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Once All White, Now Full of Color

Long Beach historian details city's early black history in North Park.

One particular moment from the day in 1958 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took part in the ceremonial opening of the Christian Light Missionary Baptist Church remains etched in Roberta Fiore’s memory.

The media and many Long Beach politicians gathered for a photo op in front of the new church, in the city’s predominantly black North Park community, but King suggested another backdrop: the neighboring homes with no front doors.

“What I remember distinctly was that across the street from the church was the worst section in Long Beach,” said Fiore, who was then 18 and is now a Long Beach historian. “Dr. King had Newsday take photos of those houses instead of the church. He knew enough to say, ‘I don’t want my picture taken in front of this new building. I want it taken showing how blacks live.’”

Still, a new church in the black community was a far cry from Long Beach’s beginnings. William Reynolds, a former state senator who since 1906 had owned most of Long Beach island, sold property exclusively to the wealthy. “The laborers — the Italians, the Greeks, the blacks — were escorted out of town at night to Barnum Island,” Fiore said.

But before his business went belly-up in 1918, Reynolds asked the City Council to allow a black man named Ben to stay overnight. Ben was a servant for a woman who owned an estate on Edwards Boulevard that became a boarding house. She demanded that Reynolds accept him, and the council voted unanimously in Ben’s favor. Thereafter his black brethren called him “King Ben.”

Fiore described Ben not only as “a colorful character” who led the annual Memorial Day parade, but as one of the first influential blacks in Long Beach.

“He became a very respected person in town,” she said.

Other early black influences were Dan and His Boys, a jazz quartet that entertained at Long Beach establishments and traveled with Reynolds, and James Reese Europe, an internationally known conductor and writer for Vernon and Irene Castle, a ballroom dance duo who owned a nightclub on the boardwalk.

“Long Beach had an early history of music that was given by the African-American people,” Fiore said.

Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, as entertainment thrived and Long Beach developed homes and industry, Southern black migrants worked at the hotels lining the boardwalk or as domestic servants. While some lived in the stately homes where they worked, a handful began renting and even buying homes, many of which were converted garages, in what is now North Park, the area north of Park Avenue roughly between Magnolia Boulevard and Long Beach Boulevard.

“The political idea back then was to keep the blacks concentrated on the other side of the tracks,” Fiore said. “North Park was where the railroad and the more industrial section of the city were located, and the blacks didn’t have cars, so they traveled by train.”

During the summers, fishermen stayed at the Bayview Hotel on Reynolds Channel, and black laborers moved into the dilapidated structure the rest of the year.

Around World War II, a wealthy black woman, a Mrs. Reeder, invited them to board in the garage of her nearby stucco estate. “She gave these domestics comfort, warmth and clothing,” Fiore explained. “This was the beginning of the black community in Long Beach.”

During the 1940s, however, the Ku Klux Klan was active on Long Island, and when a black woman moved into a home on Pine Street, Klansmen burned a cross on her lawn, according to Fiore. The woman soon left town.

But around the same time, one of Long Beach’s most celebrated black individuals, the Rev. Jesse Evans, moved with his family to an estate house that he rented in North Park. An Army chaplain who became the spiritual leader at Christian Light, Evans originally traveled from Jackson Heights, Queens, on Sundays to preach to the black laborers at the former First Baptist Church. Evans and his first wife were acquaintances of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta.

“Evans was a good man who believed in peaceful resistance,” Fiore said. “Some thought he was too nice.”

In 2000, Fiore, then the president of the Long Beach Historical & Preservation Society, interviewed Evans’s two daughters; the then 20-year-old organization had no documented history of North Park, and Fiore thought it important to create an oral record. That same year, the Long Beach NAACP Youth Council learned that a community journal created for the city’s 75th anniversary made no reference to their neighborhood. They responded by making a video documentary called “Long Beach in Color.”

Among the many black elders and leaders the young people interviewed was Hazil Garrie, who moved to Long Beach in the 1950s. On the video, Garrie called King’s visit to Long Beach the most significant event during her years in the city.

“That was a happy day in my life,” Garrie said, “to see him in person, and he was very, very charming.”

In 2002, Patrick Graham, a former director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center on Riverside Boulevard who was raised in Long Beach, completed his doctoral thesis on the growth of the city’s black community.

