During Black History month, we are reminded that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. This is a perfect time to honor those elders among us that have contributed to their families and communities. We recognize their struggles and accomplishments and hope to learn from their rich stories and experiences.
In 1903 the United States assumed permanent control of Guantanamo Bay in a leasing agreement with Cuba, the first airplane was flown by the Wright brothers, the Boston Americans (later renamed the Boston Red Sox) beat the Pittsburgh Pirates five games to three to win the first modern World Series, and Freda May was born on July 3, 1903 in Dallas, Texas. While not as significant historically, her life time incorporates many of the seminal events and issues confronting 20th Century African American society.
Orphaned at an early age, she found her way into the custody of a mulatto couple from Paducah, Kentucky who brought her to Pomona at the age of four, more or less making her an indentured servant and introduced her to the discriminatory practice of “colorism” that remains a staple of African American society to this day. Her earliest recollection of compassion came from a neighboring Mexican family who taught her rudimentary Spanish. Rebelling against the regime of scrubbing floors and frequent beatings doled out by the family that adopted her, she ran away and was placed in the care of the Catholic Church in Santa Monica at 13. At 18, she entered into a loveless marriage to Al McKinney, a boot black (someone who shines shoes), also very conscious of his fair skin and not pleased with his wife’s darker hue, which resulted in more physical abuse.
This in turn nurtured within her the instinct of self preservation which ended in her stabbing him with a knife and the conclusion of her marriage. Though she escaped legal penalties, she wound up alone with two children at the age of 20 and emotional scars which would affect her relationships with people of all races for the rest of her adult life. Working as a domestic, her only recreation was her Sunday outings at the beach off Pico Boulevard, the only part of the shoreline open to blacks. Even in this sanctuary they were ever mindful of the racial attitudes of the day, as airplanes regularly flew overhead dropping leaflets urging the citizens below to “Keep Santa Monica White.”
Eventually she remarried Douglas H. May, a black waiter at a Santa Monica’s hotel, a union which produced three sons, Harry, Henry, and Sam, and a daughter, Nan. While the Depression hit everyone, the caste system held fast as the children endured racial slurs on their way to an ethnically mixed elementary school in Santa Monica comprised of Caucasians, Asians, Hispanics and African Americans. The school reflected the social pecking order of the day, for a curriculum included reading about the exploits of Little Black Sambo. Part of the health regime was the application of kerosene to prevent the influx of lice, a common problem of that era and one Freda didn’t agree with. When she came in to confer with the school nurse, it quickly escalated into verbal disrespect on the nurse’s part, and Freda responded by cold cocking the red haired, six foot tall Irish woman. This resulted in criminal charges being filed but when Freda was brought before the court, the collaboration of a sympathetic judge and the white people who employed her succeeded in getting the charges dropped.
In the aftermath of World War II, Blacks still struggled with an abrasive environment throughout the ‘50s and the ‘60s up to the eve of the landmark 1965 Watts Riots, when the family lived on Cimmaron Street between Venice and Washington Boulevards. By this time both Freda and Nan were employed at the Westwood Veterans Hospital. When the riots kicked off, Freda was adamant about staying in her apartment, but her children were busy making other arrangements, especially her son Henry who’d been given instructions by the local Black Panthers to move his white girlfriend out of the area-or else. The rest of the family were amused as Henry drove through the city to a relative’s house in the San Fernando Valley, the girlfriend in the backseat hugging the floor so no one could see a black man sharing an automobile with a white woman. The family then watched the riot as it played out on the television.
