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Firsts, Seconds and Thirds: African American Leaders in Los Angeles During the 1960s and 70s from the Rolland Curtis Collection

Thursday, January 21, 2016 to Sunday, July 3, 2016
Central Library, History & Genealogy Department

African Americans living in Los Angeles in the first half of the Twentieth Century faced a different, though by no means less challenging, experience than their counterparts across the country. Instead of having to face voter disenfranchisement and legal segregation in schools and businesses, black citizens in Los Angeles were still subject to lawful discrimination in the form of racial covenants, which restricted where they could own land, as well as segregation in community gathering spots like beaches and public pools.

A mass migration to the wealth of industrial jobs before and after World War II saw the African American population swell in Los Angeles County. However, the growing numbers of African American residents failed to correlate with increased political power in Los Angeles. To guarantee that they never gained enough votes, districts were gerrymandered and white politicians courted black voters, promising to be agents of change, but they never delivered.  African Americans remained a fiercely segregated race in the state through the 1950s.

Civil rights took hold in Los Angeles in the 1960s as African Americans broke color barriers and began to occupy positions in government. Progress during this time extended beyond politics, to the realms of entertainment, commerce, public service, sports, and activism. African Americans flexed their newfound power, changing their own destiny and the destiny of Los Angeles in the process.

During this turbulent and thrilling time, photographer Rolland J. Curtis was one of the many African Americans eager and ready to change the world. After graduating from USC and serving a brief stint with the LAPD, Curtis became a Field Deputy for Tom Bradley, a newly elected Los Angeles City Councilman, and later, Councilman Billy G. Mills.  Curtis spent much of his time taking pictures of Los Angeles’ tightly knit black leaders: newly elected men and women who knew that in order to improve the lives of those they represented, they had to work together and form a united front. Community groups were formed for nearly every cause, attacking problems from multiple fronts so as to effect social change through political and community action.

Rolland Curtis’ images provide a unique view of the African American experience in South Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s and document the city’s black leaders of the period. Some famous, some forgotten, these individuals were true trailblazers: the first, second, or third African Americans in the history of Los Angeles to accomplish their feats. The men and women in these photographs helped change the face of Los Angeles and eventually the entire nation. Their efforts and unwavering crusade for civil rights were instrumental in the development of Los Angeles as one of the most diverse cities in the world, and a shining example of the rich culture that emerges when we value and fight for equality.

Over a decade after their donation by Gloria Curtis, Rolland Curtis’ wife, and funded by a grant from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, the Los Angeles Photo Collection is proud to present the Rolland J. Curtis Photo Collection.

Kristine Protacio – Archivist

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