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“When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

African American City Limits                Fatima Blanca C. Muñoz


In the fall of 2005, Josh Sides joined the Department of History at Cal State University of Northridge. Sides received his PhD from University of California, Los Angeles in 1999. He served as a Kevin Starr Fellow at the University of California Humanities Institute at Irvine from 2000-2001. At CSUN, Sides teaches graduate and undergraduate courses of the history of Los Angeles, San Francisco, history of African Americans, and historical methods and theory.



The city of Los Angeles today is far different from what it was seventy years ago. It has been radically transformed in large part due to African Americans. Josh Sides’ L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present describes the lives of African Americans before and after the Great Migration and shows how they “radically altered their own lives [and] permanently transformed urban America”. African Americans were “important shapers of urban destiny” because they affected the evolution of the city through their everyday activities, such as where they worked, where they lived, where they attended school, and where they ended their day.1 Sides focuses his book on the issues that have been at the center of the African American’s struggles, including jobs, housing, education, and political representation.2 The title of his book gives the reader a glimpse into the book’s larger argument, which was that “life in the city perpetuated the limitations found in the rural South”.3

African Americans fled the South for the promises the North seemed to offer. As a result of this Great Migration, the black population continued to increase, which forced whites to interact with blacks.4 The new migrants were forced to live in overcrowded slums until they could earn enough money to move. Consequently, the existing black community had mixed feelings about these new migrants. There were some who were able to sympathize with the new migrants because they knew and understood their difficulties as new arrivals. These blacks would even offer the migrants a place to stay until they were ready to settle on their own. Others felt embarrassed by these migrants because they were afraid that they would confirm popular stereotypes.5 The main reason African Americans migrated west was to escape the injustices of the South and improve their lives and the lives of their children. The West seemed to promise more opportunities and freedoms than the South. However, even though it was an improvement from the South, racism still existed. For example, in Los Angeles, residential segregation was “maintained through a web of racially restrictive housing covenants” and was enforced by the California Real Estate Association.6 While African Americans were allowed to purchase property, they could not live there. Although purchasing houses in the North may have been a lot easier than in the south, job opportunities were not. Racial discrimination was possibly “the greatest barrier to economic prosperity for black men and women” because it limited opportunities for African Americans.7 Because there were no federal laws prohibiting racial discrimination, employers and mangers were free to be chose whomever they wanted to employ.  Unfortunately, no white employer would ever hire an African American for a job that a white man wanted. In a survey that questioned businesses whether they would employ a competent African American, 30 out of 104 employers refused to do so “under any conditions”.8 Despite all of this, the West and the North were, in many ways, an improvement over the South, especially since African Americans were free from the fear of physical violence.

World War II opened a new window for everyone, including African Americans, by creating new job opportunities. In the twenty years following the war, African Americans made “the greatest economic advances they had ever experienced.”9 Nonetheless, there were still many barriers to their economic progress that made economic equality almost impossible for the African American. It was hard for blacks to be employed because of the belief in white superiority. In addition, black employment relied on the industrial employers and managers, who played a critical role in industrial segregation. While most all industrial employers participated in racially discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, some employed black workers who replaced white workers. Despite their employment, African Americans, along with Mexicans, “never held skilled jobs.”10 The steel industry began to rise after the Second World War, and this brought new opportunities for the minorities. African Americans and Mexicans were easily hired into this industry because the employers could easily place them into departments that no white man wanted. The black man, who was desperate for a job, had no choice but to work where he was placed. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) constantly pressured the federal government to abolish segregation. In 1942, an editorial page in The Crisis professed that “now is the time not to be silent about the breaches of democracy.”11 In that same year, there was a labor shortage because of the war. Many businesses, especially large defense plants, contacted the United States Employment Serves (USES) in search of female labor, but refused to hire black women.12 In the later years, defense industry employers began to hire more and more African American females. However, though it would seem harder for black women to find a job due to double discrimination, as they were both black and female, this was not the case. Surprisingly, defense industry employers were more tolerant of and felt less threatened by black women workers.13 Employers probably felt this way because they believed that the women would work “only for the duration.”14 This was far from the truth, though, as African American women had no intention of leaving the workforce. Although the number of black workers remained small, there was a “strong employer preference for black women…so they outnumbered the men.”15 Managers and employers might have felt threatened by black men and thought of black women as a replacement for something better to come. Employers also preferred lighter skinned black female believing they were more attractive than darker skinned, and would therefore attract more customers.

