Jewish Histories in Multiethnic Boyle Heights

Coleman Flats: 205 N. Savannah

by Caroline Luce

  In 1887, Harriet and Green Owens moved to Los Angeles from Texas along with her son, John Wesley Coleman, his wife Lydia, and their first-born son. They arrived in a city undergoing its first real estate boom: sparked by the extension of the transcontinental railroad to the city and kindled by an aggressive promotional campaign, real estate speculation caught fire, resulting in an unprecedented number of new developments, suburban subdivisions, and tracts for sale. Having already owned a 160-acre ranch near Austin, the Owens-Coleman family seized the opportunity to purchase a 25-acre tract adjacent to one of the new suburban developments, Boyle Heights, on the eastern edge of the city limits, where they built a family homestead.

The Owens-Coleman homestead was just yards from Evergreen Cemetery, which had opened a decade earlier after some controversy. A privately-funded venture led by real estate developer Albert H. Judson–whose Brooklyn Land and Building Company had opened a 105-acre subdivision in 1875 called Brooklyn Heights adjacent to the eponymously named Brooklyn Avenue (now César Chávez Ave.)–the City Council initially tried to stop the development, but dropped its opposition after Evergreen’s developers agreed to reserve five acres on the site for a “potter’s field” for the burial of indigent, unclaimed, or unknown residents of the city. Lusciously landscaped, with ornate gates and an on-site chapel and crematory, Evergreen Cemetery became the city’s finest, eventually prompting the Hebrew Benevolent Society and others to relocate their cemeteries from Elysian Park. But, owed to prevailing myths associated with disease and dead bodies, its presence there may also have given rise to the impression that the area surrounding the Owens-Coleman homestead was “undesirable territory,” deterring would-be homebuyers from settling nearby.1

To Harriet Owens (later Owens-Bynum), that reluctance presented an opportunity. As one account described, she believed landownership to be crucial to the advancement of African Americans, holding the potential for not only financial stability and the accumulation of wealth but also civic participation and good citizenship. After learning that Black folks in Los Angeles, particularly “the poor class of colored laborers,” had trouble getting a “square deal” from local real estate agents, she negotiated an arrangement with the real estate agent from whom she had purchased her family’s tract to become an “agent among her people” and coordinate sales of tracts in the area near Evergreen. The arrangement enabled the family to expand their holdings and for some sixty-five Black families to purchase homes in the decades that followed. And soon, Harriet Owens-Bynum’s real estate business reached a scale rivaled only by the city’s most prominent African American citizen and landowner, Biddy Mason.2

Owens-Bynum’s real estate ventures overlapped with her active leadership in her church, known as Second Baptist. Founded in 1885, the congregation became a spiritual home for Black Baptists like Mrs. Owens-Bynum whose faith traditions differed from both the city’s white Baptist congregations and the city’s only African American church at the time, First A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Church (f. 1872). As the first female officer of the church, Mrs. Owens-Bynum’s financial savvy helped to raise funds for the fledgling congregation to establish its first church building on Maple Avenue downtown in 1892 and, as the city’s Black population grew, she helped to expand the congregation and to recruit a new, nationally-renowned pastor, Rev. Dr. Thomas L. Griffith, in 1921. Under his leadership, Second Baptist mounted its most ambitious project yet: the erection of a new church building in the heart of the Central Avenue district. The congregation raised some $200,000 and hired renowned Black architect Paul R. Williams to design a large new church with seats for 2,000 people in stunning Romanesque revival style.3 After it opened in 1926, Second Baptist quickly became an important center for civil rights activism in Los Angeles, hosting the national convention of the NAACP in 1928 featuring a keynote address by W.E.B. DuBois, with Mrs. Owens-Bynum and her son undoubtedly in attendance. Known for her “dynamic personality,” Harriet Owens-Bynum applied her skills and acumen to both real estate and community-building, New Age Magazine describing her as, “a woman with great executive ability, a natural born financier and a good Christian worker of the old school.”4

Her son, John Wesley Coleman, also combined capitalism and community-building in his activities. A Graduate of the Tilleston Institute (now Houston-Tilloston University) Coleman worked as a driver, then as a porter for the Pullman Railroad Company, and later as an insurance agent, traveling frequently throughout the state and the region and forging relationships to Black communities in the process. Along with his wife Lydia, he then opened a downtown hostelry and furniture store and then, in 1907, leveraged the relationships he had formed to start his own employment agency to offer jobs and other assistance to black workers, later claiming the title of “Employment King of Los Angeles” for having placed 60,000 people in jobs on the Pacific Coast.5

These commercial activities coincided with his leadership of the Forum, a group founded by Black Angelenos in 1903 “for their advancement and to strengthen them along lines of moral, social, intellectual and financial and Christian ethics.” At town-hall style meetings, the leaders of the Forum discussed and debated what they deemed to be the major issues facing the Black community, such as the suppression of “dens of vice,” housing and education discrimination, and how to “keep new-comers to [the] city in the proper channel for its moral uplift,” and worked together to solve them. They raised money to help victims of the Atlanta Race Riots, offered scholarships for Black students to pursue higher education, and extended a helping hand to those in need, with Coleman himself often serving as a crucial broker owed to his personal and business connections. Coleman served two terms as President of the Forum, a deputy constable of Los Angeles County for fifteen years, and the only person of color to be elected to the Republican Party County Central Committee to represent Boyle Heights.6