“The majority of African-Americans in Long Beach, from 1940 to 1980, were migrants from the South,” said Graham, a college professor and president of the Urban League of the Central Carolinas in Charlotte, N.C. “Southern migrants in Long Beach and other parts of Long Island used their cultural knowledge of the civil rights movement to pursue human rights initiatives in Long Beach.”

Bill Owens arrived in Long Beach in 1960, and found that housing for blacks was scarce. He joined the local NAACP and took part in the organization’s sit-ins in the lobbies of apartment buildings that refused to admit blacks. Others picketed on the streets.

“Police came and arrested some of our people and took them to jail,” Owens recalled in “Long Beach in Color.” But after the demonstrations, inter-racial relations gradually improved, and, Owens added, “Things did start to open up.”

Eddie February 11, 2011 at 04:27 AM
Sam didn't mention race, and the problems he describes aren't racial, they're economic. They aren't unique to North Park; they plague the entire western world. The proof of this is all around us. Educate and enlighten. The US is still the land of opportunity regardless of background and race. Some have it easier than others; some were born with more than others. But we all have the ability to change our next day. One reason I chose to raise a family in Long Beach was the economic variety here among the different races. My kids would know all kinds of people in a mix of economic situations. It's been tough for them at times, but the world's a tough place. They learned not to judge by appearance and they are wiser for that lesson. Read Sam's note again. Why do you link his observations with racism?
Richard February 11, 2011 at 04:13 PM
Yes I agree Eddie. How come all econonomic backgrounds of kids attend the Long Beach Schools together and have the same educational opportunities but yet after their education some kids become drug dealers, street thugs, and teenage mothers? Who do you blame that one on? Why is it on a weekend throughout Long Beach I see men working on their homes fixing and cleaning whereas in the Waldbaums Shopping Center and LIRR plaza I see other men sipping 40 Oz liquor and wooping it up?
Richard February 11, 2011 at 04:17 PM
Donald I don't think your ad hominen attack on a person who comments on this blog is warranted. You can't even address the presented issues with any amount of forthsightedness and clarity.
Richard February 11, 2011 at 04:21 PM
Noted academic historian Ms. Fiore remembers a ku klux k lan incident in the 1940's on Long Island but fails to mention all of the Bloods, MS-13, and Latin Kings incidents on Long Island in the 1980's, 1990's, and 2000's.
Tom February 11, 2011 at 06:42 PM
Richard you say.... "Why is it on a weekend throughout Long Beach I see men working on their homes fixing and cleaning whereas in the Waldbaums Shopping Center and LIRR plaza I see other men sipping 40 Oz liquor and wooping it up?" What color are those men you see? Are they black? What do you see in the West End, do you see men then browning bagging beers, or openly drinking them on the street? I do. What color are they? How is that different from the RR or Waldbaums? The other impression I get from your post is that people working on their homes are in the predominantly white areas are and the ones in the black areas aren't. Is that corrrect? Your inferences are subtle but seem to reference black vs. white, which would be construed as racist. If I'm wrong please correct me.
Tom February 11, 2011 at 06:55 PM
Eddie, Sams inferences are sublte, but yes, they seem to be racial..."The problem in today's North Park neighborhood..." "...glorified by the hip hop culture..." "...with no family bonds to show the children the correct path..."...While the children of residents of other neighborhoods..." I agree with with all you said, I too want my child growing up in LB the have the same experiences you want for your kids. However there are inferences made in Sam's post and they seem to be targeting color. The fact is trash is trash, every neighborhood has it, and it needs to be removed from the streets.
C. Lee February 12, 2011 at 01:05 AM
This article was awsome. I remember my father telling me stories about the "old" Long Beach. The city is very rich in history and culture and I am happy that someone is giving the minorities in LB a voice. There is much, much more to tell & Once All White, Now Full of Color is an excellent start. After I read this article, I read the comments. Somehow this very positive and informative coloum became about race. This was not what the article was supposed to be about. However, I have noticed that some people have very strong opinions about the North Park area of Long Beach and the people that reside there. I have lived in both the North Park area and the West End. In living in both areas, I have observed the behaviors that a were mentioned in a few responses (to this article). In the West End, just as Tom mentioned, there are just as many people (majority white) that openly drink liquor and do drugs. I remember seeing a few guys in front of a bar sniffing coke. Or how about on the beach, walking the boardwalk, drinking their 40's? No matter how you put it, it is the same thing. Why do we need to play the blame game? Not all people that live in the Black community of LB rely on government subsidies. In fact, if you take a walk through the North Park area, you will see people working on their homes. Actually, the majority of the people in the North Park area owned their own home. Can you say that you have actually spent time in the neighborhood?
