Street scene in Little Tokyo depicts a view of 1st St.  City Hall is visible in the background, Apr 1942. (Photo retrieved from Library of Congress, original photographer Russell Lee)

By Dr. HILLARY JENKS, Rafu Shimpo Contributor

By the early 1920s, the area we call Little Tokyo was the established social and commercial center of immigrant Japanese communities who fished, farmed, and sold produce across Southern California. It housed a multiethnic population in its 30-odd hotels and rooming houses – per the 1940 census, the neighborhood’s population was approximately one-third Japanese (concentrated around East First Street), with the remaining two-thirds consisting of white, Black, and Spanish-surnamed residents.

But beginning in April 1942 after President Roosevelt’s approval of Executive Order 9066, all ethnic Japanese in the region, immigrant and citizen alike, were “evacuated,” first to nearby assembly centers and then to concentration camps in the interior.

Within months, due to another executive order (8802) barring discrimination in hiring on the basis of race in the nation’s defense plants, African American war workers began moving to Western cities for jobs in shipbuilding and aircraft manufacturing. By mid-1943, an average of 5,500 African Americans were arriving in Los Angeles every month.

At that time, fully 90 percent of the city’s housing stock was covered by restrictive covenants, a clause in the deed restricting “Negro” occupancy. As a result, the new arrivals had few housing options beyond the existing, and quickly overcrowded, Black neighborhoods along Central Avenue and in West Adams.

New housing projects for war workers were similarly restricted: The Los Angeles Sentinel noted that, of the 51,000 housing units constructed in the city between Pearl Harbor and the first day of 1945, only 942 were open to Blacks – fewer than 2 percent. Little Tokyo was almost the only available unrestricted space in town, and thus was “Bronzeville” born.

In preparation for the evacuation of Los Angeles’ famed “Little Tokyo” section as a result of the ordering of 300,000 aliens and American-born Japanese from various Pacific coast combat zones, 20-year-old Yeichi Shoji, right, helps clear the shelves of the dry goods store operated by his parents, March 5, 1942, as Taro Sasai, 7, looks on. Shoji was born in the living quarters at the rear of the store, his elder brother is a soldier in the U.S. Army. (AP Photo/John T. Burns)

Given the magnitude of this influx, Bronzeville quickly became overcrowded too. In an area where perhaps as few as 7,500 Japanese Americans (and 20,000 persons total) had lived prior to evacuation, 30,000 people were residing in 1944; other estimates eventually climbed as high as almost 80,000. Bronzeville exemplified the wartime paradox with which Black Angelenos struggled, what Josh Sides termed “the prosperous ghetto”: new employment opportunities and wage scales opened up, but Black neighborhoods and institutions suffered from the stress of trying to house so many newcomers under conditions of segregation and discrimination.

Nevertheless, Bronzeville offered African Americans fresh opportunities for entrepreneurship and cultural expression. The neighborhood, as it had been for Japanese immigrants, was a key space for arrivals trying to make a home out of their new, not very welcoming city.

The name itself was apparently first applied by entrepreneur Leonard Christmas, owner of the Digby Hotel. In November 1943, he joined with three others to start the Bronzeville Chamber of Commerce. The chamber eventually had 125 members, sponsoring a 1943 Halloween party attended by 800 residents and a Miss Bronzeville beauty pageant.

A Baptist church moved into the sanctuary of the Nishi Hongwanji temple, and Pilgrim House, a social services center under the leadership of African American Reverend Harold Kingsley, took up residence in what had been the Japanese Union Church. Similar communities developed in the evacuated Japantowns of other West Coast cities, including San Francisco.

Some of the neighborhood’s greatest business successes were also its greatest cultural venues, linking Bronzeville to national developments in African American music. These were the nightclubs and breakfast clubs located along East First Street, such as Shep’s Playhouse, the Finale Club, and the Cobra Club (breakfast clubs served patrons working late shifts at defense plants operating a 24/7 schedule).

Charlie Parker brought bebop to Los Angeles with a band including the young Miles Davis when he played at Bronzeville’s Finale Club early in 1946, and luminaries such as heavyweight champion Joe Louis and movie stars Louise Beavers, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Pearl Bailey were known to frequent the clubs to hear other legendary performers like Coleman Hawkins, Herb Jeffries, Marva Louis, and T-Bone Walker.

In January 1945, the exclusion order barring persons of Japanese descent from the West Coast was lifted; by the end of 1946, 60 percent of the prewar L.A. County Japanese population – between 25,000 and 28,000 people – had returned. Getting re-established in Los Angeles was a tremendous challenge, as those interned were released from camp with enough money to cover just one month of living expenses.

The housing situation was particularly dire, and many Japanese Americans were initially forced to rent beds in makeshift hostels opened at community religious institutions such as the Koyasan and Nishi Hongwanji temples.

African Americans were quick to respond to Japanese Americans’ return: on Jan. 19, 1945, Bronzeville’s businessmen hosted a welcome reception at the Rendezvous Club. When Kiichi Uyeda opened his store on March 30, 1945 – the first Japanese American business in Bronzeville – Black merchants brought him flowers to celebrate the opening. Recognizing the changed landscape of the neighborhood, Uyeda hired both Black and Japanese American clerks.

Over the next few years, the Japanese and African American residents and shopkeepers of “Little Bronze Tokyo,” as Assistant Police Chief Joe Reed called it, engaged in a range of such efforts to build a shared community together.

While there were also moments of tension, Bronzeville ultimately ceased to exist, not due to disputes between African and Japanese Americans, but as a result of actions by the mostly white landowners in the neighborhood, who hoped to return the space to its prewar condition by preferentially leasing to returning Japanese Americans.

In 1950, the city announced plans to acquire, by purchase or eminent domain, all parcels on the block bounded by Main, Los Angeles, First, and Temple streets for the construction of a new police headquarters. Nearly one-quarter of the neighborhood was demolished, forcing many newly re-established Japanese American businesses to move or simply shut down — an all-too-familiar replay of forced removal.

But of the nearly 3,000 residents who were evicted from the block that became Parker Center, more than 2,500 were Black. In this diminished form, a re-established Little Tokyo went on to serve the retail, religious, and community needs of Southern California’s Japanese Americans throughout the postwar period.

Dr. Hillary Jenks is an award-winning administrator, writer, and educator specializing in student support program administration at the University of California Riverside. Her background also includes experience in public humanities administration, academic publishing, and teaching U.S. urban and immigration history and comparative ethnic studies at public universities in California and Oregon. Her writing on urban and ethnic history, historic preservation, and California has been published in the Journal of Urban HistoryCalifornia History, and the Southern California Quarterly. She received her doctorate in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California and her dissertation was on the history of Little Tokyo. 

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  1. Thanks for the story. My paternal grandparents were part of the group who lived in that area, and when made to leave, bought a house near 22nd and Central Avenue.