In L.A., Driving the Road to Black Empowerment

For Families Like Mine, Cars Were an Engine of Social and Economic Mobility

L.A. historian Alison Rose Jefferson recounts her family’s history in cars, which moved them across Los Angeles—Central District, Crenshaw, Victoria Park, Lake Elsinore, Santa Monica. Alison’s mother, Marcelyn Cobbs, sitting in a sports car in front of Alison’s grandparent’s home on Nadeau Drive in Victoria Park, mid-1950s. Courtesy of author.

This essay published alongside next week’s Zócalo and Destination Crenshaw event, “Is Car Culture the Ultimate Act of Community in Crenshaw?” Click here to watch the full conversation.

In 1925 my maternal grandparents bought a new Dodge, packed up their things, and made their escape from the anti-Black restrictions, injustice, and violence of Montgomery, Alabama: bound for a new life in Los Angeles, California.

Thanks to more newly paved roads and cheap automobiles, Dr. Peter Price Cobbs and Rosa Ellen (née Mashaw) Cobbs were able to see an American landscape they had not experienced before. They carefully planned out their route to California, stopping at places where they could find welcoming overnight lodging and other travel amenities. They did not have their choice of commercial places to stay overnight due to racist discrimination. They often stayed in private homes with friends—like in Phoenix, Arizona, where they visited one of my grandfather’s classmates from Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C.—or people in their social networks. These hosts sometimes would have asked them to pay. Traveling in their own car across the U.S., my grandparents evaded some of the Jim Crow era humiliations they would have experienced on trains or buses.

They were pioneers in a new form of Black empowerment, resisting oppression through car purchases and driving. For many African American families like mine, the automobile became a significant tool in our social and economic mobilities, taking us from the South to northern, mid-western, and far west places like Los Angeles—and then onward and upward.

In California, my grandparents enjoyed their automobility and continued a tradition of driving Dodge and Chrysler cars. From the mid-1920s to the early 1950s, my relatives bought and resided in homes and invested in rental properties in neighborhoods that were part of the multi-ethnic, historic South Central (or Central Avenue) District with Central Avenue as its spine, running from downtown Los Angeles to Slauson Avenue. It was where most Black Angelenos lived during this era due to Western-style discrimination—racist covenants, discriminatory loan policies, and other anti-Black housing practices—which restricted their ability to live or purchase property in many other areas of the city.

The Central Avenue District was the hub of Black Angeleno life and community, with social and faith institutions, businesses, and a rich cultural milieu that included lively theaters and nightclubs and the emergence of an influential jazz, rhythm & blues, and gospel music scene. In these years Central Avenue was a thriving center of Black America, echoing 125th Street in Harlem, New York, and “Sweet” Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia.

My grandparents’ cars moved them around the city and through their new life, to and from work and community and social hangs as well as political organizing meetings. Their children—Prince, my mother Marcelyn, and Price—were all born in Los Angeles and into a family that moved them around the city environs until they were of age to drive themselves.

My grandfather was an internal medicine physician and used his car often to go to his office at 28th Street and Central Avenue, house calls, or the hospital.  He attended progressive political meetings with white, Black, Asian American, and Mexican American Angelenos in different neighborhoods, including the Central Avenue District, Hollywood, and Boyle Heights. They were involved in the Black freedom struggle, the labor reform movement, and electing representatives such as Democrat Augustus F. Hawkins for the California State Assembly, the second African American to hold this seat from Los Angeles. Hawkins would become the first African American west of the Mississippi elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Augustus F. Hawkins (left) and Alison’s grandfather, Dr. Peter P. Cobbs (right), worked together in the long Black freedom struggle. McLain’s Photo Service, 1940s.

In Los Angeles, my grandmother, a teacher who graduated from Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama, became a full-time wife and mother—and learned to drive. When she wasn’t taking her children to their social and educational activities, she was enjoying her independence and auto-mobility by driving to civic and social groups like her beloved Phys-Art-Lit-Mor Club, which focused on the study of physical culture, art, literature, and moral philosophy. My grandparents drove to Pasadena, Claremont, Lake Elsinore, Santa Monica Bay beaches, San Pedro, and beyond—for recreation, to visit family and friends, to participate in civic or church activities, and to go on vacation.

Los Angeles neighborhoods farther west and south of the Central Avenue district opened up to families like mine starting in 1948, as court cases and new public policies began to whittle away at discrimination. By the late 1960s, the city was profoundly changed thanks in part to the massive white flight following the 1965 Watts uprising, along with significant population growth and legal enforcement of civil rights laws that opened new possibilities for housing and employment in new districts for Black Angelenos.

