During their first century in America, there was no such thing as welfare, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, General Relief, Social Security or other such government programs designed to help people of African descent survive.
It was either do-it-yourself effort or get a little help from family and/or friends. As Black communities continued to mature, they followed the example of Whites and began to create mutual aid or benevolent societies. In their early years, these groups provided members with opportunities and protections in a racially hostile environment.
According to Daniel Acker in his paper, “African American Mutual Aid Societies in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries,” presented at the annual meeting of the 94th annual convention of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, during the first 50 to 75 years after emancipation these societies were second only in importance to the Black church.
Most of the mutual aid societies were organized to help African Americans bury their dead. But there were also a number that went much further. For example, the True Reformers and St. Luke’s Society helped people buy property and open businesses.
The Working Benevolent Society Hospital, first known as St. Luke Colored Hospital in South Carolina and founded in 1928, was described as “one of the most modern institutions in the South for Colored People.” It featured 22 private and semi-private rooms spread out across three wards.
Like African American communities around the nation, Los Angeles had its share of philanthropic organizations and individuals whose goal was to help “better the race.”
One of the earliest and perhaps best known of those is Bridget “Biddy” Mason, who traveled from Mississippi by way of the Utah Territory to the San Bernardino County area and won freedom for herself and her children through the courts.
After freedom, she and her daughters lived with a prominent African American family–the Owens. Her daughter, Ellen, would later marry Charles Owens, who along with his friend Manuel Pepper helped Mason obtain her freedom.
Drawing on her training in slavery, Mason began working as a nurse and midwife. Then utilizing knowledge gained in part from the Owens family, according some, she began buying property in downtown Los Angeles. Some of the money earned from her real estate holdings was used to provide funding to various charities.
Additionally, she also fed and sheltered the poor and visited prisons. Mason was instrumental in building a travelers aid center and elementary school for African American children.
The former slave also became a founding member of the First African American Methodist Church in 1872 and donated the land on which the church was built–Eighth and Towne streets.
Sidney P. Dones
Real estate broker and philanthropist Sidney P. Dones took the advice his parents gave him in Marshall, Texas–“help others to help yourself”–and let it pay big dividends in his life.
After leaving Wiley College, he arrived in Los Angeles about 1912, opened a real estate office on the corner of Fourth Street and Central Avenue. He also worked as a janitor at Manual Arts High School, earning 25 cents an hour. According to a Negro Who’s Who in California, Dones was always ready to assist in the betterment of the race. This included helping other Black realtors get into business, and giving to worthy causes. He reportedly donated “many thousands of dollars” to child welfare organizations and to aid in the fight to combat venereal disease.
While Dones was making his mark on Black Los Angeles, another couple who graduated from the USC School of Dentistry would use both their professional abilities and their business acumen to invest in the community.
Jamaican-born John Somerville entered USC School of Dentistry in 1903, and after graduating first in his class ended up marrying USC co-ed Vada Watson. She would go on to become the first African American woman licensed to practice dentistry in the state of California.
During the course of their lives in the city, the Somervilles built the Somerville Hotel, now called the Dunbar Hotel, which would play host to the first West Coast convention of the NAACP. In fact, the Los Angeles chapter of the then-fledgling organization was started in the Somerville’s home.
Vada was a founder of the National Council of Negro Women chapter in Los Angeles and a charter member and first president of the L.A. chapter of the Links Inc. Through their memberships in a myriad of community organizations, the couple advocated for more women to study dentistry; and provided dental education to the community. And when he was denied accommodations at hotels while traveling, John built the Hotel Somerville. He also constructed the first modern apartment building occupied by African Americans in the western United States and called it the LaVada Apartments.
The people mentioned are just the tip of the historic Black L.A. philanthropic iceberg, and some of those continuing in existence today, including the Sojourner Truth Club, and the L.A. chapter of the Links Inc.