African Americans’ options were not only limited in the workplace, but also in the housing market. According to Sides, the main purpose for blacks leaving the South was to find a better future for them and their children. Supporting his argument, he states that African Americans searched for nice homes in safe areas and “longed for integration into communities that could provide superior schools for their children.”16 Residential integration meant so much more to the blacks than owning property, since put more emphasis on their “dignity, opportunity, and their children’s future.”17 They wanted to prove that they were fully capable of achieving their dreams. Nevertheless, there were many factors that prevented them from attaining this dream. Many white parents objected to having their children attend the same school as black children, and thought if it as an experiment. In order to prevent this residential integration, white homeowners developed several plans to keep African Americans out of their neighborhoods. Many of them secretly sold their houses and moved into different towns. However, the blue collar workers began to protest against this integration because they could not afford to purchase a different house elsewhere. They maintained segregation through discouragement of “home sales to prospective black buyers, vandalism, cross burnings, bombings, and death threats.”18 Multiethnic neighborhoods soon turned “solid black”19 as a result of not only white resistance but also “the changing social, economic, and political status of other minority groups.”20. In the 1960s, many events occurred that resulted from the past few decades of struggle for equality. This struggle was led by the thousands of African American migrants who escaped the South in order to “finally and fully share on the country’s new prosperity.”21 Many whites believed that they were being challenged because blacks wanted to interact with them. This was far from the truth, as African Americans “simply wanted the freedom to enjoy [life] without harassment.”22 During this time, African Americans made their demands well-known, which also resulted in a wave of anti-black racism in the city. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) considered it a part of their job to reinforce these racial barriers. They began to threaten blacks, and that became a “daily and sometimes deadly reality.”23 Regardless of where they lived, how educated they were, how much they earned, and what their profession was, blacks lived in a constant fear of being harassed by the police and their neighbors. People like Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired blacks to fight for freedom no matter where they were in the United States.24 On June 14, 1963, the United Civil Rights Committee (UCRC) led the largest march for black civil rights in the history of Los Angeles.25 Events like these continued to occur throughout the decade in the hopes that African Americans would finally be recognized and gain their rights.

In his book, Sides focuses on the center of black struggles for equality. The book begins with the Great Migration and the reasons behind it. African Americans desired a change in their lives that did not limit or prevent them from following their dreams, and “thought that they were abandoning the bigotry and brutality of the South for Los Angeles’ promise of economic opportunity and racial harmony.”26 As a result of their migration, they not only transformed their lives but also transformed America itself. Through their desire for change, “they affected the decision-making processes and policies of Los Angeles” Sides constantly repeats that while Los Angeles was an improvement over the South, it did have its limits, such as in the workplace and in housing. 27 He discusses what the West both could and could not offer to the African Americans, and he focuses his attention on the city of Los Angeles, proving that the West, like the North, was an appealing destination for African Americans. Sides believes that “the history of urban America is inseparable from the history of race in America.”28

A history professor at Cal State University, Northridge, Sides writes and teaches about the American urban experience, particularly focusing on California. He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on the history of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and California as well as the history of African Americans.29 Sides saw Mexicans as competitors of African Americans in the workplace. According to him, Mexicans had better chances than blacks because whites often looked upon them more favorably. While Mexicans, along with other minorities, were able to rise in their social status because they were gradually accepted by some white people, African Americans could not. Published in 2003, Sides’ book was most likely influenced by the liberalism of the 1990s, providing insight into what African Americans had to endure during the Great Migration. There were more sources available to Sides than to most books published before his.

Emily E. Straus, a history professor at Suny Fredonia, thoroughly analyzes Sides’ book and agrees with his thesis, which is “though L.A. was an improvement over the South, it was no panacea: the city of Los Angeles had its own racially defined limits.”30 According to Straus, Sides uses many different types of sources, including oral histories, to add life to his book. Through these histories, he “gives voice to migrants and native Angelenos”.31 In addition to Straus’ critique, she believes that although Sides could have put these oral histories to better use, he does a good job in highlighting their voices. This provides the reader with accounts of how difficult life was for blacks and shows how the lives of African Americans transformed dramatically. Unfortunately, Sides “occasionally falls into the trap of describing Los Angeles as a white and black world.”32 Despite this, he is able to reveal how personal certain experiences were to the African Americans. Sides also uses a wide range of archival collections, thereby providing more evidence to support his arguments. Although the book provides good coverage from the twenties to the sixties, Sides seems to wrap up everything in the last chapter and the epilogue. He could have elaborated more on the Rodney King beating and riots as well as the rise of gang culture, which were both very important in the shaping of Los Angeles. These events greatly affected the lives of African Americans and transformed the city of Los Angeles, and yet Sides ignores them.