C. Lee February 12, 2011 at 01:16 AM
Probably not....If you did, you would know that it is full of culture. Sam, you mentioned hip hop. That is apart of our culture. The glorification of drugs and substance abuse isn't all hip hop. Just like rock music, some is good has a purpose, & some has its faults. The MLK center is also apart of our culture. The center is there to provide unity and culture within the our community. I am a product of Long Beach. I can say that I have been beyond the North Park area and Park Ave. I went to college and I did not become a drug dealer, addict, ward of the state, or a political pawn. It is rather sickening to see that these sterotypical thoughts still exist in this world today. The black and white comparisons are irrelevant. For every negative comment about the black community, there is also one for another race. Its ignorance all across the board. Instead of insulting each other and pointing out the problems, lets try to figure out how to solve the issues. Not only in Long Beach but world wide.
C. Lee February 12, 2011 at 01:18 AM
*column*
Don February 13, 2011 at 12:29 AM
Eddie, first of all, the article "Once All White, Now Full of Color" is about early Black history in the North Park area of Long Beach. It did not have anything to do with the problems in North Park. Sam started his comments by insulting and attacking the entire Black community in the North Park section of town. He accuses them of relying on government subsidies (welfare) and squandering their heritage and culture. He also indicates that past and present generations are drug addicts and criminals who glorify the hip hop culture. He then made a generalization that people of the NP area are destined to end up in prison. Sam believes that while children in the surronding Long Beach neighborhoods grow up to become self-sufficient adults, children of the NP area become wards of the State and political pawns. Contrary to Sam's beliefs, the majority of the people I know and grew up with recieved a higher education and became productive citizens. If Sam was well informed about the NP area, he would not have made such inappropriate statements. In my book, those statement were considered racist. The majority of the residents in the NP area are well educated and hard working people. Some of them have even been known to venture out of Long Beach and go to college (surprise, surprise). People of past generations, like Reverand Evans, achieved so much in his life that he had a street named after him (thats culture). My mother went from being a domestic worker to
Don February 13, 2011 at 12:35 AM
owning and operating one of the first black beauty shops in LB. I grew up in Long Beach and I do not know of anyone in that generation that relied on welfare to survive. When it comes to my generation, baby boomers, most of us became very successful in life. Some fell of the wagon but that was rare. As for the present generation, of course there are problems. However, the same thing goes in all sections of Long Beach, every community.
Don February 13, 2011 at 12:53 AM
Sam made an accusation that the Black people in the NP area have no family bonds to show their children the correct path in life. How could he possibly know? Has he ever been with or interacted with Black people and their families? Obviously not because if he had, he would not have made such a statement. What qualifies Sam to tell you, me, or anyone else about what our family bonds and ties are? When Sam spends sometime with a family of the NP area, then he can tell me about our family bonds. Eddie, don't get me wrong. I do not think that you are in the same boat as Sam. I just think that you failed to see the racist implications of Sams note. I hope that you re-read Sam's note again and this time you see if for what it is. Richard, I can accept your statement. My attack on Sam was ad hominem but please read my response for some clarity.
Don February 13, 2011 at 02:02 AM
Eddie, for some reason, I cannot see your response on Patch. It is only being sent to my email. Sams response to the article definitely was racial. He was talking about the North Park area, which is prodominantly Black. So for that reason alone, I believe his statements were directed towards the Black community. No, I don't think that all generalizations are considered racism. However, when it is as blatant as Sam's, it is racism or rather the lack of knowledge (ignorance). The problems that Sam addressed are relevant and very real. I can acknowledge that but that isn't the NP area as a whole, it is only a select few individuals. Also, it is not exclusive to just the North Park area. The same problems exist in other parts of town.
Vee February 13, 2011 at 05:53 PM
The real problem is that African-Americans had their heritage and culture stripped away from them along time ago, when they were brought to this country as slaves. As a direct result of racism and discrimination, we still have predominately white and predominately black neighborhoods. The point of this article, "Once All White, Now Full of Color", is to show the progress that has been made, but it stops at the 1960's. It needs to be continued from there up to the present day. Even though Sam never mentions race, "the problem in the North Park neighborhood" as he describes it, is not just economic. If he is not referring to blacks, in a predominately black neighborhood, when he says "a group of individuals...who have squandered their heritage, culture, and initiative...generation after generation...with no family bonds to show the children the correct path..." who is he talking about? Generations of people in this country both black and white, and others, have struggled for what they have. As a child of European immigrants, growing up in America in the 1950's and 1960's, I know that there were opportunities open to my family just because we were white, that were not available to blacks whose families had been here for generations. Racism would not exist if we recognize that we are all apart of one race, the human race, and that we have more in common than we are different. If we all had the same civil rights going back to the beginning of America, then
