Seeing black-history sites Excursion: In Los Angeles and elsewhere, special-interest tours are revealing a cultural legacy seldom found in books.

July 26, 1998|By Adam Pertman | Adam Pertman,BOSTON GLOBE

An elegant granite wall stands in a courtyard behind a large parking structure, a couple of fast-food restaurants and a local bank in the heart of the Los Angeles business district. The artist's engravings on the monument relate a compelling bit of American history about a woman's perseverance and intelligence, about her rise from destitution to wealth.

Most schools don't teach anything about Biddie Mason's life or achievements, however, and her monument isn't listed in most guidebooks about the attractions of Los Angeles. To learn the extraordinary story of this freed slave and businesswoman, you have to reserve a seat on a tour bus.

"I try to show things about the city that people don't even know exist," says Kenneth Perkins, who began his Historical Black Los Angeles Tours three years ago, after receiving glowing reports from a group of local middle-school students who traveled to Memphis, Tenn., for a similar excursion.

"What my tour tries to do is what that one in Tennessee does so well," says the 45-year-old travel agent. "It gives black people pride in a history most of them don't know much about, if anything, and it gives everybody else an understanding that we have a history here at all."

Perkins estimates that about 1,000 customers, about half of them African-American, have already taken his three- to four-hour tour. He draws his customers mainly from church groups, organizations for the elderly and schools in the Los Angeles area, but tourists from around the world have also plunked down $27.50 each to see an unusual array of sites.

Clearly, tours that focus on more famous places in California, like Disneyland or Hollywood or Universal Studios, attract far more people. But there appears to be a growing market for special-interest trips like those offered by Perkins; in addition to those already mentioned, organized tours to black historical sites and related points of interest are being offered in other cities across the country.

In Los Angeles, Perkins takes his groups to Sugar Hill, a small district full of lovely, large houses and mansions - nearly all of them decaying. This area preceded Beverly Hills as the city's home for the rich and famous, and it became the trendy place to live for wealthy and famous blacks in the 1930s.

Perkins also rides through a three-block piece of L.A. that used to be called "the Island." It's a neat neighborhood of small, wood-frame houses just west of downtown, in which a closely knit group of blacks lived in the late 1800s, surrounded on all sides by whites.

In Sugar Hill, he points out the one-time residences of actors like Butterfly McQueen of "Gone With the Wind" and Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Academy Award. A few minutes later, he shows the modest, two-bedroom house where Dr. Ralph Bunche, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, grew up , Perkins says his objective is to place as little stress as possible on the discrimination that blacks endured, though he does allude to it, and to focus instead on those who saw openings and succeeded despite the odds.

That's why he shows so many of the buildings designed by Paul Revere Williams, who became California's first black architect in 1915 and who designed nearly 3,000 structures, including the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, the county courthouse and estates once inhabited by stars such as Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Lon Chaney.

He speaks with pride about every stop on his tour - from the dilapidated home (now being renovated) where the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ got its humble start in 1906 to the Dunbar Hotel in South Central Los Angeles, built in 1928 by a Jamaican immigrant named John Alexander Somerville, who was the first black graduate of the University of Southern California. But Perkins makes no attempt to disguise which stop is his favorite.

"Biddie Mason is my hero, and she'd be a lot of other people's hero, too, if they knew about her," says Perkins, who offers the black Los Angeles excursions through his company, which is called KEP Tours and is based in nearby Lakewood. He runs the tours regularly each February, during Black History Month, and periodically throughout the year whenever he can put together a group of at least six.

Mason was born into slavery in 1818, in Mississippi. In California, one of her daughters fell in love with a successful African-American businessman, who instigated a suit that led to Mason's family being released from servitude in 1856. California was a free state at the time.

Working as a nurse and a midwife, Mason saved about $250 over the next decade and used the money to buy swampy land south of what was then the business center of Los Angeles. By the time she died in 1890, the three-block area she owned had become the core of the city's financial district, and she had grown very wealthy.

"I certainly never learned about people like her in school," says Ponchita Jubilee-Smith, a longtime resident of Southern California whose college degree was in history. "It would be nice, of course, for black L.A. to be part of the standard city tour."

BEFORE YOU GO

For more information: KEP Tours, 5150 Candlewood St., Suite 16F, Lakewood, Calif. 90712; 213-774-8510.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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