by Paul R. Spitzzeri
We’ve come a long way in race relations in recent decades and there’s still a great deal further yet to go. Yet, improvements become more appreciated when we look back and see just how pervasive and endemic racism was during the 1830-1930 era interpreted by the Homestead.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s collection is a prominent example. On this day in 1929, the lawyers who constituted the membership of the Los Angeles Bar Association, gathered at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Building (briefly mentioned in yesterday’s post and formerly located at Broadway and 4th Street) for the group’s annual Christmas party. The object is the menu for the event and the attempt at humor in its creation is striking for its brazen stereotypical references to blacks.
Perhaps no one associated with the event or the association, an early iteration formed in 1878 soon floundered and was replaced by the current one (denoted a county bar these days) in 1888 at the end of the famed Boom of the Eighties, gave it a second thought. But, given how seemingly ingrained racism was, a reading of the menu’s contents is, by modern lights, a stunning display.
This is especially true because it comes from an entity whose 1928 president, Hubert T. Morrow, in The Bench and Bar of Los Angeles County, 1928-1929 proclaimed that it “can be of direct benefit to the public in making the administration of justice clean, responsive, prompt and effective.” He talked also of a “standard of service to the public,” and the need “to exemplify to public opinion” what the association could do
in bringing about equal and prompt justice, in preserving the rights of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution, and in maintaining respect for the law.
Printed on a dark red paper with silver lettering, the item innocuously is titled “Me’N’You Eats.” Then, in listing the courses, the document launches right in, starting with the Southern Fruit Cocktail and the asides “Watermelons in Moonshine” and “Black ones and sweet ones.” Given that Prohibition was a decade along, even if more than abundantly honored in the breach, it seems unlikely a group of barristers would publicly announce the use of liquor at a function, though who known what hip flasks were tucked away under the suit jackets that night.
Next was the offering of “Baked Flapper Alabama Style,” with a seemingly out-of-left field reference to stylish young women of the Roaring Twenties and its parenthetical of “Plenty of Dark Meat.” The entree was to be topped with “Mam[m]y’s Dressing,” but cautioned the legal fraternity present, “Don’t Peek!”
On the side were “The Vegetables get in a jam” and “Southern Salad,” including “Cornhusks and bacon grease,” while the “Hot Bread” was “a la Aunt Jemima’s Corns,” a more-than-awkward attempt at word play. Notably, we still have Aunt Jemima pancake and syrups, products that date back to 1889 and 1966, respectively, though the name goes back further to minstrel shows and an 1875 popular song. A look at the Aunt Jemima website includes attempts to repackage the use of its “mammy” image.
For example, it states that the character was “brought to life” by Nancy Green, who was born into slavery and was hired in 1890 when she was 56 to be the Aunt Jemima character. Her appearance at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 was such a success that she was offered a lifetime contact, which lasted until her death thirty years later at age 89.
A decade later, during which time Quaker Oats bought the product and after no one portrayed the character live, Anna Robinson did so at another well-known exposition in the Windy City. Robinson, whose likeness on the Aunt Jemima packaging lasted for decades and brought new levels of public relations reach for the character, continued in the role until she died in 1951. Next was Aylene Lewis, whose tenure included appearing as Aunt Jemima for a restaurant bearing that name at the newly opened Disneyland in 1955.
Recognizing the titanic shifts in race relations during the civil rights era, Quaker Oats put out ads featuring black families enjoying the pancake and syrup, but the biggest nod to rapidly changing times came at the end of the 1980s when “Aunt Jemima’s image evolves to a contemporary look, adding pearl earrings and a lace collar.” Missing in that characterization is that the image included a much-thinner figure and the shedding of the bandana wrapped around the head. There have been two owners since, with the current one being the massive Pepsico conglomerate. For an interesting discussion on the phenomenon, here is a very informative web page.
The last two items include “A Mystery” and “Mississippi River Mud,” a well-known cake with pecans. But the racist allusions were quite through, as the document added the association name, event name, location and date, but, instead of listing a start time or hours, it instead stated “After Dark.”
It might be worth adding that there were some 675 attorneys represented in the 1928-29 roster of attorneys who were part of the Los Angeles Bar Association. While a few dozen were Jews, who were almost certainly aware of stereotypes held about them by the demographic majority, and fewer than ten were women, there were, not surprisingly, no blacks in the association. While not specifically stated in the constitution, the standing policy was to omit people of color, which led David W. Williams, later the first black federal judge west of the Mississippi, to found the John M. Langston (uncle of renowned poet Langston Hughes) Bar Association.
Finally, in 1950, after two failed tries to amend the constitution, the Los Angeles Bar Association voted to do so and, on 21 February, Thomas L. Griffith, Jr. (1902-1986), who was also a long-time president of the local chapter of the NAACP and later a Municipal Court and Superior Court judge, was the first black lawyer admitted. Another landmark occurred in 1977 when Samuel L. Williams was elected as the first black president of the association.