Monday, February 2, 2015

Vintage Postcard: Second Baptist Church Los Angeles

I'm currently working on a project relating to African-American history in Los Angeles.  Here's an example of a small item -- an old postcard -- that speaks volumes about the impact of one institution on a community.

This old postcard was a long way, and a long time, from home, when I spotted it on eBay the other day.  Somehow it had ended up in a small town in New Hampshire.  I bought it with the intention of repatriating it as soon as possible.

Even though I've seen vintage postcards of hundreds of different old buildings, I don't think I've ever seen this postcard before.  But I recognized this old church building immediately: It's Second Baptist Church at the corner of 24th and Griffith in South Los Angeles, just off Central Avenue, which was the center of African American life in LA during the early to mid-20th century.

Second Baptist Church is an anchor property in its historic neighborhood. It testifies about the power of ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

One of the best resources I've found on the African American history of Los Angeles comes from a place that most people might not think of: the documentation for the nomination of old buildings to the National Register of Historic Places.  The document for Second Baptist offers a well-written, succinct overview of the importance of This Old Church.

No single institution was of greater importance to the social history of African Americans than the church. Founding churches gave blacks some of their first experiences in organizing their own institutions after emancipation.... 

The document talks about the man pictured on my old postcard:

Thomas L. Griffith...became (Second Baptist's) pastor in 1921. A dynamic preacher and former Army chaplain, Griffith immediately spearheaded an effort to build a new edifice for Second Baptist. By the time Second Baptist had enough funds to build a new edifice, they...secured a site at Griffith Avenue and 24th Street. 

Griffith’s vision for such a massive facility seemed outrageous to many people in 1924, but he anticipated a great influx of African Americans to Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future. The building cost the church’s congregation $200,000 and it could seat more than 2,000 people for public and private meetings – about 10% of Los Angeles’ black population at the time. 

The "public and private meetings" held at Second Baptist included the 1928 and 1942 NAACP National Conventions. The back of the old postcard provides similar information about the facility:

"A modern church edifice, fully equipped for religious, educational and social activities.  Its expanding auditorium seats 2500; its social hall 800.  It has a most beautiful Baptistry, art glass windows and general architecture.  Pipe organ cost $15,000.  Total investment in grounds, pipe organ and equipment $180,000.  Rev. T.L. Griffith, D.D., Pastor and Builder."

The National Register documentation continues:

In 1925, they commissioned Paul Williams, a talented young African American architect, to design their new building. He enlisted Norman Marsh to develop the structural plans....

Full stop.  If you aren't familiar with Paul Revere Williams, you should be.  He grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of Southern California in 1919.  The USC Trojan Family Magazine recounts:

Paul Revere Williams was an African-American architect at a time when such a combination wasn’t considered possible. He had been told as a teenager that “a Negro” couldn’t be an architect; he proved otherwise, though it meant riding to job sites in segregated train cars and perfecting the skill of upside-down drawing (so he could sit across the table from clients, rather than lean over them, lest his proximity make them uncomfortable).

“He was completely undaunted by racism,” says the architect’s granddaughter, Karen Hudson, who has authored two books on his career and life.

Against all odds, Williams designed hundreds of important public buildings and palatial playgrounds for the elite, in the process becoming one of Southern California’s signature 20th-century architects.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The website for the Paul R. Williams Project at the University of Memphis tells us more about this remarkable American:

During the 1920s and 1930s (including the depression, which had little effect on his firm), his great success was in designing homes for wealthy clients in the elite hillside subdivisions like Bel Air, Brentwood, and Beverly Hills.  Sought by entertainment industry leaders, Williams became known as “Architect to the Hollywood Stars.”  Although residential design remained an important aspect of his practice, commercial and institutional commissions became increasingly significant as did his work beyond Southern California, across the nation and the world.  

In the course of his five-decade career, Williams designed approximately 3000 buildings, served on many municipal, state and federal commissions, was active in political and social organizations and earned the admiration and respect of his peers.  In 1957, he was the first African American elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

The old postcard of Second Baptist Church shows us one of Williams' earliest designs.  As impressive as the exterior of the church is, it's the people who used the church as a house of worship and civic engagement who made the biggest impact.  As the National Register documentation concludes:

The church’s legacy has left a moral imprint on Southern California. Members of the congregation fought restrictive housing covenants and racial discrimination in many forms at public beaches, swimming pools, and restaurants. In 1954, the congregation of Second Baptist raised and contributed $1,500 to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to pay for the printing of the briefs used in the arguments before the United States Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case that desegregated public schools. 

Before WWII, the church was the largest meeting space owned by the African-American community in the western U.S. In 1928, when the NAACP convened its first national conference west of the Mississippi, the church was used as one of the venues; W.E.B. DuBois was a featured speaker. Keynote speakers during the 1949 NAACP convention, held again in Los Angeles, included United Nations statesman Dr. Ralph Bunche; Roy Wilkins, secretary of the NAACP; and actor, writer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson....

Second Baptist has also had a distinct role in the lives of two Nobel Peace Prize laureates (1950 and 1964). The church was the source of the first scholarship for Ralph Bunche to attend UCLA. 

And very significantly, Second Baptist played a little-known yet pivotal role in the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The church considered itself the West Coast "home" for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; he spoke here many times throughout his career. Second Baptist church leaders mentored the young Dr. King, and participated with him in local and national civil rights activities. Second Baptist was the first and last Los Angeles congregation to host Dr. King, between May 1956 and March 1968. He was assassinated in April 1968.

Here's the link to the National Register form:

Second Baptist hasn't changed much over the years.

Second Baptist Church Los Angeles in the early 21st century.

If you look closely at the postcard, you can see the exterior signage for the church:

The entrance to the Sunday School:

And, on the far left of the postcard, the ornate stained glass rose window.  This is what it looks like from the inside:

They're all still there.

In 2009, a small addition was made to the exterior of Second Baptist:

Second Baptist Church Los Angeles was placed 
on the National Register of Historic Places in March 2009.

The impact of Second Baptist Church, like so many African American centers of faith, is greater than the sum of its physical parts.

Here's a video clip from the Los Angeles Conservancy's preservation awards ceremony in 2010, featuring Second Baptist:

Here's a short video presentation on the history of Second Baptist Church Los Angeles, featuring Professor Lorn S. Foster of Pomona College, Claremont, recorded in 2010.

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