L.A.'s Ugly Jim Crow History: Nat King Cole's Dog Poisoned in Hancock Park
As Hattie McDaniel became the first black person to win an Oscar, the city was embroiled in racial tension as prominent African-Americans were harassed and theaters, beaches, public pools, hotels, schools and neighborhoods were segregated.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In 1948, Nat King Cole was one of the most popular musicians in America, with hits like “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” but when he bought a house in all-white Hancock Park, his neighbors sued to block the purchase. When that failed, they burned the N-word on his front lawn and killed his dog with poisoned meat. (Cole resisted the attacks, and his family stayed there until the 1970s.) He fared better than William Bailey, a World War II vet and science teacher whose house was bombed when he moved into a white Culver City neighborhood (Bailey and his wife escaped unharmed). The Bailey bombing was one of at least six against black families who moved into white neighborhoods in the 1950s.
By the end of World War II, the few laws mandating segregation of African-Americans in L.A. County’s public pools and beaches were struck down. A persistent but uneven de facto segregation in hotels, restaurants and theaters meant black patrons sometimes met separate entrances or were refused service. Jim Crow wasn’t just a Southern problem but a national one with regional variations. The year Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech, activists picketed Mel’s Drive-In’s whites-only hiring.
Housing was the biggest barrier. Racial covenants — perpetual clauses in deeds banning real estate sales to blacks, Jews and Asians — were nullified by the Supreme Court in 1948 in Shelley v. Kraemer, but the National Association of Realtors code discouraged agents from showing minorities homes in white neighborhoods for years.
Housing discrimination produced schools as segregated as any in the South — L.A. had at least 130 lily-white schools and another 93 all-black schools. Even Jackie Robinson wasn’t immune to discrimination. At the same time he was being cheered by white students at UCLA as the only person in school history to letter in four sports, not a single home around the Westwood campus was for sale or rent to African-Americans.