Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Racial Discord Boils
Over in 1941

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the  Crescenta Valley. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at

The Crescenta Valley today is not as ethnically diverse as many other communities. We have a big immigrant population of Korean and Armenian Americans, but people of color – black and Latino – not so much. Some of that has to do with our history of regulating ourselves as a “white” neighborhood, starting in the ’20s and continuing up into the ’60s and ’70s. Let’s not forget that the city that influenced us the most, Glendale, was for many years known as a “sundown town,” with an unwritten policy that blacks were expected to leave at sunset. Glendale also hosted a massive rally of the KKK in the ’20s and a cross was burned on the site of Glendale College. This was a very “white” area!

Most deeds for homes in the Crescenta Valley during that period carried racial covenants that spelled out who could occupy the property. Here’s a sample of one from a home on Prospect, near my house, written in the ’20s: “No persons of any other race other than White or Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or any lot.” An exception is of course made for domestic servants. Covenants often stated a date at which the restrictions would lapse; in this case, the race restriction was set to expire in 1977.

But not every home deed carried such a restriction, and even if they did, some sellers were willing to violate them. In spring of 1941 that happened, and a black family entered escrow for a house in La Cañada. The community came absolutely unglued. A mass meeting was called at La Cañada School to discuss racial restrictions. A letter was penned by Frank Lanterman of the founding family of La Cañada and a future California assemblyman. It was sent to everyone in the valley and reprinted in the local paper urging a big attendance at the meeting sponsored by the local chamber of commerce. Here are some excerpts from the letter:

“We are confronted with a serious situation in La Cañada Valley. A colored family is negotiating for the purchase of a home in this locality; a certain property owner is urging the lifting of race restrictions; and prospective restrictions either have lapsed or are on the point of lapsing. Be it understood that La Cañada Valley Chamber of Commerce holds no brief for race discrimination; but we do feel strongly that we are privileged to choose our own neighbors. There is one thing to do: we must get together and work out a program of mutual protection.”

Lanterman urged homeowners to examine their deeds to see if they had the proper racial covenants in place and to make sure they hadn’t lapsed. A committee was formed to canvass the community and find out which homes had no race restrictions in place. We can assume they would then put pressure on the homeowner to have the deed rewritten to include the restrictions.

An editorial in the CV Ledger rationalized the restrictions: “The people of the Valley have no racial hatreds, for they are true Americans who realize the constitutional rights of every American regardless of color, race or creed. But they also recognize that where folk of one race force their way amongst other racial groups, there is often discontent and bitterness. La Cañadans believe that they have the right to choose their neighbors in the community they developed. They feel that they have the right to avoid possible unpleasantries by ‘prevention-rather-than-cure’ methods.”

One has to wonder what that “cure” would be! Although I don’t know the outcome, I’m assuming the family didn’t complete escrow.

Racial covenants were a standard part of real estate, and in 1940 it’s estimated that 80% of properties in L.A. carried such restrictions. The covenants were essentially legal agreements between property owners and their neighbors, and a white seller or black buyer, or both, could be sued by his neighbors.

In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial covenants unconstitutional, but racial real estate tactics continued, with homes to black buyers suddenly going “off the market” or mysteriously falling out of escrow.