Vee February 13, 2011 at 06:07 PM
maybe we could blame nobody but ourselves, if we failed to make the most of opportunities available to us. In this case to say "the blame lies within themselves, not anyone else" is totally inappropriate. The cycle of poverty in the African-American community goes back to slavery, the fleeing of the slaves, and the migration North, to cities like Chicago and Long Beach, where blacks were kept segregated. To anyone interested in understanding this better, I suggest reading the chapter on "Race", particularly pages 249-259 in President Barack Obamas book The Audacity of Hope. As Roberta Fiore states in the article "the political idea back then was to keep the blacks concentrated on the other side of the tracks" which she describes as "the worst section of Long Beach." Despite all this, blacks in the North Park community do own their own homes, do have strong family bonds, their children do see the world beyond Park Avenue, do get college educations, and are not drug addicts or drug dealers. I don't live in Long Beach, but I visited in the neighborhood numerous times in the mid 1990's and I know some of these people personally. My experiences as a white person in the perdominately black neighborhood were overwhelmingly positive. From my perspective, as a white American, I feel that we, as a group, need to educate ourselves to recognize many of the prejudices that exist due to being uninformed, the "subtle", and not so subtle inferences that blacks recognize instantly.
Hiz Majestii February 13, 2011 at 06:42 PM
I want to thank Joseph Kellard for a wonderful article. I spent 20 yrs of my youth there, and was never apprised of this history, especially Dr. King's visit! I'm uncertain how we've seemed to allow the very divisive, and indeed ignorant utterance of Sam to overshadow the gist of the article. But be that as it may, I would refer him to the following quote: "The major part of all peoples are unpolished. Some whites, however, forget this. In setting a standard they pick out the cream of their own group and endow all the remainder with the qualities of this choice portion. Conversely, they pick out the worst among the [blacks] and measure all by the conduct of the bad, insomuch that at the very mention of his name a [black] has already been weighed and found wanting. One often hears it said of a good [black]: 'He is [black], but _____' " ~ J.A. Rogers (from his book "From Superman to Man")
Clem February 13, 2011 at 10:50 PM
Sorry Hiz and Vee, but no White man should be subjected to your racism either. I can't say "Some Blacks live like animals -- look at their communities -- riddled with crime, drugs and broken down homes." But you can say, "Some whites, however, forget this. In setting a standard they pick out the cream of their own group" Dune, you are a racist, and as long as you rely on the crutch of crying like a victim, you'll continue to wrestle with slavery. Except now the majority of your people here in New York, 77% in fact, are slaves to the government, living off their handouts. Instead of cleaning up your own neighborhood -- getting the bums off the porches that drink beer and throw the bottles at passing cars you cry that Whites are keeping you down. Aren't you a little tired of making excuses for your destructive lifestyle? Pathetic.
C. Lee February 13, 2011 at 10:58 PM
Clem, please explain how Vee and Hiz Majestii are racists?
Clem February 13, 2011 at 11:41 PM
They both generalize about Whites: Vee: "as a white American, I feel that we, as a group, need to educate ourselves " Hiz: "Some whites, however, forget this. In setting a standard they pick out the cream of their own group" Replace the word "white" with "black" and see how fast they would be screaming that the White man is the cause of all their problems. Shameful racism.
Christopher February 14, 2011 at 03:34 AM
Richard it is evident that you are a "Racist" and I am white from the east end from the snow, to the 5 African American youth, the story in the west end you always demoralize African Americans... What a shame..
Baghdad Bob February 14, 2011 at 06:24 AM
Christopher, could you explain what, "I am white from the east end from the snow," means? What does being from the east end have to do with snow?
Beachdiva63 February 15, 2011 at 10:43 PM
