Los Angeles has countless Black-owned businesses within the city and county. With Black History Month here, let us take a look at some businesses that have not only been operating for more than a decade, but continue to make a positive impact in the communities in which they are based. Through their work, they continue to write the history of the City of Angels.
When driving into the Los Angeles area, tune your radio to 102.3 on your FM dial. That is where you’ll find station KJLH. The call letters affectionately stand for Kindness, Joy, Love, and Happiness.
KJLH is owned by Grammy award–winning singer-songwriter, producer, and activist Stevie Wonder. It is one of only two Black-owned radio stations in Southern California (the other one being KBLA). The station has been owned and operated independently since 1965 when it was known as KFOX. Wonder bought the station in 1979.
The station is home to the Steve Harvey Morning Show, which became the number one syndicated morning show in America. KJLH has also been at the forefront of the music scene, skillfully navigating changes in format from R&B/soul to jazz to hip-hop to the current urban contemporary format. Spread the Word, the popular Gospel program on Sundays, has been fronted by its original host, Aundrae Russell, for more than 25 years. Events hosted by the station include the Women’s Health Expo and the Men’s Empowerment Summit. Their website includes a community business directory, where many local businesses are featured.
A dedication to and involvement with the community is the main reason KJLH is still around after more than 50 years. “…[P]eople will come here with all types of questions and they look to us to be the answer,” Russell shares. To back that up the claim, KJLH continues to be a public service outlet. During the uprising following the 1992 Rodney King verdicts, the station stopped playing music and went to a talk radio format, giving an on-air voice to the community to discuss the situation. Following Hurricane Katrina, the station helped support victims of the disaster by sending material and financial aid.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel, Russell summed it up best: “KJLH started off as a community station… and it is still a community station.” And they still play great music.
2. Eso Won Books
Eso Won Books has been around since 1988. Owners James Fugate and Tom Hamilton met at Compton College, where Fugate managed the college’s bookstore. After moving a couple of times, they settled on their current location in Leimert Park in 2006.
Eso won means “water over rocks” in an Ethiopian language. As water flows over rocks, so does knowledge flow through books, reveals Fugate.
The bookstore is well known for its book signings and large selection of books by, for, and about Black people. Fugate states in an interview with Publishers Weekly that he wants to “make sure that Eso Won is seen not just as a Black bookstore for Black people, but a Los Angeles bookstore in which everyone is welcome.”
Speaking of signings, former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Muhammad Ali have all held book signings at Eso Won. When Obama first came in for the signing of his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father, only 10 people showed up — half were employees. Obama says he came back because of the way he was treated at the store — people had actually read the book and were fully engaged in the conversation. That second visit, to promote The Audacity of Hope, attracted 900 people.
After the death of George Floyd, it seems people started to pay attention to and study Black history. Almost overnight there was a huge jump in book sales at Eso Won. In one 3-day period, the store received close to 4,000 book orders. To put that in perspective, on a very good day they’d have 25 orders.
Now all sorts of people are stopping in. California Governor Gavin Newsome stopped by and bought several books. Recently, Eso Won was nominated for Publishers Weekly’s Bookstore of the Year, which they won.
Big box and online booksellers have provided stiff competition. But Eso Won’s edge is its employees have knowledge of the books they sell. They support new and unknown Black writers. “The love and support that Eso Won got from the public and the publishing industry show that the store owners are doing something right by being in constant and selfless service to the people,” Publishers Weekly says. That is something an algorithm or large inventory cannot provide for their customers.
Pro Tip: You can now order books from Eso Won online.
3. Watts Coffee House
Watts Coffee House grew out of the former Watts Happening Coffee House, which was established in the late 1960s. Boasting a performance space and an art gallery, it became a place for residents, poets, actors, activists, and musicians to come together. Watts Happening Coffee House was, well, what was happening in Watts. Unfortunately, during the ‘70s and ‘80s its popularity waned and it eventually closed.
Opportunity arrived when chef Desirée Edwards was catering an event hosted by the Watts Health Foundation. She was given an offer by her mentor, the late Harold Hambrick, to turn her catering business into a restaurant at the Watts Happening Cultural Center. However, the offer came with two conditions: 1) she had to hire residents of the community, including those from drug treatment and prevention center House of Uhuru, and 2) the business must be called Watts Coffee House. Thus, Watts Happening Coffee House was reborn in 1997 as the Watts Coffee House, just across the street from its former location.