Immediately following that land mark event, Freda and her Veteran Administration co-workers kept busy assisting injured returning Vietnam War veterans in their recovery from the amputations, burns, and other mutilations associated with the conflict in Indo-China. Her subsequent employment included stints at the Post Office, and again as a nurse in the hospital and in home care until her retirement in the 1970s. By the time of the 1992 riots, the family had moved a few blocks away to Gramercy Place, but still within the confines of Venice and Washington Boulevards. Along the way, she witnessed the election of a black mayor, and the transformation of Los Angeles into a global metropolis. Acknowledging that the current generation has much more in the way of opportunities then blacks of her age group did, she believes that young people today are primarily preoccupied with accumulating worldly possessions, and subsequently neglect their religious teachings and the moral foundations.
Johnnie Cochran Sr. still going strong
Keeps Johnnie Cochran Jr.’s legacy alive
By Shirley Hawkins
OW Staff Writer
It takes a monumental human being to raise a giant on the national stage, but Johnnie Cochran Sr., 91, shrugs modestly when asked about his late son, the acclaimed lawyer Johnnie Cochran Jr.
The eyes of the elder Cochran twinkle with pride as he recalls his celebrated son, who stunned the world when he died of a brain tumor at the age of 67 in March of 2005. As he strolls in front of a huge life-size portrait of his offspring that graces the fireplace of his spacious, sun dappled Los Feliz home, the elder Cochran recalls that he tried to instill in the young Cochran the importance of the company he kept and tried to provide him with a good moral background. “I tried to bring Johnnie up in a good environment and help him to choose good friends. Children’s friends will have far more influence than parents, and so I made sure that Johnnie chose good friends,” Cochran recalls.
Both Cochrans were born on October 20, and his Johnnie Jr. were devout Christians who hailed from Shreveport, Louisiana. The elder Cochran also revealed that he kept his son in church and in prayer. “My wife and I brought Johnnie up in the Second Baptist Church,” said Cochran, referring to one of the oldest black Baptist churches in Los Angeles.
Cochran said that his son’s desire to become a lawyer blossomed as a child. “Johnnie told us he wanted to be a lawyer from the time he was about nine years old, even though his mother wanted him to become a doctor,” Cochran chuckles. “Thurgood Marshall was Johnnie’s idol. Johnnie wanted to be just like Thurgood.”
During his lifetime, Johnnie more than surpassed that goal. Often referred to as the ‘Thurgood Marshall of his era,’ Johnnie went on to win a number of landmark victories and achieve several ‘firsts’ in the legal world.
Johnnie joined the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office in 1978 as the first African American Assistant District Attorney. Five years later, Cochran opened the Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. law firm.
As his career in law took off, Cochran won a number of groundbreaking decisions against official misconduct within the criminal justice system. There was Leonard Deadwyler, a black motorist stopped for speeding to the hospital with his pregnant wife, then shot dead by police; and Ron Settles, a black college football star whose death was rumored to be at the hands of police and was made to look like suicide. And then there was the record $9.4-million-dollar jury verdict he won for a 13-year-old Latina girl molested by a uniformed LAPD officer. Cochran fought to change police procedures responsible for blatant abuse by those sworn to “protect and serve.”
Johnnie would later open The Cochran Firm, a law firm specializing in personal injury cases which has grown through mergers and partnerships to have offices in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Tennessee, Texas and Washington, D. C.
Many recall Johnnie’s well-honed rhetoric and flamboyance in the courtroom that often left jurors, judges and witnesses mesmerized. He went on to defend former NFL great O. J. Simpson, who was accused of killing his wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman, Nicole’s friend. He also defended pop star Michael Jackson against child molestation charges, a case which was settled out of court. But according to the elder Cochran, Johnnie was most proud of winning the release of former Black Panther Geronimo Pratt. “My son worked to get Pratt’s release for 27 years,” recalls Cochran, who said that Pratt and Johnnie remained lifelong friends. “He told me that that was the ‘happiest day’ of his legal practice.”
Cochran Sr. who was a district manager and trainer with Golden State Life Mutual Insurance for 36 years, said that he would often talk to his son late into the night about many of his cases. “He asked me if he should take on the O. J. Simpson case, and I said yes,” recalls Cochran. After trying on the infamous black glove allegedly used in the killings that was broadcast from the courtroom to witnesses all around the world, Johnnie would rise to national prominence after uttering one of the most widely quoted lines in recent times, “If it don’t fit, you must acquit.”
