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African Americans: Community Life, 1950s-1980s

Questions to Consider

What cultural changes do you see reflected in these images from the 1950s to the 1980s?

What do these images show us about community interactions?

About the Images

The images in this topic provide a glimpse into the daily lives and changing lifestyles of African Americans in California between the 1950s and the early 1980s. Photographs show men and women, young people and children,at church, social club events, schools, service projects, political actions, and at cultural centers that served as gathering places for the community. Some photographs include cultural and political figures of the times.


These photographs from the 1950s to the decades of social reform and struggles for social justice in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s show African Americans in a range of activities that reflect the changing concerns of the decades and the concerns of everyday life.

Family celebrations are commemorated by formal images (the Cadells cutting their cake in 1955) and less formal shots (like the group attending Jackie’s wedding in 1967). Church is a center for the group standing in front of Brooks Chapel A.M.E. Church of Tulare. Other social groups pictured include the women of Gay Ann's Social Club at a formal event in San Bernardino in 1950, and the women of Berkeley/Oakland’s Queen Esther Chapter no. 4, posing in front of a bus. A group of children pose in their Halloween costumes, candy bags ready, in 1968. In 1969, two boys play ball in the ruins of Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, home of the old Angels team.

Although most of the images are of everyday people—in school, at a beauty pageant, doing community service, attending political rallies, taking art classes, going fishing, dancing, and just hanging out with friends—some show well-known African American celebrities in the context of community activities: LA Lakers basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar interacts with fans in 1980. Boxer Muhammad Ali is shown walking with a group of young people in the early 1970s, and riding in a car at San Bernardino’s Black History Parade in 1980. Singer Harry Belafonte is pictured rehearsing for a show at the Greek Theater; in another image, his wife, Marguerite, raises funds for the NAACP. Jazz legend Duke Ellington is shown surrounded by students and teachers at Washington Elementary School in Berkeley during a 1969 visit.

The community also came out to celebrate the victory of political leaders like Mayor Tom Bradley, shown here with then-Governor Jerry Brown. Bradley was the first and only African American mayor of Los Angeles, and his 20-year tenure was also the longest of any LA mayor.

Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, the Civil Rights Movement and the Free Speech Movement encouraged people to participate in political actions and community organizing activities. One photograph shows a crowd marching up San Francisco’s Market Street in support of civil rights. Another shows anti-Vietnam discussions at Oakland’s Lake Merritt Park in 1965. In 1964, a group of marchers representing Youth for Service is shown protesting an assault on an Asian store owner in their community. A photograph taken the previous year shows the group removing rocks from Hunter’s Point in San Francisco.

In 1968, three years after the destruction caused by the Watts Riots, the community began to reinvigorate itself culturally and politically. Here, a man is shown with children at the Watts Summer Festival in the early 1970s. Other images show instructors at the Watts Towers Arts Center, and an art class in progress.

The final image in this topic shows Joseph Charles, Berkeley’s well-known "waving man." Every morning for 30 years, Mr. Charles donned yellow construction workers' gloves, stood on the corner in front of his house, and smiled and waved to passing motorists.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 11

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.4 Write historical investigation reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver oral reports on historical investigations.
2.4 Delivery multimedia presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 11:

11.8 Students analyze the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II America. (11.8.8)

11.11 Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society. (11.11.7)

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context

Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Wedding picture of Archie and Mary Cadell, [graphic] Early members of Brooks Chapel A.M.E. Church of Tulare Gay Ann's Social Club, [graphic]
Jackie's wedding reception, October 15th, 1967 [graphic] Queen Esther Chapter no. 4 Halloween Parade. (Left to right) Christine Montgomery (11), Darrell Coleman (9), Cheryl Denise Coleman (8), Harold Power (7), Ricky Power (8) :79
Children play among the ruins of Wrigley Field in Los Angeles (Calif.) African-American Workers Scene at Miss Black Santa Ana Pageant in 1969
Thurston Whitaker and fish :102 Three women and a man sitting for a picture African American youths pose by damaged storefronts in Watts, Los Angeles (Calif.)
Dancers in dance stances posing for picture Kareem Abdul-Jabbar surrounded by fans in Laker's victory parade, Los Angeles (Calif.) Muhammad Ali and a girl with a baseball glove
Muhammad Ali participates in San Bernardino's Black History Parade, [graphic] Harry Belafonte plays the drums Margurite Belafonte fundraising.
Duke Ellington swamped by students at Washington Elementary School, Berkeley :59 Mayor Tom Bradley celebrates mayoral election with Governor Jerry Brown "Big Colored Parade" -- Market Street to City Hall
Anti-Vietnam discussions. Lake Merritt Park, Oakland :9 "Youth for Service Boys" Protest March -- Revere Street Youth For Service, removing rocks from Hunter's Point :71
Picketer refused to give name :20 Elliott Pinkney looking at decorative art on front of Arena Aquarius Bookstore, Los Angeles (Calif.)
Watts Summer Festival: man with children John Outterbridge and the staff of the Watts Towers Arts Center Art class at Watts Towers Arts Center, Los Angeles (Calif.)
Berkeley waving man

Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Written Documents (PDF) (Source: NARA)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)