During what feels like a precarious moment for local newspapers, it’s perversely thrilling to imagine a time when their impact was as tangible as the elegant, hulking machinery that printed them. An exhibition resurrecting a century-old niche publication might normally attract historians, journalists and others who harbor stubborn ardor for the printed word. But in this case, The Liberator — a publication that helped shape black Los Angeles through both hyperlocal community building and the vision of something more expansive and profound — also mirrors a certain jaunty, enterprising spirit that millennials will find familiar, in a new era of radical transitions.
The California African American Museum’s “The Liberator: Chronicling Black Los Angeles 1900-1914,” locates the paper, and the city, in the broader context of the post-Reconstruction era, when the brutal realities of a Jim Crow South were setting in, and at a pivotal moment just before the Great Migration. Its founder, Jefferson Lewis Edmonds, who was born into slavery, spun a portrait of California as a place where African-Americans could prosper, own handsome homes and start businesses, vote, endorse candidates and otherwise realize citizenship without as great a threat of violence, injustice and oppression as that which defined existence in the South.
That this city’s fledgling black community would increase exponentially in the beginning of the 20th century (from around 2,000 in 1900 to 7,599 in 1910, and to more than 18,000 by 1920) is attributable to the broader sweep of industrialization and westward migration (railroads! gold!), as the exhibition makes clear. (For earlier context, see the powerful “California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848-1865,” in an adjacent gallery). But in recording the small triumphs — graduations, home acquisitions, shop openings — alongside the grander political milestones, Edmonds both reflected and catalyzed a thriving community. CAAM gives his boosterism a warranted closer look with a thoughtful collection of archives, contemporaneous ephemera, photography and the original California Jobber printing press itself.
As CAAM’s history curator, making somewhat distant pasts relevant to a young audience is often on Tyree Boyd-Pates' mind. “I realized what [Edmonds] was doing was trailblazing,” Boyd-Pates tells the Weekly. “But he was also doing what I feel black millennials are doing in this city all the time — trying to locate different avenues of how to connect to the larger city.” He spoke to us from a quiet corner, away from the jubilance of CAAM’s seasonal opening party, which is pretty much the most fun you’re ever allowed to have in a museum.
“I feel like black people in Los Angeles, because we don’t have central hubs any longer, due to gentrification and other issues, we’re always seeking to find how the city has worked for others,” Boyd-Pates continues. “As an historian I was like, this is social media, in the past; I know social media today, and I know the principles [Edmonds] is trying to evoke with self-determination.”
It was by chance he overheard Arianne Edmonds, the great-great-granddaughter of Jefferson Edmonds who became a co-curator of the exhibition along with Boyd-Pates and a third co-curator, Taylor Bythewood-Porter, speaking about her family legacy at a networking event for black millennials.
“I just pitched her. I thought, ‘I need to do an exhibition,’” Boyd-Pates says. Referring to the Los Angeles Public Library’s efforts to digitize the entire archive, he adds, “How great would it be to not only have it digitized but have it live in the very community that Jefferson Edmonds and the black Angelenos he was chronicling lived in, 100 years later?”
About a decade ago, Arianne Edmonds was living on the East Coast, pondering topics for a grad school personal essay, when she remembered her grandfather telling her about The Liberator. He died when she was 10, and no one talked much about Jefferson. “When I started doing research and found all these books, articles … I thought, how come no one talks about this? I’m in the library, I’m crying. I talked to my dad — he was like, ‘Yeah, we still have the paper. It’s at my house,’” she said, recalling his unbothered tone.
CAAM had done a show in the 1980s, but the history mostly lived tucked away in Edmonds’ grandmother’s house. “No one told stories. They have images, that’s it. So I kind of went on this deep-dive search to figure out who he was.”
In a way, Jefferson Edmonds’ trajectory crisply outlines the tragedy of Reconstruction: Following emancipation, he was educated in Freedmen’s Bureau schools before serving in the Mississippi state legislature — a glimmer of promise before Jim Crow — but ultimately fled with his family due to threats of violence. The significance of black enterprise in editing and publishing here can’t really be overstated; just a few decades prior, anti-literacy laws criminalized the education of slaves in nearly every Southern state.
“I realized my family, all of us, whether we were teachers or worked with the city or with nonprofits, we all did the same work he did like five, six generations later,” Arianne Edmonds says. “So he kind of set a precedent for us.”
Reading century-old headlines is a kind of excavation, and coverage on view ranges from deceptively quaint local features like “The Negro Woman in Los Angeles and Vicinity — Some Notable Characters” to national issues such as “32 Cents per Capita for the Education of Negro Children; $15 for White Children” — inviting comparisons with present-day realities. An article promoting Susie Edmonds, the paper’s proofreader and the “only colored girl” in the Times scholarship contest, offers this gem: “Being a working girl she has been unable to give to the contest the time it deserves.” Elsewhere, “The Commercial Opportunity of the Negro” looked to Jews as an example of how a persecuted minority might command political and civil recognition via material success (now, it can hardly be read without a queasy foreshadowing):
“By pulling together racially the Jew built his commercial life so strong that he has become an almost controlling factor in many business centers. … The Jew disarmed his enemies and increased his friends by the path of gold. A rather materialistic method for political and civil freedom, to be sure, but a near-cut way no doubt, in a rather materialistic world.” With a “mighty constituency,” the article argued, African-Americans were similarly, even better positioned, to create economic opportunity. “The Negro can succeed commercially among his own people — he has the numbers. … He is the best common labor the world knows, free from strikes and lockouts. This country is dependent upon Negro labor. This makes the Negro independent.”
If there could be a sunny side to the historic racial exclusion of labor unions, or the long exploitation of black labor, it may live here, in this vital optimism for seedlings of the American Dream, for capitalism, for the logical promise of fair wages, civil rights and social justice; for the idea that the sludge of history can be taken on with industrious effort, confidence and determination. It feels bittersweet, and familiar, even if current discourse is more concerned with factors that have impeded such progress. Arianne Edmonds’ generation may have the benefit of hindsight, but The Liberator still offers fresh wisdom.
“I think there’s been some hard truths, combing through this archive,” Edmonds says. “So much of what he was talking about we still experience today, from voter suppression to violence happening against black people in this country. But there’s also some things in his paper that we still do that are really powerful, like coming together in groups and spending time together, sharing, learning about each other’s lives. Jefferson was a big proponent of just having social groups. We can then kind of radicalize and work together, and fight policies that don’t necessarily support us,” she says.
Her great-great-grandfather’s work, she adds, “was really about laying the foundation of what black citizenship should look like. I feel like that’s a story we don’t talk a lot about — like it’s a generation that’s really lost when we talk about black history.”
Boyd-Pates also points to Jefferson Edmonds’ relatively early championing of gender equality and suffrage. “Today I think about this possibility of progress by this gentleman undergirds the need why we should [be concerned] with women’s agency today. I see the parallels. I’m an historian, so I have to. But I hope other people can see the similarities, too.”
The exhibition is on view through Sept. 8 at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park.
Curatorial walkthrough on Friday, April 19, at 1 p.m.; free.
Further related events take place on April 28 and June 8.