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A photographic look back at L.A.'s Harlem Renaissance

October 24, 2009 |  3:14 pm

Harlem The exhibition "Central Avenue and Beyond: The Harlem Renaissance in Los Angeles" focuses on life along the storied thoroughfare that once was the heart of black L.A. But its organizers couldn't resist illustrating ways African American culture flourished in other parts of the city as well.

"We hope to open people's eyes a little," says Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library in San Marino, where the show opens this weekend. "Everyone tends to think the Harlem Renaissance took place in one spot; however, Los Angeles was among many urban centers teeming with activity." Central Avenue, she adds, "was ground zero for African Americans for years -- not just for jazz, which was a huge force, but for every kind of artistic and cultural enterprise. We wanted to take a longer view and look at all this and also what was happening elsewhere in town, not just during the '20s and '30s but into the '50s."

The photo at right shows Marie Dickerson Coker, who  was born in Tulsa in 1906 and moved to Hollywood to sing, dance and play the piano and bass. While performing in a Culver City club in the 1920s, she met two African American aviators who promised to take her up in their plane. She loved it so much she decided to learn to fly herself. One of the first black female pilots, Coker joined L.A.’s circuit of air circuses in which performers thrilled crowds with daredevil stunts.

Click here for Karen Wada's story and photos.

Photo: Marie Dickerson Coker and a dance partner in about 1920-30. Credit: Mayme A. Clayton Library.