African Americans N Boyle Heights ~ We Were There

In the 1920s, Boyle Heights was a multi-racial and multi-cultural community. Photo courtesy of Pinterest
 By Shirlee Smith

The Rhinehart story is taken from 1988 writings by Richard and Melvin and given to Bernice Pickett Smiley.

When the Rhinehart family moved; just to the next block on the same street, two of the older boys, along with a couple of cousins, acted as official movers—no need for a truck. They simply pushed their family piano down Boulder Street to their new dwelling.

This action may not be a common occurrence these days, but it wasn’t out of the ordinary for folks back in Boyle Heights, because our families frequently moved just a stone’s throw away from where we’d been living.

Or in the case of the Rhineharts; just a piano push away.

The family patriarch, Laurie H. Rhinehart, was born in Hickory, North Carolina, in 1902 and joined the Navy during World War I. In 1920, while stationed in San Pedro, California, he met and married Frances Brown.

Frances had come to California from Houston, Texas with three sisters; all under the age of 10, to join their mother, Mollie Brown, who had built a home in Boyle Heights on New Jersey Street.

During her high school years, Frances worked as a live-in domestic and graduated from Manual Arts High School on the west side of Los Angeles and not from Roosevelt in the Heights.

Frances, staying away from home employed as a live-in domestic was not an unusual situation for young African American girls at that time.

Along with housework, the job usually included minding the children of the more affluent white and Jewish residents who lived on the West Side.

Laurie and Frances had six children; Laurie, Albert, Doris, Harold, Richard, and Melvin. They first lived on Boulder Street, next door to cousins; Atoy, Kenny (the piano pushers), and Mollie Wilson.

The children attended Malabar Elementary, Belvedere Junior High, and Roosevelt High school.  Richard remembers there only being six African American students attending Belvedere when he and Melvin were there. Two of the six were girls—Melba and Willie Smith.

Harold later married Melba, in what was a common occurrence—Boyle Heights young people married into other Boyle Heights’ families. While Boyle Heights is known for the mixture of many cultures, the ethnic breakdown of African American students at Belvedere was similar to what the two Pickett sisters experienced at Stevenson Junior High, where there were only three other African Americans enrolled.

A common thread in the stories of African Americans is that they move but still stay in the Heights, and many who move away, come back.

Of the stories that have been published in BrooklyNBoyle, there is a common thread when we look at where our people lived and where they moved to; which was usually within the small Boyle Heights’enclave where African Americans settled;

Interestingly, when they moved away; they quite often came back.

The Lawrence parents, William and Minnie lived on Evergreen Avenue, then built a house on Malabar St. They lived in a rear house on the property, with their children, Ida Mae, Leo, Manuel, and Bill, while the main house was under construction.

In later years, when Ida married, she and her husband occupied the back house and when they moved away, Bill, with his wife Palma and their children: JoAnne; Billy; and Ronald moved in.

When Bernice Williams and Eugene Pickett married in 1933, they rented a small home on Riviera Street at the bottom of the hill just a few houses from the corner of First Street. They soon moved up the hill to share the home owned by Eugene’s mother, Lilly.

In 1941, Eugene and Bernice, with two daughters, moved to the popular and fashionable West Adams District.But they returned to the Heights; once again to Riviera St. in 1947

When the couple divorced, Bernice moved to San Fernando Valley with the children but came back in a few years to a house on Folsom St. From Folsom, Bernice moved to New Jersey St. When the oldest daughter, Beverlee, married, into the Boyle Heights’ Bruce family, she and Walker King Bruce lived on New Jersey Street a few doors from her mother.

The next daughter married and moved to the Westside; she came back  and lived on Michigan Ave. and then settled on Boulder St. across the street from the Rhinehart’s family home.

Aunt Bea, who was the focus of our last BrooklynNBoyle article, after moving to Boyle Heights as a young adult to live with her mother, yearned for her life in The Big Apple, so she packed up and went to back to New York.

She didn’t stay long. She returned to what she called “The neighborly slow-paced life in Boyle Heights.”

Another common theme in the memories of African Americans is the work ethic of youngsters.

Melvin, the youngest Rhinehart child, in his writings, recounts being appointed, while still only all of eight-years-old, to shop for his family’s weekly groceries at Grand Central Market on Broadway and Third streets in downtown Los Angeles.

Unlike today’s youngsters, who get driven everywhere, Melvin caught the streetcar.  He was given 14 cents for round-trip streetcar fare, 10 cents for a hot dog, 5 cents for a root beer, and $5 for the week’s groceries. Melvin writes that he quickly earned the “honor of being the errand boy for the neighbors.” He was soon shopping for almost everyone.

From the Pickett story, we learned Eugene, at age 10, walked from his home near First Street and Evergreen Avenues across the First Street Bridge to downtown Los Angeles to sell newspapers. For both Melvin and Eugene, they portrayed the common story of our young people venturing away from the neighborhood.

The presence of other cultures often brought a sense of opportunity and a thirst for knowledge rather than a retreat into the comfort of people with similar backgrounds who lived in the same neighborhood.

Melvin writes of enjoying the opportunity to be around the many “ethnic people of L.A.” while on forays to Grand Central Market as the Boulder Street errand boy. He writes that he relished the chance to see and mingle with people of other races and backgrounds. 

He also spent time “people watching” at Union Station on Sunday outings with his mother.

“I became an adventurer in my dreams,” he writes, “because I used to wonder where these people, who arrived at the station, were coming from and how their lives were lived.”

Like many African Americans in Boyle Heights, Melvin grew up with the vision that we are all one people.



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