The Black History of Palm Springs

The Black History of Palm Springs

Editorial: Palm Springs bulldozed a Black neighborhood. Compensate survivors. The next generation should know their own history.

It’s time for a new Palm Springs. And if the new city is going to have a Black historic district, it will be one in which their foremothers, a century ago, had the courage to walk out of what was a segregated Black neighborhood into the bright sunlight of the public square.

A century and a half ago, before the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s, Palm Springs was one of the most integrated areas of Los Angeles County. Then, in the 1930s, a Black community leader by the name of Benjamin Mays, who was the first Black elected to one of Palm Springs’ four governing boards, was murdered. He was the first of nearly a dozen elected Black public officials killed. In other areas of the county, Blacks were the majority of the population. But in Palm Springs, in the 1940s, they were the minority.

And yet, the African-American community was able to organize a community self-defense league, the Palm Springs Defense League. The members of the league, as they would later be known, were armed with guns and pitchforks. They also were able to get to know each other. They were a community of young leaders. They were educated. They were part of the movement of Los Angeles County in the 1950s and 1960s. Black people came into Palm Springs before the Civil Rights Movement could take hold. The Black population was not yet significant. They had been in the area — in the 30s, 50s and early 60s — for years.

When Mays was murdered in 1939, the people of the community were outraged. It was in the midst of the Great Depression. And their sense of urgency was heightened by the fact that their Black community was being threatened. They were angry, and they organized and took action.

The Palm Springs Defense League — a Black organization with members throughout the county — held a meeting. They had heard that Benjamin Mays and his Black friends were in the home of a member of the Palm Springs City Council.

Mays was trying to hold onto his seat when he was killed by a

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