“Johnnie loved people,” his father remembers, who said he still receives phone calls, letters and requests about Johnnie. “He was passionate about justice. He was a champion about justice for all people.”
Reflecting on the Democratic race and candidate Barak Obama, Cochran smiles. “It seems to me that Obama and Johnnie were cut from the same cloth,” nods Cochran. “Although I like both of the Democratic candidates, I think it’s phenomenal that Obama is in the race. He’s an unusual person, and he is certainly qualified to run for president of the country.”
The elder Cochran smiles a sweet, melancholy smile as he reflects back on his son’s remarkable life. Reminiscing about the celebrated attorney who defended rich and poor alike, Cochran recalls a quote that Johnnie was fond of repeating: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Leon Garr, pioneer of construction
‘Ownership’ and ‘keep it in the family’
By Shirley Hawkins
OW Staff Writer
When it comes to the construction business in Los Angeles, there’s one name that will inevitably be mentioned in conversation--Leon Garr.
Regarded as one of the icons in the building and construction trades, 93-year-old Garr has enjoyed five decades as a contractor and home builder.
The businessman’s investments in motels, apartment buildings and childcare centers have made him a multi-millionaire. But not only has Garr exhibited incredible entrepreneurial acumen, but he is a staunch supporter of community service and activism.
Garr’s journey started as a child of hard-working farmers in Ruston, La. Born on March 23, 1914, Garr was a sickly child who only completed the third grade. But despite the obstacles, Garr soon demonstrated a fierce drive and keen determination to succeed.
“My daddy always told me to try to do for myself,” recalls Garr, who saved enough money to purchase a train ticket and travel to Los Angeles in January, 1943.
“I always liked building things,” stated Garr, who co-founded Coast Construction and Building Company, a small construction business in 1958 with a partner, Nathan Hill.
But African American construction companies were still a rare commodity in Los Angeles and Garr recalled that discrimination was rampant in the construction trades. “When I was starting out, the field of construction was very hard for black people,” said Garr, who added that at the time there were only a handful of African American construction owners. “We were only able to acquire small construction jobs, so I saved my money until I was able to purchase construction bonds. This would allow me to work on larger jobs.”
Garr said that during the fledgling years of his business, he had to resort to hiring Spanish, Jewish and white salesmen to go out into the field and acquire construction jobs. “As soon as I strolled onto the construction site, inevitably one of the white guys would turn around and see me on the site and say, ‘Who’s that guy?’ And someone would say, ‘He’s the boss.’ White folks couldn’t believe that a black man was actually the boss,” Garr chuckled. “I lost jobs and a few white employees quit on me because I was black, so for a while I just stayed in the background.”
When Hill passed away in 1963, Garr renamed his company Leon Garr Construction Company.
With his keen business acumen and with the help of his son, Frederick, Garr turned his construction company into a thriving empire. Garr Construction was soon building houses in Baldwin Hills, Brentwood, West Los Angeles and Willowbrook.
Garr Construction has built duplexes, apartment buildings, strip malls, and even college buildings--Grambling College in Louisiana has felt the Garr Midas touch as well as a child care center at Costa Mesa College, which bears a plaque that pays tribute to Garr’s contribution.
A staunch believer in community and family, Garr also constructed the Garr Childcare Centers, the Leon Garr Elderly Home, and Salon 5017 (formerly the Leon and Mattie Garr Foundation Community Center). His daughter, Ranza Trotter, is the founder of Garr Academy of Mathematics and Entrepreneurial Studies at 51st Street and Western Avenue. Daughter Carolyn, is the owner of Cleophus Oliver Learning Academy; and son, Frederick Garr, is president of Garr Construction.
