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The former home of actress Hattie McDaniel, still standing today on South Harvard Boulevard.

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The thrill of Sugar Hill

Black entertainers not only revived West Adams—they challenged racist covenants and laid the groundwork for the Fair Housing Act

Nobody threw a party like Hattie McDaniel. In her white and green Mediterranean mansion high atop the Los Angeles neighborhood of Sugar Hill, McDaniel, dressed in the latest fashion, hosted evening salons that brought together some of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century.

“The best of black show business performed within the walls of 2203 South Harvard,” McDaniel’s biographer Jill Watts writes. “Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie all played there. Ethel Waters sang and Butterfly McQueen did dramatic recitations. On many evenings, McDaniel herself joined in. It was private and intimate, but it was also independent and unfettered, free of white interference.”

The daughter of two former slaves, the multi-talented McDaniel had moved into the rambling mansion in the early 1940s. “She had the most exquisite house I had ever seen in my life, the best of everything,” entertainment legend Lena Horne recalled.

Hattie McDaniel, 1941.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

The property boasted endless porches, a beautiful, large backyard, and a basement that McDaniel converted to an air raid shelter. The public rooms were delicately appointed, painted in light colors, and decorated with French provincial ivory furniture. McDaniel’s eclectic passions and achievements were on full display—her white grand piano, her collection of books on African-American art and history, her doll collection.

And on the fireplace mantle, the best supporting actress Oscar she had won for playing Mammy in Gone with the Wind. “I’m a fine black Mammy [on screen],” McDaniel told Horne. “But I’m Hattie McDaniel in my house.”

While McDaniel was the undisputed queen of WWII-era Sugar Hill, the neighborhood had enjoyed a long and storied history before her arrival. When it was laid out in 1902, the hilly area was called West Adams Heights.

“In the unplanned early-day chaos of Los Angeles, West Adams Heights was obviously something very special,” Carey McWilliams wrote in 1949, “an island in an ocean of bungalows—approachable, but withdrawn and reclusive.”

On South Harvard Boulevard, the most prominent families built Craftsman and Victorian mansions that put most LA structures of the time to shame.

New homeowners, made up of the solidifying white upper class of boomtown Los Angeles, were required to sign racially restrictive covenants as part of the deed to their properties, promising to never sell to African Americans. These covenants were prevalent throughout Los Angeles (and all of America) during the early 20th century, a reaction to increasing black mobility. Covenants were the reason that African-American life in LA centered around Central Avenue during the first half of the 20th century; it was one of the few places in Los Angeles that black people were legally allowed to live.

During the 1910s and ’20s, West Adams Heights saw its status as one of the premier addresses in Los Angeles decline. There was an exodus westward to new tony neighborhoods like Beverly Hills. With the coming of the Depression, many of the remaining West Adams Heights homeowners were forced to sell their homes. In need of cash, they were willing to sell to anyone who could pay, regardless of what their deeds said.

Sensing an opportunity to establish a new foothold for the numerous middle class and affluent members of the black community, social leaders started to buy homes in West Adams Heights.

The former home of Norman Houston, who co-founded Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company.

One of the first was Norman Houston. In 1938, Houston bought a mansion on 2211 South Hobart Boulevard. Houston had co-founded the influential Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1925. The company, the first of its kind in the state, had been formed to provide black Californians, who were often denied policies or charged outrageous premiums, with quality life insurance. It would eventually become the largest black owned insurance company in the American West.

West Adams Heights was rechristened Sugar Hill, a homage to the legendary neighborhood in Harlem. The Houstons were soon joined by other prominent African Americans, including actor and casting agent Ben Carter, actress Francis Williams, Drs. John and Vada Sommerville (the builders of the famed Dunbar Hotel), producer Sidney P. Dones, comedian Wonderful Smith and drummer Zutty Singleton. Singer Bobby Short, a frequent visitor to Sugar Hill, described the neighborhood’s evolution:

It was sort of an offshoot in an area that had rather grand houses that had been left behind, and so Negroes with enough money bought these houses. And some of them were movie people who had made enough money to buy a large house and live grandly. And some were enterprising ladies who rented out rooms Harlem-style, you know.

One of these enterprising lady landlords was Louise Beavers, America’s favorite movie maid. Beavers, known for her roles as the cheerful, dutiful servant in classics like Imitation of Life, She Done Him Wrong, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, lived in a three-story Craftsman on South Hobart, which had once been the residence of a former Los Angeles mayor.

