Shades of L.A.: Picnics in the Park

Thirty years ago the Los Angeles Public Library embarked on a ground-breaking, collection-building project – reaching out to the diverse communities of the region for family photographs that would provide depth and nuance to an understanding of this region’s multi-cultural history. The project and its results are called Shades of L.A. The support group Photo Friends of the L.A. Public Library was formed to assist in that effort. The group endures.

Los Angeles is a place literally built on the intersection of cultures: from the Tongva and other Native tribes that lived here for centuries to the Spanish, Mexican, and Black pobladores who established the pueblo in 1781, to the Hispanic and White cultures that duked it out for dominance in the early 19th century. As so often happens, the dominant culture, in this case the White American settlers, was quickly able to put their stamp on the historical narrative.

In the 20th century, Los Angeles has seen further waves of immigration, from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, East Africa, and Latin America. Asian immigration has come in distinctive waves, beginning with Chinese in the late 19th century, to Japanese and Filipinos in the first part of the 20th, and, more recently, Southeast Asians, the refugees of the wars that decimated that region.

With major funding from Security Pacific National Bank and California Humanities, LAPL staff and volunteers were able to reach out to many ethnic communities and collect or copy over 7,000 images documenting family businesses, celebrations, religious and cultural traditions, and ordinary life. In addition, volunteers and staff taped a dozen oral histories from participants. These photos and stories go far to balance the collection of the library. For a more detailed overview of the project, see

More than food

Picnics are universal. Despite cultural differences, picnics seem to be one thing we all have in common: who doesn’t enjoy eating outdoors with friends and family?

Shades of L.A. provides us with a wealth of documentation about the ethnic groups that make up the Southland. In these collections of family photos and oral histories, picnics appear as a common thread. We see how the age-old staple provides more than just a meal; it becomes a way to hand down customs and traditions from generation to generation. Picnics are a way to sustain cultural community within a huge, sometimes impersonal, megalopolis.

Many communities hold picnics that include organized games and sports activities, speeches, dances, skits, and music. Stories are shared and acted or danced out. Traditional foods are eaten. And, perhaps, families that might feel a sense of isolation are able to connect with others who share their heritage. Picnics frame and reinforce cultural identity.

The earliest dated photo of a picnic in our collection is this one of an Italian American gathering at Sycamore Grove Park along the Arroyo Seco. Sycamore Grove became an official Los Angeles city park in 1905, several years after this photo which is dated “circa 1898.” Prior to that time, the area had a reputation as a somewhat “shady” beer garden. Shades of L.A.: Italian American Community, #00025540.

Chinese American kids enjoy watermelon at a church picnic, about 1985. The picnic was organized by St. Bridget’s Chinese Catholic Church. Shades of L.A.: Chinese American Community, #00003365.

Japanese children line up for a foot race at the annual picnic of an after-school program in Hollywood, 1921. “Japanese School” was a common element of life for Nisei. Shades of L.A.: Japanese American Community, #00004248.

Much more than a picnic, the Native American pow wow is a ceremonial expression of indigenous cultures of North America with formal music and dance performances. Here, a Navajo couple, Myron and Virginia Denetdale, attends a pow wow organized by the American Indian Employee Association of Rockwell International in 1976. Myron served in World War II. The couple founded The Navajo Club of Los Angeles, helping Indians from the reservation adjust to urban life. Shades of L.A.: Native American Community, #00004601.

In her 1994 oral history, Glenda Ahhaitty explains how the warrior tradition is honored at pow wow:

No Indian event that begins without the flag and the [national anthem] being sung. And at the end of it they usually sing warrior songs honoring military veterans. Warrior songs that are sung talk about ancient battles, but they also talk about all of them from WWI forward. And in their words they’ll talk about the Battle of the Bulge or they’ll talk about the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

Marilyn White at her family’s annual picnic, c. 1954, Val Verde Park in the Castaic area. Shades of L.A.: African American Community, #00001287.