With the art and other memorabilia on the wall, the space could be considered a museum of Watts’ history. In fact, Edwards herself calls it a restaurant museum.
The clientele at the Coffee House is diverse. Some come in because they’ve heard about the restaurant somewhere. Others are regulars, with some dining there weekly. The food is American with a heavy Southern influence and a fantastic presentation. Between the staff and the food, Watts Coffee House has become a much beloved part of the community.
Watts Coffee House still does catering. In addition, it functions as a training site for those interested in entering the field of food service.
Dedicated to the community that patronizes and supports her, Edwards has donated backpacks and shoes for school children, and clothes and turkeys to the community. In an interview with KCET, Edwards says of Watts Coffee House, “This was put here not to make money, but to help people.”
Watts Coffee House is closed Mondays.
4. Earle’s On Crenshaw
Brothers Cary and Duane Earle, natives of Brooklyn, New York, started out with a hot dog cart along Venice Beach in 1984. That hot dog cart took them east to a lot in the Crenshaw area next to a strip mall. They eventually opened a restaurant on Crenshaw Boulevard in 1992 called Earle’s Weiners.
They soon expanded into a new location down the street and called it Earle’s Grill. Construction of a new light rail line along Crenshaw forced them to move again in 2017, this time to their current location a few blocks south. Along with the move came a new name: Earle’s on Crenshaw.
As Earle’s has grown over the years, the menu has changed with it. A business that began selling hot dogs now offers numerous vegan options alongside their famous dogs. Somehow, they manage to include Jamaican patties in their offering.
Earle’s also does catering. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the shiny, green, restored classic Chevy pickup driving down the street with another order from Earle’s or on their way to a special event.
The Earle brothers’ dedication to the community they’ve served for almost 40 years is unquestionable. Through the Earle’s Cares non-profit, Earle’s provides and delivers meals to the elderly, sick, and disabled in the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. For a while, government funding was helping to run the program. When that ran out, the Earles kept the program going out of their own pocket.
They’ve partnered with Beyond Meat and the Los Angeles Police Department. That association allowed them to deliver nearly 3,000 meals. They then turned their efforts to first responders, providing meals and masks to hospitals. Donations from the community help Earle’s to continue making and delivering meals to needy people.
Earle’s on Crenshaw is closed Sundays.
5. First A.M.E. Church
First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles is probably better known to you as First A.M.E. Church, or simply FAME. You’ve no doubt seen the church on television, in the movies, or heard about it on the news. Or maybe you’ve seen the sanctuary’s giant mural God and Us, which commands your attention and elicits awe. Perhaps you’ve seen a campaigning politician speaking from First A.M.E.’s pulpit.
As Los Angeles’ first and oldest African American house of worship, First A.M.E. has been an integral part of the history of the community since its founding.
First A.M.E.’s journey began in 1787 when Reverends Richard Allen and Absalom Jones split from the St. George Methodist Episcopal Church because of the treatment of Black people. That led to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816. After arriving in Los Angeles, former slave-turned-entrepreneur, real estate tycoon, and philanthropist Bridget “Biddy” Mason founded First African Methodist Episcopal church in her living room in 1872. She later bought and donated land for a permanent building.
After outgrowing its second location, a new building was proposed to be built at 25th and LaSalle. Supporters for this new building included Barbara Streisand, Danny Thomas, Tony Curtis, Marlon Brando, and various city leaders. African American architect Paul Revere Williams designed the sanctuary, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held in August of 1963.
When Reverend Cecil “Chip” Murray became pastor in 1977, the congregation numbered about 250. Under Murray’s leadership, First A.M.E. grew to nearly 20,000 members. Civic leaders, entertainers, athletes, and other luminaries call First A.M.E. home. Murray’s tenure saw housing and jobs arrive in the area of South Los Angeles. Over $400 million in investments came into L.A.’s low-income neighborhoods as the result of First A.M.E.’s economic development branch.
Inside the church are more than 30 ministries, bible studies, and other programs. Worshippers can choose from multiple Sunday services. For those who cannot attend in person, KJLH broadcasts one of their morning services.
Outside the walls of the church, its corporations and dozens more community-focused programs — such as college and career fairs, support and assistance for children in foster care, a Girl Scouts chapter, legal clinic, a recovery program, and a food pantry — are available. These are just some of the ways First A.M.E. serves the community.
Current pastor J. Edgar Boyd sums it up: “Community empowerment is a central part of everything that we do here… [W]e’re here, our doors are open, and the work is being done.”