In 1953, once my mother and her brothers were more or less out of the house, my grandparents moved across the city to an upscale neighborhood, Victoria Park, west of Crenshaw Boulevard and south of Pico Boulevard. Advertised as an exclusive West Adams neighborhood that was conveniently located near major street car lines when the tract was first developed, it was just 7.5 miles northwest, but a world away from their previous home at 4057 Trinity Street, just north of Santa Barbara Avenue (renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1983), near Central Avenue. To tour the beautiful Spanish-style, two-story stucco house that my grandmother wanted to buy at 1407 Nadeau Drive on a lovely street of Revival- and Craftsman-style houses, she disguised herself as a maid in a white uniform with a black apron and went with a white friend. My family members were some of the first African Americans to buy a home in the area, and we happily lived and visited there for many years, without any racist incidents. It was in this house where my parents were married in November 1957, in the living room.

Alison’s parents wedded at her maternal grandparent’s home on Nadeau Drive on November 28, 1957. From left to right: Prince Cobbs (mother’s brother), Margaret Wiliams (mother’s cousin), Albert W. Jefferson (father), Marcelyn (mother), Dr. Peter Price and Rosa Cobbs (maternal grandparents), Rev. Matthew and Mary Frances Jefferson (paternal uncle and aunt). Photo by Irving C. Smith.

I remember playing on my grandparents’ ample front lawn in the 1960s and giving greetings to the friendly white neighbors across the street. Or my brother and I would chat with Mrs. Mueller, a Black teacher some might have mistaken for a white person, who was always gardening next door.

My grandparents were among the earliest of a large wave of Black families who moved into the Crenshaw district and environs in the 1960s. Families moving west like mine were joined by newer Black migrants in westside neighborhoods adjacent to Crenshaw Boulevard such as Country Club Park, Oxford Square, LaFayette Square, and Jefferson Park. Others moved to Leimert Park, and the Baldwin Hills/View Park/Windsor Hills neighborhoods further south.

With less discrimination and increased mobility, my family shopped and dined all around the city. Our Crenshaw District visits were one of the places where my brother and I learned about “Recycling Black Dollars” at Black-owned businesses that my family patronized—at my mom’s favorite dressmaker, picking up fresh fish at Stevie’s Fish Market, stopping for lunch at the Stennis family’s Golden Bird Fried Chicken, and going to Jack & Jill youngsters’ events. Mom enjoyed shopping at Akron’s, too, a department store mostly featuring unusual and eclectic imported home decorating items, and the outdoor shopping mall, Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Center. I remember picking out my high school prom dress at the M. Cole’s boutique there: a wraparound dress made of powder-blue chiffon fabric with a ruffled asymmetrical hemline and a delicately patterned pink, yellow, and green floral design.

Alison (far left), Morris Williams, Albert W. Jefferson Jr. (brother), and Ingrid Hutt in front of her mother’s 1964 Dodge Dart during a birthday party, on Nadeau Drive in Victoria Park, 1964–65. Courtesy of author.

My parents’ Los Angeles histories were forged on the road, too. In the 1970s my mother became a reporter, which took her around Southern California in a corporate car, collecting building project information for a construction newspaper. My father fled Baltimore, Maryland, in a Ford in 1956 to join his older brother Matthew and his family to begin a new life under the California sun. Albert Watts Jefferson, Sr. was a high school literature teacher and built a rental property business on the side, primarily in the Athens Park area, near 120th and Main Street, where he moved in the early 1960s after my parents divorced. On many weekends, he’d pick my brother and me up at my mom’s Miracle Mile home, a place farther west than my grandparents’ Victoria Park home where he also sometimes picked us up––and we would often drive to see movies at the Vision Theater in Leimert Park Village, to the Baskin-Robbins store in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Center for a treat, and to buy comics and books at the Black-owned bookstore of one of his friends on Santa Barbara Avenue, a few blocks west of Crenshaw.

Today as people drive their cars, ride public transportation, and walk through the Los Angeles neighborhoods where my family lived, worked, and played—partly owing to the car’s utility—they bear witness to personal, familial, and communal histories of Black America. The car meant freedom, possibility, citizenship, and economic advancement. Shaped by the forces that hindered and helped Black movement, my family’s automobility has been a major driver of our story, itself a part of the of the capital-H Histories of Black Los Angeles and beyond.


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