When it comes to learning about black history, it turns out the best place to begin is right here at home.
The cultural history of this area is reflected in the names of streets honoring celebrity residents like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Dinah Shore, and streets honoring Native American history, like Tahquitz and Arenas.
One name not as well-known is Lawrence Crossley, the namesake of Crossley Road. He’s an African American who arrived in Palm Springs from New Orleans in the late 1920s and went on to become a successful and influential developer and businessman.
Far too many local residents don’t even know there is a long-standing and thriving black community here, nor do they know about the shameful circumstances that led to that community being located where it is, at the north end of Palm Springs. The history of Palm Springs includes the disgraceful episode in the early 1960s when residents, many African American, had their homes (shacks, really) bulldozed for an urban-renewal program. In many cases, residents were not even notified before they returned from work and found everything they owned had been destroyed.
Many of those displaced residents eventually relocated into a community of homes developed under the leadership of Crossley—and that is still where many black residents of Palm Springs call home.
Palm Springs after World War II was effectively a segregated city. Land had been previously allocated to the Agua Caliente and the railroad, in a checkerboard pattern of sections. The working-class residents lived on Section 14, many in shacks made of cardboard and tin. When the Agua Caliente, who technically owned the land, were finally legally able to offer 99-year leases on some of the land, the leaders of Palm Springs—many of whom had been appointed as conservators of the Agua Caliente, supposedly to protect the tribal members from being ripped off, but often corrupt and pocketing money that should have gone to tribe members—wanted to get rid of the low-income residents to develop that land. The city declared leases invalid and “evicted” residents in 1962, most without any notice, “which the state of California later characterized as a ‘city-engineered holocaust,’” according to a 2012 KCET report.
Jarvis Crawford, 40, is community center manager for the city of Palm Springs at the James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center. His family has been in the area for generations, and he is a graduate of Palm Springs High School. He and his wife are raising their two children here. Crawford remembers his own family’s connection to Crossley.
“He started as chauffeur to Prescott Stevens, the family name that graces the Francis Stevens Park in Palm Springs,” says Crawford. “But Crossley went on to be an investor in the old El Mirador Hotel, designed the city’s first golf course, managed the Whitewater Mutual Water Company and pioneered irrigation techniques, and eventually owned trailer parks, a restaurant, a laundromat and other businesses.
“My great-grandfather knew Crossley, and my grandmother lived in a Crossley home after blacks and others were forcibly pushed off the Section 14 land that is now the heart of downtown. Some of the uprooted residents created new black neighborhoods in Banning, others in Indio, but Crossley basically said, ‘I have some land, and you can come over here.’ He gave people another chance at living in Palm Springs.”
Crawford is on the city’s Black History Committee, which, together with the Unity Center (“the Mecca of the black community,” he says), sponsors many events and activities designed to support residents from Banning to Indio—exercise classes and computer training for seniors, youth programs and sporting events, and Black History Month events like the city’s annual parade and fair, happening this year on Saturday, Feb. 27.
“I went to Oklahoma to attend a historical black college, Langston University, and had the chance to learn there was a huge gap in what I really knew about black history,” Crawford says. “I wanted an in-depth knowledge of the truth. I wanted to learn more about me.”
Crawford worked at the Unity Center when he was on school breaks. “I studied computer science and business management, and James Jessie (a local activist for whom the center is named) influenced me to also focus on the leisure industry and physical education. He suggested I come back after I graduated and take time to get myself together,” he says. “He helped me get a job with the Palm Springs Parks and Recreation Department.”
But Crawford’s decision to stay in Palm Springs is probably directly attributable to James Jessie’s death during a camping trip to the Colorado River.
“We had what we called ‘Fishing With James,’ where we took kids from the community out to the Colorado River,” recalls Crawford. “On one trip, one of the kids slipped into the water. James jumped in and saved that kid’s life. I could see the kid sitting and shivering on the shore at the other side of the water, and heard him yell, ‘He hasn’t come up yet!’ I swam across to comfort the young boy while the other kids gathered in horror at what had happened.
“After the EMTs pulled James out, they were getting ready to pull out a black bag, and I asked them to just carry him out to the ambulance. I wanted to stop the kids’ fear and pain. I felt I had to take care of the situation.
“On the whole ride home from Blythe back to Palm Springs, complete with a police escort, I was talking to the kids. ‘Is he dead?’ one finally asked. I couldn’t say yes. The most I could do was answer, ‘Uncle James has a new life.’
“I had intended to head to Northern California to work in the computer industry, but that trip to the river is what got me to stay and work with the city. This is my community. I was one of those kids at one time.”
Jarvis Crawford not only works with the community through the center’s programs; he also gives presentations to local organizations influencing others to discover and embrace the cultural heritage of our area, and doing what he can to fill in the gaps about our own black history here at home.
It’s a good place to start.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.