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Urban League honors the builders of L.A.


In 1921, Los Angeles was a young city trying to carve out its place in a world that was rapidly industrializing. It was also a mecca for people of different races, ethnicities and visions.

That included African Americans who left the South in droves seeking a life free of segregation, racism and bigotry. Unfortunately, some of the Whites who perpetuated those ideas and practices also moved West, and Blacks formed organizations in order to fight for their rights.

The Tuskegee Industrial Welfare League was one such group organized in April 1921 by African American dentist Dr. A.C. Garrott and Katherine J. Barr, its first executive secretary.

In June 1921, the Tuskegee Industrial Welfare League merged with the National Urban League and became known as the Los Angeles Urban League with Barr as its first president.

More than 90 years later, the L.A. Urban League is still going strong and will tell its story as well as honor 90 people who have had a significant impact on how Los Angeles has grown and developed as a city.

The Urban League will do all of this in an exhibit that opens Dec. 13 and continues through Feb. 28 at the Museum of African American Art, located on the third floor of Macy’s at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall.

Called “The 90 that Built LA,” the exhibit features artifacts, photos, artwork, video and more from the honorees, as well as historical information on the league.

“Forty to 45 of the honorees are recipients of our Whitney M. Young Jr. award,” explained L.C. “Chris” Strudwick-Turner of the Urban League. The balance were people nominated by the community and selected by an exhibition committee that consisted of representatives from the Urban League, title sponsor Time Warner Cable, DreamWorks Studios, the Museum and others.

“It was hard to keep it to 90,” remembers Strudwick-Turner with a laugh. “I don’t think we’ll ever really complete the list. People have been asking me if so-and-so was on the list, and if they weren’t I got an earful. But we were really trying to stick to our theme and keep it at 90.”

Those included on the list range from well-known celebrities like Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr. to unsung heroes like Alexander and Vada Somerville, both Black, USC-trained dentists who built the Dunbar Hotel.

Originally called the Hotel Somerville, the Dunbar Hotel was built in 1928 on Central Avenue, then the center of L.A.’s Black community. Luxuriously appointed, it hosted the first convention of the NAACP held on the West Coast.

The creme de la creme of Black society stayed there and played in the nightclub that opened in the building.

The honorees in the exhibit come from all walks of society, including the arts, entertainment, technology, housing, religious, computer science, finance, health, safety, politics, civic service, education, sports and business.

In addition to pioneers and early pathmakers, Strudwick-Turner says the exhibit features younger people like Charisse Bremond-Weaver of the Brotherhood Crusade and Marqueece Harris-Dawson of the Community Coalition, who are making their marks on Los Angeles today.

The exhibit kicks off with a opening night VIP reception Dec. 12, and is expected to include a number of activities such as school tours, discussions, a special program during King Week in January, as well as publication of a commemorative book.

“We want them to walk away from the exhibit with a much better understanding of the breadth and depth of not only how African Americans have helped shape the Los Angeles we know today (contributions that have been significant), but also an understanding of all type of diverse communities and people who have come together to make this one of the most diverse places in the world that works,” said Strudwick-Turner.

And for the young people, the exhibit is an opportunity to learn history they never hear about in school, added the Urban League executive.