Warm and friendly, Beavers rented out rooms to her fellow performers for extra income. She also hated to cook, leaving kitchen work to her husband while she went to her beloved boxing matches and played poker upstairs late into the night. According to the history Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams:

Guests were gleefully led upstairs to the third floor, where card tables were set up and where the refreshments were plentiful. They dealt hands, dined lavishly, exchanged stories, gossiped, and laughed into the early hours of the morning…. Beavers might be puffing on a cigarette while her guests could gaze out her windows at spectacular views of downtown Los Angeles with its entrancing ribbon of lights.

Ethel Waters at the Carthay Circle Theatre, 1955.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

A hop skip and a jump away was her friend, Waters, the legendary singer who had spent most of her life on the road performing. “After looking over a few homes I fell in love with one located in Southwest Los Angeles,” she recalled. “It had ten sunshine-filled rooms on three floors. There were two stately old trees in front and a neatly trimmed lawn, and some green stuff was growing over the door like a bower.”

On move in day, Waters was overwhelmed by her new residence. “During the day the moving men had brought my things, and when I saw that they had placed each chair and table exactly where I wanted, I burst into tears,” she remembered. “‘My house,’ I told myself. The only place I’ve ever owned all by myself …I felt I was sitting on top of the world. I had a home at last.”

Waters lived across the street from McDaniel, who became the anchor of Sugar Hill. Besides her intimate salon nights, McDaniel was also known for her huge Hollywood soirees, which brought black and white celebrities to Sugar Hill. White actors including Agnes Moorehead, Esther Williams, and her beloved co-star Clark Gable attended the bashes, which were covered by attending gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

At one party, Ernest “Bubbles” Whitman danced the jitterbug with the white daughter of actress Joan Davis. The lush backyard was an exciting wonderland for the children of McDaniel’s staff, one of whom recalled playing there with Bing Crosby’s children.

Homes in the 2200 block of South Harvard Boulevard, where McDaniel lived, circa 1937.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

But some of the neighborhood’s remaining racist white residents were determined to kick their new neighbors out of their hard earned homes. Although many of those residents leftover from the old days were quickly won over by the numerous improvements the new homeowners made to their properties, protests had begun quickly.

In 1945, eight white Sugar Hill residents sued to have their black neighbors evicted from their own homes, insisting “that if restrictive covenants were not enforced, their property would lose value and racial clashes would inevitably ensue.”

Actress Louise Beavers (third from left) and Hattie McDaniel (second from right), circa 1948.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

By this time, around 57 black families lived in the neighborhood, and they were not going to give up on the community they had revitalized. According to historian Donald Bogle, Francis Williams “began holding Saturday workshops at her home in an effort to strategize ways in which, as a group, blacks might fight in the courts.”

McDaniel also took a lead role, holding meetings at her home and organizing around 30 black neighbors, including Beavers and Waters, to fight the suit in court. Black attorney and NAACP activist Loren Miller would represent the group.

What came to be known as the “Sugar Hill” case came to trial in Los Angeles Superior Court on December 5, 1945. “On that day, McDaniel led her codefendants and two hundred and fifty supporters into the court room,” Watts writes:

In opening arguments, the attorneys for the white plaintiffs insisted that the black West Adams residents were in violation of the law, that restrictive covenants were protected under the constitution, and that black property owners must be required to surrender their homes immediately. Loren Miller countered with a shocker. He immediately moved to bar any testimony by or on behalf of the plaintiffs, arguing that restrictive covenants violated both the fourteenth amendment, which mandated equal protection under the law, and the California State Constitution.

Shocking the court, Judge Thurmond Clarke immediately agreed with Miller, ruling:

It is time that members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations and evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th amendment of the Federal Constitution. Judges have been avoiding the real issue too long. Certainly there was no discrimination against the Negro race when it came to calling upon its members to die on the battlefields in defense of this country in the war just ended.

Clarke’s ruling made him “the first judge in America to use the 14th Amendment to disallow the enforcement of covenant race restrictions,” according to the West Adams Heritage Association. The decision was immediately appealed by the white homeowners, but the decision set an important precedent for future suits concerning racial covenants.