“I believe in trying to keep the business in the family,” maintained Garr. “I’m trying to train my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to take over the businesses.”
To help young people further their education, Garr founded the Leon and Mattie Garr Foundation that annually awards scholarships to preschool and high school students.
In the ‘90s, Garr made a foray from construction into banking when he was approached about buying Founder’s National Bank. The bank grew out of the collapse of a black-owned savings and loan, Founders Federal Savings & Loan Association.
Garr invested several million dollars in 1990 to purchase Founders and approached his grandson, Carlton Jenkins, a banker with 15 years of experience, to become partner and manager. The team was joined by a group of outside investors, including Kelly, a former executive director of the National Bankers Association, which invested additional funds. Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) loaned the group $2 million to complete the deal.
For several years, Garr served as president and chief executive officer of Founders, whose name was changed to One United Bank and now has five branches in Los Angeles and several throughout the country.
The community has not overlooked this indefatigable 93-year-old. Garr has been awarded numerous plaques, awards and accolades for his entrepreneurial spirit and service to his community.
He has also served as an inspiration for dozens of fledgling African American business owners who benefited from Garr’s encouragement and sound business advice.
Charlie Jones, 77, president of Thrifty Truck Parts who has known Garr for 36 years, said that Garr was instrumental in helping him with his business. “He lent me money to start my business,” Jones recalled. “And he’s given me invaluable business advice over the years that I still use to this day.”
But Garr said he is most proud of the fact that he never abandoned the community. “People have come up and said to me, ‘Why do you stay in the community? You could do better somewhere else.’ But I never felt that way--I always believed in building the community up.”
Garr said he has always tried to lend a helping hand to others in business and in life. “I try to help people,” Garr said simply. “I try to do things for the community. If you work together, you can always go further.”
In fact, helping people is never far from his mind. “We as a people have got to learn to help each other, because it seems as if we don’t try to help each other at all,” observed Garr. “We need to help each other start our own businesses.”
Survive and thrive
Retired postal worker says the secret is basic
By Cynthia E. Griffin
OW Staff Writer
Life has been good to Charles Richard Anderson. He stayed married to the love of his life nearly 60 years. He promoted to a high-ranking position in the United States Postal Service, and during World War II, when most of the black fighting units were led by white officers, the 94-year-old Los Angeles resident—who celebrated his 28th birthday on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor—not only graduated from the army’s integrated Officer’s Candidate School but was put in charge of a platoon in the all-black 93rd Division.
His World War sojourn took him to Papua, New Guinea, the Northern Solomon Island, Morotai and the Philippines. In Papua, Anderson said African American soldiers were not allowed to come into contact with the islanders, who were working in a “share cropping like system” and wore “afros.”
What Anderson particularly remembers about the South Pacific theater were the monsoon rains, and the nearly 200 men he led sleeping in tents and slipping and sliding in mud up to their angles. He also recalls an occasion, when he and his troops “gained access” to the fine mahogany General McAurthur was using to build his house on Philippines and using that wood walking planks to escape the mud.
Anderson did not take his good fortune for granted. He is a life-time member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and with his late wife Catherine was active in battles to end discrimination in Los Angeles.
Anderson also used his participation in the NAACP to help him indulge in one of his favorite past times—traveling.
“We went to all the NAACP conventions—Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans and Pittsburgh,” said the former postal worker who joined the civil rights organization in 1948.
“We’ve been to every major city in the United States and toured the Caribbean, Venezuela and Puerto Rico,” said Anderson about the jaunts he and his wife took.
On one of his trips, Anderson said he was fortunate enough to visit his grandfather in Georgia.
“My grandfather lived to be 103, and he was born a slave. He was the offspring of the master and a slave woman. And he remembered Sherman marching through Atlanta. He was about 19 years old at the time.
“He was quite a man,” continued Anderson about Richard Lige Anderson. “He came into his father’s land, and as the only boy in a family of 10, pledged to his father that he would take care of his sisters.”