We profiled Marilyn White‘s career as an Olympic athlete and teacher in a recent post. In her 1992 oral history, she relates the enduring tradition of her family’s picnic:

Last year was the 50th year of our family picnic. It started before [19]40 in Kansas City when my mother was a kid. And the people would go around and they had two trucks. The first truck went around and it picked up all the people who were going to the party. And the second truck picked up all of the food. It was once a year. And it continued once a year all the way here into Los Angeles which is where most of the family is now. And my cousin and I have been in charge of the picnic for the last three years. This year we’re going to have it at Westchester Park. We’re hoping to continue this tradition; we don’t want to let it slide.

Iranian American Ali celebrates his birthday in Roxbury Park, Beverly Hills, 1991. Shades of L.A.: Iranian American Community, #00034358.

A group of Armenian Americans, including the Dakessian family, picnic in 1961. Many Armenians immigrated to the United States during the 1940s and ’50s as refugees from persecution. A large number had been prisoners of war in the Soviet Union. Shades of L.A.: Armenian American Community, #00000017.

A Fourth of July picnic in 1912. Immigrants from many lands enjoy celebrating the preeminent summer holiday of their adopted home. Shades of L.A.: Jewish Community, #00005542.

Picnics may be family affairs, or they may be organized by a church, a school, or a cultural or fraternal organization. Angela Weil, above, plays with a balloon animal at a picnic organized by the Bakers Confectionary Union in 1960. Shades of L.A.: Mexican American Community, #00002284.

Music and dancing are expected at a Greek picnic such as this one from 1928. One man plays clarinet (or klarino) while the others prepare to start a line dance. Shades of L.A.: Greek American Community, #00005982.

Korean American children play a bean bag toss game at a picnic hosted by the Korean Institute of Southern California, 1995. Shades of L.A.: Korean American Community, #00079723.

Japanese Americans picnic in the sand within sight of the oil wells at Signal Hill near Long Beach, ca. 1920. Shades of L.A.: Japanese American Community, #00004252.

In her 1993 oral history, Alice Ito describes some of the places Japanese Americans would go for picnics in the years before World War II and the importance of the cultural connections to young Nisei:

Every so often we’d pack up a picnic lunch and go either to the beach or to the park. At that time what is now Marina Del Rey used to be Del Rey Beach and many of the Japanese families used to go down there and have their little picnics. It had a little canal there and that’s where we used to find other Japanese American families. And another place, in the San Pedro area, used to be called White Point. Down the rocky, craggy cliffs we used to walk and do a little fishing and abalone hunting. It was quite the place to be because they used to have many of the Prefecture picnics there. Prefectures [provinces] from Japan. That was a big thing. Not only picnicking, but they’d have cultural dances from the region, and the food! It was really something we looked forward to because it was all new to us [second generation]. They set up a stage and they all had on the costumes of that area — very colorful! Musicians accompanied the dances. And there were songs I’d never heard before.

Pakistani American children celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of the month of Ramadan, a time of fasting in the Islamic calendar, Glendale, 1995. The children may be preparing to put on a skit, or simply playing dress-up. Shades of L.A.: Pakistani American Community, #00080518.

A different sort of picnic. A group of Japanese Americans takes time out from tobogganing in the San Bernardino Mountains to picnic in the snow. Shades of L.A.: Japanese American Community, #00004240.

The Personal Side of History – Shades of L.A.: African American Community

Over 25 years ago, while organizing the photo collection of the Los Angeles Public Library, librarian Carolyn Kozo Cole found many photos that documented the city’s political and professional history – political rallies, building construction, front page stories – but few images showing the personal side of its history – church picnics, school fairs, family photos. Moreover, there was little (if any) photographic evidence of the rich ethnic diversity in greater Los Angeles.

When a patron came to the library in 1991 and asked for historic photos of the Watts neighborhood, the only photo in the folder marked “Watts” was of a railway station. For Cole, this was a watershed moment. Garnering assistance from librarian Kathy Kobayashi, project coordinator Amy Kitchener, and a team of volunteers (plus financial support from Security Pacific National Bank, Sunlaw Cogeneration Partners, California Council for the Humanities, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, and the non-profit organization Photo Friends), the Shades of L.A. project was launched to broaden the Library’s photo collection and showcase the City’s multicultural makeup.