In his book, Sides focuses upon the African American struggles from the thirties to the present. He also addresses the Latinos who, according to him, competed against the African Americans in the workplace because they were more widely accepted. Sides also lists events contributing to the evolution of certain aspects of African American life, such as how their once multiethnic neighborhood, became a neighborhood full of only blacks. While Sides covers the beginning of the Great Migration very well, he tends to over-summarize the 1980s and 1990s, which were just as important as previous time periods. Also, Sides digresses from his main points at certain times, focusing on Latinos instead of African Americans. Although the examples given by Sides about the Latinos are relevant, there are points where it seems like his book is about Latinos rather than African Americans. Also, when Sides addresses the Latinos, it is often distracting and hard to follow. Additionally, there are times where he is inconsistent and difficult to understand. However, by focusing his study on Los Angeles, Sides fulfills his argument, which is that “the West proved an attractive destination for African American migrants.”33

California was greatly influenced by the events occurring in other states, especially in the South. African Americans were afraid of white men in the South because of the belief that whites were far more superior to all minorities. Whites in the South were violently racist and committed atrocities against African Americans, such as murder. As a result of these traumatic experiences, many African Americans migrated to the North and West. During the Great Migration, between 1940 and 1970, the black population in Los Angeles went from 63,744 to 763,000, “[growing] faster than in any other large northern or western city.”34 In addition, another reason African Americans migrated was due to the low skill requirements and great labor demand in cities, which “opened the door of industrial employment to women and African Americans.”35

Josh Sides saw California, particularly Los Angeles, as important to the rest of the country because Los Angeles, like cities in the North, offered many great opportunities to blacks such as housing and job opportunities. African Americans had a better life in the North and West than those who lived in the South. They were able to enjoy more luxuries than they had in the South. Although life was still difficult for African Americans, the opportunities of the North and West were far superior to those of the South.

In his book, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, Sides effectively explains and supports his arguments through a wide array of sources and stories. He begins with the Great Migration and ends with the transformation of the black communities. Throughout the book, Sides emphasizes that although Los Angeles was a step up over the South, it still had its limitations. He argues that even though this migration was an upgrade from the south, it still had its restrictions in the workplace and in residential integration. He also stresses that African Americans radically altered the history, decisions, and policies of Los Angeles. Emphasizing the racial discrimination and the events that occurred, Sides gives personal stories of African Americans and successfully portrays what they had to endure and how they were able to cope with everything around them. Sides’ book is an excellent reference point for the lives of African Americans in the early thirties and forties.


1. Sides, Josh. L.A. City Limits African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present. UC Press, 2003.

2. Sides, Josh 9-10.

3. Emily, Straus E. California Dreaming? African-American Migration and the Limits of Freedom in Los Angeles. Jun. 2004.

4. Sides, Josh 44. 
5. Sides, Josh 50.

6. Sides, Josh 15.

7. Sides, Josh 22.

8. Sides, Josh 25.

9. Sides, Josh 51.

10. Sides, Josh 76.

11. Sides, Josh 61.

12. Sides, Josh 61.

13. Sides, Josh 89.

14. Sides, Josh 89.

15. Sides, Josh 90.

16. Sides, Josh 95.

17. Sides, Josh 95.

18. Sides, Josh 101.

19. Sides, Josh 96.

20. Sides, Josh 109.

21. Sides, Josh 131.

22. Sides, Josh 132.

23. Sides, Josh 137.

24. Sides, Josh 135.

25. Sides, Josh 164.

26. Emily, Straus E.

27. Emily, Straus E.

28. Sides, Josh 8.

29. Dr. Josh Sides California State University, Northridge.

30. Emily, Straus E.

31. Emily, Straus E.

32. Emily, Straus E.

33. Sides, Josh 2.

34. Sides, Josh 3.

35. Sides, Josh 8.