Leveraging their personal and business ties, Owens-Bynum and Coleman together opened their own real estate venture near the family homestead called Coleman Flats. For just $1.50 per week (or $2 for couples), Black folks could rent their own furnished room complete with “electric lights and porcelain bath” as well as access to a shared kitchen, dining room, and parlor, all with easy streetcar access to the “heart of the city.” The building paired well with John Wesley Coleman’s other ventures, enabling him to offer both affordable housing and employment placement assistance to new arrivals to the city. The occupants listed in the 1920 Census, for example, included a couple from Michigan, a driver from Texas, a laborer from Tennessee, a laundryman from Georgia, and two packing house butchers and their wives. And, in combination with her other real estate ventures, it enabled Harriet Owens-Bynum to place dozens of Black families as renters in the neighborhood. By the 1920s, the Black community in the area surrounding the original Owens-Coleman homestead had grown from a dozen families to over one hundred, nearly half of whom owned their homes.7 And while the Owens-Coleman family worshiped elsewhere, Black residents of Boyle Heights had also built their own church on East First Street known as Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist just a few blocks from Coleman Flats, which became a center for Black social and community life in the neighborhood.

Coleman continued to expand his real estate ventures in the years that followed, opening a pleasure resort in Lake Elsinore (Riverside County) called Hotel Coleman DeLuxe. As historian Alison Rose Jefferson documented, the resort offered “hot sulfur showers and baths, dining room, buffet, soda fountain, lunch counter, barber shop, bootblack stand, hairdressing parlor,” the ever-promotional Coleman claiming it was “the best (colored) hostelry and summer resort on the Pacific Coast.” The resort, Jefferson argues, also reflected Coleman’s “black radical vision”: an admirer of Booker T. Washington and, later, Marcus Garvey, Coleman believed strongly in Black self-reliance and self-determination; the Hotel deLuxe, like his other ventures, aimed to create economic opportunities by providing safe accommodations and morally-upstanding leisure activities to the growing Black community in Southern California.8

John Wesley Coleman passed away in September 1930, his employment agency, hotel, and other ventures closing in the years that followed. Harriet Owens-Bynum—then retired from the real estate business and in her eighties—outlived her son by three years, the family homestead on New Jersey passing on to new owners. But their presence in the neighborhood remains, as both mother and son as well as other relatives are buried in Evergreen Cemetery, just steps from the family homestead they established nearly half a century earlier.

1 "Survey LA Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey Report: Boyle Heights Community Plan Area,” City of Los Angeles, Department of City Planning, Office of Historic Resources, Dec. 30, 2014, 9. See also: Paul Spitzzeri, "Evergreen Cemetery: the First Corporate Cemetery in Los Angeles," Boyle Heights Historical Society Blog (2011). “Undesirable territory” appears in a description of the area from a 1936 dissertation, “The Negro in Los Angeles,” by Max Bond, as quoted in Douglas Flamming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 66; and George J. Sánchez, “Race and Immigration in Changing Communities: The Case for Boyle Heights,” in The Boyle Heights Oral History Project: Multiethnic and Collaborative Exploration of a Los Angeles Neighborhood (Japanese American National Museum, 2002), 14.

2 Delilah L. Beasley, “The Negro Trailblazers of California; a compilation of records from the California archives in the Bancroft Library at the University of California in Berkeley; and from the diaries, old papers, and conversations of old pioneers in the State of California" (Los Angeles, 1919), 244.

3 Teresa Grimes and Christina Chiang, Christopher A. Joseph & Associates (June 1, 2008). "National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for Second Baptist Church" (PDF). Accessed at LA Conservancy.

4 Charlotta Bass, Forty Years, Memoirs From the Pages of a Newspaper (Los Angeles, CA: Published by Charlotta Bass, 1960), 23. New Age Magazine as appears in Beasley, "The Negro Trailblazers of California," 244.

5 Alison Rose Jefferson, “Leisure’s Race Power and Place: The recreation and Remembrance of African Americans in the California Dream” (PhD diss., UCSB, 2015), 301-303; Beasley, "The Negro Trailblazers of California," 137-138.

6 Ibid., 138. Beasley provided the specific example of Madam Sul-Te Wan, an actress and performer who, after being cast in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, fell on hard times, 239-240. See also: Alison Rose Jefferson, “Leisure’s Race Power and Place," 301-304; Theodore W. Troy, “The Forum,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1909; “J.W. Coleman,” California Eagle, June 24, 1916; “John Wesley Coleman and his Remarkable Career, Success and Contribution for a Better Citizenry,” California Eagle, December 21, 1923; “J.W. Coleman—Vice-Pres. UNIA,” California Eagle, December 26, 1924.

7 Population estimates and visualization created by Caroline Luce based on analysis of the census tracts surrounding the Owens-Coleman Homestead from the 1900 and 1920 Census. Because those tracts (enumeration districts) changed from year to year, the comparison is not exact, but rather an approximation. For the 1900 Census, see tracts: Ward 9–District 0088, Ward 9–District 0089, and Ward 9–District 0090. For the 1920 Census, see tracts: LA Assembly District 66–District 0250. Details on the facilities at Coleman Flats from an advertisement clipped from a newspaper shared with the author (source unknown).

8 Alison Rose Jefferson, Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2020), 122, 258; see also Alison Rose Jefferson, “Leisure’s Race Power and Place," 298-305.

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