California African American Museum, The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, and The Getty Center for the History of Arts and the Humanities.

Photographer Maxie Floyd has photographed at the Monterey Jazz Festival for all but two of the years it has been in existence. Floyd has also photographed the annual Playboy Jazz Festival held at the Hollywood Bowl since 1979. He has promised his complete collection of approximately 100,000 images to the Center.  A track and field enthusiast, Floyd’s collection contains many images of track and field events. His work has been exhibited at the “Black Gallery,” UCLA, Duke Ellington’s Centennial Celebration, The Museum of African American art, William Grant Still Center, Mt. San Antonio, the Queen Mary and the art venues of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Floyd is a founding member of The Jazz Photographers Association of Southern California.

Calvin Hicks has donated 500 images to the Center. The collection is made up primarily of fine art photography, nature compositions, and public events such as the Central Avenue Jazz Festival. The collection also contains substantial documentation of Venice Beach, which provides a showcase of eclectic street performers and individuals as well as members of the community, artists and tourists.

The archives of the Black Photographers of California consist of manuscripts and over 10,000 negatives and prints of the African American community as well as notable political and entertainment figures. The association preserved African American history and culture through photography. After the BPC’s demise in 2004, the collection was donated to the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center at California State University, Northridge. Members of BPC and collections in the archives include Roland Charles, Calvin Hicks, Maxie Floyd, James Jeffery, Charles Williams, Harry Adams, Bob Douglas, Bob Moore, and Joe Flowers.

Bob Douglas began his career in the early 1940’s as a nightclub photographer in Detroit, Michigan. Douglas worked for the Pittsburgh Courier in Detroit and relocated to Los Angeles in the early 1950’s, continuing working for the Courier at the L.A. bureau. He worked for many newspapers and magazines such as the California Eagle, the Los Angeles Sentinel, and for Ebony and Sepia magazines, as well as freelance work.  Douglas, portraits of jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker have been in worldwide exhibitors and the PBS documentary, “Jazz.” The collection contains 50 prints of jazz musicians.

Jazz drummer, Gordon “Specs” Powell (1922-2007), was a fixture on the 52nd Street jazz scene in New York.  In 1943 he was the first African American staff musician hired by CBS for their network orchestra.  Powell was lead drummer on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s, staying with the network until 1972 playing for The Jackie Gleason Show, Candid Camera and other programs.  While on The Ed Sullivan Show, Powell asked instrument maker, Martin Cohen, to create a stand that would allow him to play his bongo drums standing up.  He is credited with developing the first bongo bracket, allowing him to rapidly switch from between instruments without having to change positions.  During World War II, Powell was one of the most recorded artists in the government’s PR campaign to increase the morale of troops overseas by sending V Discs (Victory Discs). Powell played for Billie Holiday, John Kirby, Red Norvo and with Edgar Hayes, Benny Carter and Ben Webster among others. In 1974 Powell retired from the music business.  He moved to Los Angeles in 1979.  Between 1992 – 2000 he and his wife operated a yogurt shop in San Diego. 

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