The mission of the UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research is to document the past experiences, memories and voices of the greater Los Angeles area through recorded interviews with the people who have made that history. In a region as diverse as Los Angeles, that means an intentional focus on the often-underrepresented Black, Indigenous, Latino, Asian and immigrant communities.
“The stories of those communities are the story of Los Angeles,” said Teresa Barnett, head of the Center for Oral History Research. Founded in 1959, the center currently has interviews with more than 2,000 individuals grouped into 37 categories that include Latina and Latino history, American Indian History, Iranian American History and women’s issues.
Barnett said the center has particularly strong collections of African American history in Los Angeles, including its “Community and Commerce: Oral Histories of African American Businesses in Los Angeles” project, featuring a series of 18 oral histories and photos that document long-term Black business ownership. Excerpts from the oral histories explore the financial and psychological journeys involved in starting up a business, strategies for how to weather change over decades, and the sometimes challenging task of finding a successor.
“Documenting Los Angeles’ African American communities means documenting activists and politicians and artists and musicians, all of whom we have oral histories with,” Barnett said. “It also means documenting the everyday institutions in the community that sustain it — the businesses like restaurants that perpetuate culturally specific practices, the barbershops that provide community gathering places, the mortuaries that provide continuity of care and ritual through successive generations, and so forth.”
The oral history format, Barnett added, provides a unique perspective that the most rigorously researched books and voluminous photo collections cannot replicate.
“Oral histories are always so much richer than anything a single book can do with them,” Barnett said. “They capture not only factual information but layered memories, tellings, tones of voice, etc. Any book or website or other product captures one take on some themes in the interviews, but go back to the interviews themselves, and there will always be other takes, more to be discovered, more to be experienced.”
To learn more about “Community and Commerce: Oral Histories of African American Businesses in Los Angeles,” we talked with Yolanda Hester, who initiated the project and served as the interviewer for the series and curator for the website.
What sparked your desire to lead this project?
I have always been interested in Black businesses as part of my family’s history, but it was during my graduate school studies that I started to explore commercial districts in ethnic neighborhoods. I was interested in how these businesses and districts fuel the economies of their communities. What interests me about Black businesses, and particularly the owners and families that own those businesses, are their staying power and how they have negotiated change, especially neighborhood change. Their stories often go unheard and unrecorded, yet those stories have so much to offer in illuminating social, political and economic histories of those communities.
Denise Legaux, second-generation owner of Harold & Belle’s, on the succeeding generation’s more rigorous training. Photo by Stefan Studer.
Did any of the businesses or interviews stand out to you?
One thing that was particularly interesting to me was each of the family’s migration stories and how traditions established in other places informed experiences in Los Angeles. One such example was my interview with Denise Legaux, owner of the Creole Restaurant Harold and Belle’s, and her story of New Orleans before arriving in L.A. Another thing that stayed with me was my experience interviewing barbershops. Barbershops in the Black community do the work of community centers for Black men, providing communion and safe spaces to share and be authentic. And although my interview focused on the owners of these businesses, I had to build trust with the entire barbershop community. I enjoyed hanging out with them, listening to their stories and antics, and they embraced me. For example, when I would visit Tolliver’s Barbershop there were customers who had been coming to the barbershop for years and had developed a friendship with Lawrence Tolliver. They would sit in the “lounge area” and talk and play board games. Eventually they would invite me to play, which I would and we would sit for a couple easy hours and just talk and play the game.
How did you edit down the very long interviews (most are at least a couple of hours) into the snippets on the web portal?
For the digital project, we focused on themes. Each page is devoted to a different stage of entrepreneurship from taking a leap of faith into business ownership to succession, so that made it easy to identify the appropriate clips for the section.
John Beals, owner of Vivid Reflections Barber Shop, on the challenges of accessing capital.
You mentioned in the Q&A on the project’s blog that you keep in touch with many of the narrators. How are their businesses weathering changes brought by COVID-19?
Yes, I keep in touch via phone calls, emails and social media. COVID has undoubtedly been tough and particularly on small businesses and especially ethnic businesses. From what I have learned they are all having to think out of the box and reimagine how they operate. They are all having very different experiences, food businesses are having a hard time, but funeral homes, unfortunately, are overwhelmed with business.
Are there any plans to update this particular oral history project to include the experience of COVID-19?
We have talked about doing updates, so it’s a possibility.
Sharon Coleman, owner of Coleman Construction, Inc. and Coleman Equipment Rental, Inc., on the shock of realizing she was licensed to open a business. Photo by Stefan Studer.
Are you aware of any student and/or faculty researchers who have used this project to advance their own academic work?
Unfortunately, we have no way of tracking who is using the site, but I do know of a couple of groups who have shared the site with their students. I have also guest-lectured in two classes — one in the urban planning department and one in Asian American studies — about the project.
How do you think this project advances UCLA’s education, research and service mission?
The project itself, which is educational and research based, I believe fits within UCLA’s mission. The series and the website are available to the general public online, so it also serves UCLA’s mission to reach out to the community. I’m particularly thrilled about this, as the businesses owners and their communities, who might not always find themselves in the Westwood area, can still access the series.