The first year of the project (1991) focused on the city’s African American communities, with the first “Photo Day” occurring at the Vernon Branch on South Central Avenue. Local residents showed up bringing family portraits and personal snapshots. A large part of L.A.’s personal history – previously tucked away in shoeboxes, scrapbooks, desk drawers, and family bibles – was now to become part of the photo collection of the Los Angeles Public Library.

In honor of Black History month, here are photos that capture African American life in Los Angeles, from home life to high life.

NOTE: All photos in this blog post are from the Shades of L.A.: African American Community collection. Whenever possible, dates and photographers have been noted.

Emma Millhouse and friend at work

Emma Millhouse (right) poses with her friend at their after-school job in a record store. Millhouse had also worked at the National Youth Administration office in Los Angeles, a New Deal agency formed to assist young people between 16 and 25 years of age in finding jobs. This photo was taken in 1941.

Student with trophy

A student poses with the trophy he won in an architectural contest between students at Polytechnic High School and Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles. This photo was taken in 1917.

Sharp shooter Dr. Eugene and trophy

Dr. Eugene, the winner of a sharpshooting competition, poses with his trophy and his weapon in 1935.

Boy Scout and badges

Boy Scout William Legget poses with his merit badges in 1936.

Joe Louis and Gordon Sheppard in Shepp's Playhouse

Boxer Joe Louis (center) poses with a woman and Gordon Sheppard in Shepps’ Playhouse, a breakfast club (open all night until breakfast) in downtown Los Angeles that boasted the likes of Coleman Hawkins, T-Bone Walker, and members of the Duke Ellington band. Sheppard, a former Hollywood cameraman, opened the club in Bronzeville, a neighborhood that sprang up in Little Tokyo during WWII.
Rozier Family Store

Liney, a  store clerk, stands behind the counter at the Rozier Family Store, a family-owned grocery market in Los Angeles. This photo was taken in 1906.

Amanda, Joseph, and children

Amanda and Joseph pose with their children Grace, Raymond, Mildred, and Alphonso for a formal family portrait taken in 1907.

A girl enjoys Val Verde Park, also known as The Black Palm Springs. (Many African Americans frequented this area when they were barred from visiting public beaches and swimming pools.) This photo was taken in 1954.

Dr. Maye Jones poses in cap and gown at her graduation in 1957.

A woman attends the 42nd Annual Congress of the International New Thought Alliance. This photo was taken between July 21 and July 26 in 1957.

This photo shows the Farmers and Merchants Bank of Watts being picketed in 1948 for not hiring African American or Mexican American tellers.


Raymond Austin in front of home

Raymond J. Austin poses in front of his home in Pomona, California, in 1945.

A young soldier poses in front of a fireplace. This photo was taken in 1943.


Crowds gather outside RKO Hillstreet Theatre (located at 8th and Hill Streets in downtown Los Angeles) to see a 1945 appearance by Josephine Baker, the African-American chanteuse who mesmerized France and openly discouraged segregated audiences.

L'Tanya Griffin

Fashion designer L’Tanya Griffin, who once designed gowns for Ida Lupino and ran her own dress shop in Hollywood, strikes a pose in this publicity photo. Photographed by John E. Reed in 1945.

Sebastian's Cotton Club

Sebastian’s Cotton Club (originally named the Green Mill) was owned by Frank Sebastian and located in Culver City. It boasted three dance floors and full orchestras, including an orchestra featuring “the world’s greatest trumpet player, Louis Armstrong, with the world’s fastest drummer, Lionel Hampton.” In this 1931 photo, you see an orchestra with Lionel Hampton, the drummer, at the top.

Zenda Ballroom

A trio gather at the Zenda Ballroom, a huge nightclub at 936 West 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles. This photo was taken in 1939.

Tola Harris at Wedding

Tola Harris attends a wedding reception. The photo is dated November 9, 1996.

NAACP awards

Five women pose in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the NAACP Awards. Photographed by Robert Douglas in 1968.