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The multiethnic environment of Los Angeles

Los Angeles was experiencing rapid growth in the first decade of the twentieth century. It proved to be particularly prolific for cultural exchange and religious innovation across racial lines, not least because it lacked the zoning laws of other cities that limited where Black people could live. One Black realtor and booster touted a more integrated environment to readers of the “race paper,” Liberator: “The Negroes of this city have prudently refused to segregate themselves into any locality, but have scattered and purchased homes in sections occupied by wealthy, cultured white people ....” (Bass 1960, 13-14). Los Angeles’ growing African American population was small, from 1% to 2% of the city’s total population of the city (Robinson 2010, 34-35). There was no defined Black neighborhood, or even a multiracial “colored” section of town, and there were often significantly more White people living in the districts surrounding downtown, even if the area was also inhabited by non-Whites (Flamming 2005, 68). Whites did resist Blacks’ attempts to move into the most desirable all-White neighborhoods, but Azusa Street existed in a racially integrated neighborhood, and it seems likely the congregation reflected this integration (Flamming 2005, 67). Representations of it as a Black church in a Black neighborhood are simplifications.

The neighborhood in which Seymour’s prayer meetings occurred largely consisted of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Canada, Ireland, and Sweden and White migrants from Midwest or South. Only a handful of Black families, almost always identifying themselves as “mulatto” on the census, lived in homes nearby. The neighborhood surrounding Azusa Street, closer to downtown and just a short ride on the “red car” from the Bonnie Brae House, called the Five Points District, was quite mixed as well. The majority of residents in this district were boarders, living in temporary rooms within a house or building. The census revealed a family of Russian Jews and a couple of Black families who worked domestic jobs and took in boarders for their open rooms lived around the corner from the church building. Most of the roomers were of mixed ancestry, including Irish, Germans, Japanese, Canadians, Kentuckians, Pennsylvanians, Georgians, Russians, and Ohioans. Records even suggest the building and house at the rear of 312 Azusa Street took in lodgers before, during, and after the revival.7

In fact, most neighborhoods surrounding the train depot downtown were largely multiethnic before the 1920s and thus provided opportunities for inter-cultural exchange. The booms of the 1880s had filled the downtown area with immigrants, African Americans, and some Anglos looking for temporary housing on the way to more permanent settlement. Sonoratown and Chinatown, which had previously served as ethnic enclaves to keep non-White populations separate from the city center, began to absorb newcomers of diverse backgrounds after the 1880s, including Italians, Mexicans, Blacks, and poor Anglos (Wild 2005, 16-20).

The responses of Anglo city reformers to these diverse neighborhoods surrounding downtown were ambivalent, but overall, they agreed that Los Angeles should not replicate the slums of New York City or Chicago.8 Some reformers, such as Dana Bartlett, advocated for the protection of residential districts that favored the single family home. Others insisted that policy should promote commercial and industrial development in certain districts, often those inhabited by non-Whites. All found multiethnic neighborhoods troubling. In 1917, the Community Survey of Los Angeles would decry “bad housing, frightful overcrowding, congestion of peoples in houses and houses on lots” in the Five Points neighborhood that included Azusa Street.9

Evidence suggests the population inside the mission doors was, like its immediate neighborhood, diverse. Frank Bartieman remarked how over time this largely Black prayer meeting at one point had “more white people than colored coming. The color line washed away in the blood” (Bartieman 1925, 54). Azusa Street Revivalists and observers reported that Blacks, Whites, immigrants, the wealthy, and the working class all participated in the meetings near downtown. The Apostolic Faith newspaper claimed to have witnessed several “nationalities” of people: “Ethiopians, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, and other nationalities,” including Russians, Armenians, Swedes, and others.10

In particular, evidence suggests the strong presence of Mexicans in early Pentecostal congregations. In 1910 the Pisgah Home Mission near the Arroyo Seco, a place where the sick and injured could seek rest and the hope of divine healing, reported that one-fourth of their patients were “Spaniards and Mexicans.” At least one Mexican American woman, Susy Valdez, played a significant role as a ministry leader there (Espinosa 2014, 41). There were also numerous accounts of Mexicans receiving the gift of healing in the Azusa Street Mission. Scholar of Latino religion Gaston Espinosa argues that the receptivity and conversion of Mexicans and Mexican Americans to early Pentecostalism reflects the familiar practices of divine healing witnessed on Azusa Street. Espinosa remarked that Mexican immigrants were more likely to seek health and wellness from cur-andero/a folk healers than White medical practitioners. Latinos maintained traditions of folk healing, and early Pentecostals’ practices of divine healing performed by lay people who considered physical and spiritual well-being to be deeply connected were approachable in this context (Espinosa 2014, 41-42).

The ethnic diversity of the downtown area also translated into a diversity of religious communities. Indeed within the city center numerous worship services could be found on Sundays and throughout the week: a Roman Catholic cathedral, a Jewish synagogue, a Chinese Temple or Joss House, Northern and Southern Methodist edifices, German Evangelical churches, urban missions. Salvation Army barracks, and several rented halls where holiness and Pentecostal healing services were held. Along Broadway between seventh and eighth, observers could often find tent meetings set up by temporary evangelists, holiness bands, or street preachers. South of downtown and in scattered residences one could also find the Church of Christ (Scientist), and the Home of Truth, or practitioners of New Thought, both esoteric religions that emphasized the significance of positive thinking (Engh 1992, 58).11

Growing divisions within Protestant institutions meant that Anglo-Protestant Angelenos at the turn of the century were often more open to experimenting with religious communities outside the mainstream of Baptist and Methodist Churches. Even some established White, middle class ministers of traditional Protestantism chose to break away from their parent churches. Joseph Smale, the pastor of First Baptist Church, attended a holiness revival led by Evan Roberts in Wales and felt inspired to return to Los Angeles and stoke the fires of a renewal movement there. In September 1905, he discarded his ties with the Baptist Church and began holding meetings at Burbank Hall, inviting parishioners to seek the Holy Spirit as the apostles had and naming the congregation New Testament Church (Bartieman 2915, 30). Later, Elmer Fisher, another established Baptist preacher, would leave his congregation in Glendale to gather a meeting of Pentecost-seekers in downtown Los Angeles that he styled the Upper Room.

The multiethnic environment in downtown Los Angeles and the openness to diverse spiritualities translated to a greater fluidity and openness to diverse beliefs and practices without centralized authority. Regardless of location, culturemaking is often a process of bricolage - people share, exchange, and reimagine their beliefs and practices with one another — but Los Angeles in 1906 provided a unique environment for this process.

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