‘Them’ Shows How 1950s Compton Was a Real-Life Nightmare for Black Families

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Three decades before N.W.A. turned Compton into a rap mecca, the Southern California city was blindingly white. It’s a point Amazon makes in Them: Covenant, the first season of its new anthology series, which is set in the sunny neighborhood in the 1950s.

The first episode finds a Black family taking part in the Great Migration, moving west from the Jim Crow South with their hearts set on opportunity and reinvention. In Compton, though, they find more of the hatred they thought they left had 3,000 miles behind.

Them creator Little Marvin told Vanity Fair that he had always envisioned the first season of Them taking place in the west. It wasn’t until the writer began his research, though, that he realized Compton was the perfect backdrop for his socially minded thriller.

“Compton occupies a very iconically Black place in the public’s imagination,” said Little Marvin. “But when you’re digging in—and looking back 60, 70 years ago—not only was it white, but East Compton was really a white stronghold. Those folks were vehemently protective of the white people on their block. The first gangs that were patrolling the streets of Compton were white kids trying to keep Black folks out.” It was a natural setting for his series, which takes a stylized approach to real-life horrors. “It was light bulb after light bulb after light bulb.”

As historian Josh Sides similarly pointed out in an interview with KCET, “It’s difficult to overstate how white Compton was in the early ’50s and late ’40s…exclusively white with an extraordinary web of racially restrictive covenants with a very aggressive policing strategy about keeping Black people out. There was no more effective tool in 20th [sic] America than the racially restrictive covenant in terms of keeping neighborhoods white.”

The first season of Them takes place across 10 days in East Compton, chronicling how the Emory family is met with shocking hostility from their neighbors. In one act of startling aggression, white neighbors set up chairs outside the Emorys’ new home and blast radios. “The L.A. Urban League had actually identified, I want to say, 26 or 27 types of tactics that Black folks experienced,” Little Marvin said. “Anything from acts of vandalism, like burned-down salons, nails up and down the driveway, windows being destroyed to really psychologically terrifying tactics.”

Them’s central storyline was inspired in part by the life of Emory Hestus Holmes. A doctor, World War II veteran, and civil rights leader, Holmes moved to the predominantly white Pacoima neighborhood in the 1950s. His family, according to the online reference center Black Past, “faced a variety of forms of racial harassment that included vandalism, property destruction, and a cross burning. Agitators also hired undertakers to go to the Holmes family home with orders to pick up dead bodies in an attempt to intimidate and frighten the family.” Holmes later filed a civil rights lawsuit against his neighbors in 1960 and won, and eventually helped to found the San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council.

These acts of psychological aggression, Little Marvin said, were “really like water torture. This drip, drip, drip of torture that these families experienced that could go on for weeks or years.”

The Them creator also cited another family as inspiration: Nat King Cole’s, which moved to Hancock Park in 1948.

“Their arrival sparked a storm of protest, beginning with a legal battle by the Hancock Park Property Owners Association to try to prevent him from buying the house,” reported the Independent. “When that did not work, the association tried to buy the house from the star. And months of abuse followed, in which his dog was poisoned and racial insults burnt into his lawn.”

Little Marvin was clear that Compton, with its intense segregation tactics, was far from an outlier at the time: “Compton was emblematic of an experience of it happening across the country.”

There was a brief, harmonious inflection point in Compton, a moment when the racially restrictive covenants were banned, said historian Josh Sides—“where Blacks and whites coexisted quite peacefully in Compton.” But the moment did not last long, per KCET: “When the legality of racially restrictive covenants was destroyed, white developers with the primary goal of turning a profit looked to creating affordable housing for aspiring middle class African Americans who wanted to move to Compton. And in 1952 with a series of new developments, the demographics change almost overnight.”

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