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Community Life, 1950s-1980s

The images in this exhibition provide a glimpse into the daily lives and changing lifestyles of African Americans in California between the 1950s and the early 1980s.
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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.

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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.


"African Americans: Community Life, 1950s-1980s" was curated and written by the University of California in 2009 as part of the California Cultures project.

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The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:

African Americans: Community Life, 1950s-1980s curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2009, Regents of the University of California.