Anderson said his grandfather eventually took over his father’s business which included selling coal and corded wood.
“They told me a story about him. One of his employees had supposedly insulted someone, and a posse came to the business to get him. My grandfather pulled out his gun, and said ‘the first one who steps across this line is a dead man, and I’ll get at least two of you before you get me.’”
Anderson remembers saying to his grandfather that he must have been brave, “He said ‘ I was scared out of my wits but they didn’t know it.’”
Like many of the early Los Angeles residents, Anderson migrated in 1924 from the south (Atlanta, Georgia) to the city of Angeles with his family in search of a better life. Along the way, Anderson’s father, a bartender, was able to shelter his children from the harsh realities of segregation by traveling in a drawing room car that had its own dining car.
The second youngest of six children, he graduated from Jefferson High school and one of his earliest jobs was working as a footman for a gangster friend of notorious Los Angeles Mayor George Edward Cryer. Then he began working at the post office. A four-year stint in the army temporarily interrupted his postal work, but he returned after serving in the war.
He continued to rise through the postal ranks until retiring in 1973 as superintendent of a station.
And from that time he has just enjoyed life by improving on his home, traveling and serving his church—Second Baptist.
His key to long life is simple: “Like my father and grandfather, I just survived.”
Watts resident keeps on steppin’at 107
By Cynthia E. Griffin
OW Staff Writer
It is hard to believe that Ruth Williams will be 107 years old on her next birthday Feb. 14.
Her nut brown face has surprisingly few wrinkles and she moves around with the agility of a much, much younger person. Although her hearing and sight are not what they used to be, her sharp mind and sense of humor remain very much in evidence.
“I was born in 1901 on February 14 in Hawkinsville, Georgia, and I left when I was not quite 10 years old,” said the Los Angeles resident seated on a black vinyl pillow in her home, surrounded by the Raggedy Ann and Barbie dolls she loves to collect.
Williams and her family moved to Boley, Oklahoma, one of the black historical townships. They were looking for a better life, said Williams who was the youngest of three siblings, and the only one still alive today.
Boley was founded in 1903 and drew people like Williams and her family who were looking to escape the oppression of the South. The migration of blacks from the south to these black towns crested between 1890 and 1910. The Williams family came on the tail end of the wave.
Williams, who grew up on a farm, said she stayed in Boley about 20 years, and then like many people left in the 1930s chased away by the Great Depression.
Williams relocated in Vado, New Mexico, again searching for a better life.
After a 25-year stint in the Land of Enchantment, she moved to California where she has lived for more than 50 years.
“When I first came to California, things were really different. . . It was nice and quiet and like a home and family atmosphere. But now you can live next to your neighbors and never know their name.”
In California, Williams and her husband initially lived in the San Fernando Valley, and she was the housekeeper for a 15-room house in Encino.
The mother of five (one deceased son, one living son and three daughters) points upward, when asked the secret of her long life.
And religion is definitely a vital part of her life. Williams’ church home is First A.M.E., and she began attending, when it was located at Eighth and Town streets.
She taught Sunday school there for two years before “stepping aside to let everybody have a chance.”
In addition to sewing and crocheting, Williams said her hobbies include cooking, growing plants and gardening. She was also actively involved in the Masons with St. Joseph Grand Lodge.
Williams, who does not smoke or drink, also loves to keep active. She is a member of the Watts Senior Citizen center which is planning to hold a party on her 107th birthday, as well as the St. Raphael Senior Citizen. And she loves to play the casinos.
“Why stay home, sit down and do nothing? Go out there and be with (people). I really enjoy going to the casinos. If I hit, okay. If I don’t hit, okay,” said Williams whose favorite gambling and people watching spot is the Goldstrike at the state line between Nevada and California.
Williams said on her birthday this year, she will do what she has always done: “Give thanks to my Maker; that’s all I know to do.”