it was interesting to know there was some history of blacks in long beach even though it was about domestic workers. However there was many black families that owned homes in the long beach community and had businesses. however the best time for all in long beach was the 70's and 80's when the boardwalk and rides were great for all people of color and the bowling alley was a family venue i remember going with my uncle and mom as a family activity. Long beach is unique city they created what they have today , the plan was put in effect 30 years ago . If you are not of an economic statue interested in certain social activities you are not represented. This left many individuals without support. Long Beach has tried to turn this town into an affluent retirement place. So some people of north park, west end don't fit the profile. It is easier to focus on the crime drug activity and the other social dysfunctions that appear today. It is ridiculous to assume that one part of a community is the problem. The problem is political in long beach. I enjoyed going to school with people from all parts of Long beach I had friends from all races and we got along based on living in the community not because i was from one section or town. I am an African American female who graduated in 1981 from long beach high school. I went to college and became knowledgeable in my field. I worked in my field for over twenty years. Long beach is about money and if you don't have it. you have problems
Vee February 17, 2011 at 09:09 PM
The article, "Once All White, Now Full of Color" is about Long Beach and the city's early black history in the North Park. It turned into a discussion about problems in todays North Park neighborhood and about racism. I would like to see more comments from people who grew up in the neighborhood, those who have personal knowledge of it's history, particularly from the 1960's to present day. The discussion about prejudice is important to have, but it really belongs in another forum. The focus here needs to be specifically on the North Park community and the people who live there, since it is a predominately black community, which developed because blacks were kept concentrated there, racial issues are a significant thread. That being the case, I do think it is important to deal with the misconceptions that exist about the neighborhood, and I feel that personal stories from people who live there, or who have lived there, will help do that.
Daniel March 28, 2011 at 08:51 PM
I grew up in the north park neighborhood and moved down to florida about six months ago I moved there in 1989 and lived there until september 0f 2010. I lived in the pinetown houses where my mother still lives. Im a big fan of longbeach history and im glad that finally someone wrote something about this section of longbeach that is far too many times left out of longbeach history , the reason being that longbeach does not like to talk about it's black and latino community because many of the people that write longbeach history are racist old white people that have been trying to hide this history. back in the 80,s and 90,s long beach had a lot of blacks and latinos but the uper middle class whites wanted to change the image of the city so they started burning and selling properties that blacks and latinos lived in to make condos and make a profit from. Even though north park was originally a black neighborhood, today north park is very mixed, there are latino and white people living there as well. Alot of Black people have moved out due to rent being too expensive in long beach alltogether. North Park is the last minority neighborhood left in Long Beach, but it was not the only one in Long Beach, Shore Rd and Broadway had many black and latinos living in the buildings there before many of them were sold or burned to make condominiums. Im glad that finally somebody has aknowledge the black and minority history of Long Beach. Hope there is more to come.
Clem March 28, 2011 at 09:08 PM
Who's the racist? You said "many of the people that write longbeach (sic) history are racist old white people" "whites wanted to change the image of the city so they started burning and selling properties " Shame on you! Also you said, "north park was originally a black neighborhood". That's simply untrue. Blacks moved into that part of the community in the 1940's. It's people like you with comments like these who try to keep the races divided.
Jim H June 14, 2011 at 12:08 AM
You can argue the reasons for poverty in the north park area all you want. They are always going to blame whitey and scream racism. That's the catch word isn't it? The theory is that no one wants to be called a racist so use it to put the other person on the defensive. It doesn't matter if their points are valid. If it's something the residents of North Park don't want to hear then they will break out the racism chant. It's getting old.
COMMON DECENCY June 14, 2011 at 08:25 AM
the only big difference over the past forty years between the west end and the North Park area is opportunity and contacts. Most of the civil service jobs in LB and local union jobs as well as City union jobs are exhausted by white people from the west end. The North park areas minority folk don't have these resources or opportunities. I would love to see the day when City hall, the fire dept, police dept are 80 % black as well as the union gigs around the region. Than we will see white people really complaining about things. All those white trash west end folks would have never graduated to the middle class, they would all be working at Dairy Barn and Waldbaums.
Jim H June 14, 2011 at 10:39 AM
At least they would be working. How many north parker's actually applied for the fire department job? None, and thats a fact.
Clem June 14, 2011 at 11:04 AM
The percentage of black employees working for the City is actually higher than the percentage of black residents living here. You've had an even greater opportunity than the Whites, but obviously work is not high on the list of priorities for North Park.
Clem June 14, 2011 at 12:15 PM
Typical excuses. Blame Whitey.

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