A Christmastime soiree at a Sugar Hill residence, circa 1950.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Now free, at least temporarily, from being evicted, black Sugar Hill continued to flourish. The Hotel Watkins opened on Adams Boulevard in 1945, and became the place for jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington to stay. Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company built a magnificent new headquarters at 1999 West Adams Boulevard. Designed by African-American architect Paul Williams, it featured murals by Hale Woodruff and Charles Alston that told the history of black people in California.

Sugar Hill was now famous, a point of pride for visiting black Americans. In 1947, the Los Angeles Sentinel published a “Sugar Hill Map” for the women attending a convention for members of Zeta Phi Beta, the national black sorority which had been founded in 1920 by five students:

Naturally each and every one of the visitors to the Zeta Phi Beta national boule who remained over for a vacation have long had an intense feminine desire to see “Sugar Hill”, where famous motion picture figures opened the way for business and professional families to live in fine mansions with spacious grounds like any other Americans.

While the Sugar Hill case continued to languish in the higher courts, Miller, its victorious litigator, was arguing Shelley vs. Kraemer (along with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall), a similar case concerning restrictive covenants in Missouri before the United States Supreme Court. In May 1948, the court ruled restrictive covenants unenforceable—a huge victory in the civil rights movement. The Los Angeles Sentinel rejoiced:

Negro families… throughout the entire nation-won the right on Monday to live in their own homes, to buy homes wherever they choose, or to rent homes in any section of the city. Race restrictive covenants through the momentous action of the United States Supreme Court, became overnight no more than worthless sheets of paper, unenforceable in any court in the land. They can still be written and signed, but they cannot be backed by court action.

Around Central Avenue and high on Sugar Hill, black Angelenos could hardly believe the news:

The Sentinel’s telephone rang continuously from the moment the unanimous decision…. was flashed across the nation’s air-waves. “Is it true?” “What does it mean?” “Can we really live anywhere?” …these questions were asked over and over again. It was as if the great mass of Negro people in Los Angeles could not believe that at long last their elementary right to a decent place to live without being herded and squeezed in shameful and hateful ghettos had been recognized.

Though it would be two more decades until the Fair Housing Act formally outlawed housing discrimination based on race, the ruling was a huge step forward, and the Sugar Hill case had helped it happen.

Harvard Boulevard, between Washington Boulevard and the Santa Monica freeway, today.
Liz Kuball

But the neighborhood of Sugar Hill would soon be only a happy memory. On New Year’s Eve 1950, an aging McDaniel held one final bash, a “house cooling,” before she moved into a more manageable one-story home on Country Club Drive. “For nine years or more the genial Hattie has played hostess to some of the country’s most outstanding people,” one columnist wrote. “Believe me, many a grand time has been had by all attending.”

During the 1950s, prominent black Angelenos started to venture into new neighborhoods—some joined Paul Williams in Lafayette Square, many others moved to Baldwin Hills. As early as 1953, rumors of a freeway being built through Sugar Hill were circulating. The Sentinel’s Dora H. Moore attempted to calm resident’s fears:

I would like to, once and for always, dispel the silly rumors that have been floating around since it was learned there is a possibility that a freeway may be built through the so-called “Sugar Hill” area. First and foremost, the freeway to be constructed westward to the bay communities is just in the proposal stages… I deplore the tactics used by some Negro community newspapers that brought out the bewhiskered “they’re doing it to us because we’re cullud” claim—without any foundation.

In 1963, Sugar Hill was indeed bisected by the new Santa Monica Freeway, destroying dozens of mansions owned by African Americans in the process. By 1964, almost all the old families who had called Sugar Hill home had moved away. Two years later, the loss still stung.

“The road could have been built without cutting through the so-called Sugar Hill section,” the Los Angeles Sentinel explained. “However, in order to miss Sugar Hill, it was ‘said’ that the route would have to cut through fraternity and sorority row area around USC. Sorority and fraternity row still stands and Sugar Hill doesn’t, so you know who won out!”

Today, what is left of Sugar Hill is dominated by the Paul Williams’ designed First AME Church (founded by LA pioneer Biddy Mason), which moved there in 1968. On South Harvard, overgrown mansions—including McDaniel’s—still stand, in various states of repair. Although the traffic from the freeway is loud, if you try hard enough you can maybe hear the ghost of Waters singing, accompanied by McDaniel on her gleaming grand piano.