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The Rolland J. Curtis Photo Archive at the Los Angeles Public Library Central Branch

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Curtis Archive

Muhammad Ali

#MuhammadAli One of the very first photos I worked on for the collection was a set of 5 photos of Muhammad Ali. They were all negatives, making it difficult to see the entire photograph. Once they were digitized, we were floored. The pictures are fantastic. It was towards the end of the project that I was able to determine the event he was attending and why he was there. I believe he was the special guest at an NAACP Testimonial in Compton around 1966. As usual, I was able to determine this by reading the papers Ali was being asked to sign in the last picture, using a loupe. As you can see in the later pictures, he was absolutely mobbed at the event.

Muhammad Ali and Leon Ralph

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This is a photo taken by Rolland Curtis of, then Councilman, Tom Bradley with Martin Luther King Jr. during one of his trips to Los Angeles. I believe King was presented with a resolution from the City Council at this event, placing the date at around Feburary 24, 1965.

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The Ebony Showcase Theater

One of the most successful and time consuming bits of research I’ve done on this project was on an African American theater company called the Ebony Showcase Theater. Nick and Edna Stewart began the Ebony Showcase Theater in 1950. Nick had spent his career playing stereotypical African American roles: a waiter, a porter, an elevator boy, and even a janitor, when the radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy moved to television on CBS. With a background in vaudeville, Nick Stewart found himself cast as the dim-witted, shuffling, ironically named Lightnin’, in a TV show about blacks, but had been voiced for years on the radio by white actors.

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(Left to Right) Edna Stewart, Jayne Meadows, Steve Allen and Nick Stewart chat after the Stewarts received a resolution for their work at the Ebony Showcase Theater.

Understanding the need for African American actors to find a creative output, and meaningful roles, Stewart recalled: “I was Lightnin’ by day, but I put on serious black theater by night…for positive portrayals of African Americans and longevity in the theater.” Stewart also used salvaged lumber from the CBS television construction site to remodel the first theater. The Ebony Showcase Theater was the first African American owned and operated theater for African Americans in Los Angeles.

It was shut down in 1996 and razed to build the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center known as the Ebony Repertoire Theater, a move that angered the Stewarts who had lost the theater years before due to costly building seismic code requirements and the use of eminent domain by the Community Redevelopment Agency. The family had spent years trying to raise the money to save the theater from foreclosure, losing 2 homes in the process. The situation was exacerbated by the plan to call the new performing arts center the Ebony Showcase Theater, a move blocked by the Stewarts. Nick Stewart himself arrived in a wheelchair to protest the groundbreaking of the new theater by holding a sign with the words “Ebony Rip-off.”

Rolland Curtis took photographs of the theater during a visit by Billy G. Mills and Gilbert Lindsay. Curtis not only took publicity photos of the actors with the councilmen, he also photographed their performances and took formal portraits of the actors, all taking place during the same day. In order to identify the actors, and provide a date for the photos, it was important to determine the names of the productions.

Perhaps it was not the most sophisticated way to search the newspapers, but I decided to comb the Theater section of the LA Times every month, looking at the names of productions at the Ebony Showcase Theater from 1963 to 1970. It was quite time consuming, but it yielded the desired result; I had a list of the different productions at the theater, a history of everything that played. I then searched for reviews using the name of the productions. I found one in 1967 matching pictures Curtis took. After a bit of searching on the internet, I found a description of the play:  http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai3/protest/text12/warddayofabsence.pdf.

The summary, description, even the makeup and costumes, were exactly as described in Curtis’ photos. I also searched for photos of the actors billed in the article, double checking to make sure they matched up with Curtis’ photos and finally putting names to the actor’s faces.

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Booker Bradshaw and Isabel Sanford.
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Morris Erby as the Mayor.

After matching such a distinctive play, I managed to narrow down the year and matched up the other 2 productions in Curtis’ pictures.

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Booker Bradshaw, Juanita Moore and Isabel Sanford in Happy Ending.
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Joseph Washington and Laurine Nevels in Lost in Stars.

All of the productions took place in 1967. Here are some of the portraits that Curtis took the same day.

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Here is a photo of Billy G. Mills with actors from Day of Absence. 

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Morris Erby, Isabel Sanford and Juanita Moore with Billy G. Mills at the Ebony Showcase Theater.

Curtis also took a great picture of John Amos, with Nick and Edna Stewart and the rest of the Ebony Showcase players, during the Watts Summer Festival in 1971. Perhaps best known for his role as James Evans Sr. in the TV show Good Times, Amos celebrated his 76th birthday a few days ago. Amos was in a production of Norman is that you? The production was a Broadway flop that the Ebony Showcase Theater recast with black actors. The production became a hit that ran at the theater for seven years.

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References:

Oliver, Myrna. “Nick Stewart; Co-Founded Ebony Theater to Help Black Actors.” Los Angeles Times. December 21, 2000. Accessed December 28, 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/2000/dec/21/local/me-2834.

Shirley, Don. “Ebony Showcase Looks to ‘Norman’ to Bail It Out.” Los Angeles Times. April 14, 1991. Accessed December 28, 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/1991-04-14/entertainment/ca-67_1_ebony-showcase-theatre.

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This is one of my favorite pictures by Curtis, but it won’t be featured in my exhibit in January. Luckily, it is currently on display at the LAPL Central Branch Getty Gallery until Friday, January 29th, 2016, as part of a different exhibit called: Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963. Half of the photos for this exhibit are from the Shades of LA Collection, and the other half is from the Curtis collection. It features a completely different set of photographs from the actual Curtis exhibit opening in January, showcasing life in the African American community, instead of a specific focus on black leaders.

Here is a link for more information about the Changing America exhibit:  http://www.lapl.org/whats-on/exhibits/changingamerica

Freeing Angela Davis

Current total count: 17,040 photographs and negatives processed.

It’s been a very hectic few months , which is why there hasn’t been a blog post in quite a while. October was spent finishing up the initial processing of the majority of the collection. I had my birthday in November, along with Thanksgiving and my graduation from UBC, so I was gone for several weeks. I’ve processed nearly the entire collection, which is currently numbered at 17, 040 photos and negatives. There are a few hundred still unprocessed, orphans which may belong to other series or by themselves. I’m in the process of cleaning up the arrangement and still hold out hope that I can reunite a few to their original events. Currently, my desk has been overrun by the orphan photos, spread out in a gigantic game of memory.

 

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I’m also halfway done with the work for the Curtis Exhibit, which will be unveiled in January 2016 at the History and Genealogy Department at the Central Branch of the LAPL. Photos and captions are almost complete, with an exhibit book in progress.

I thought this would be a great time to talk about the photos I managed to identify a few months ago regarding Angela Davis. Angela Davis was hired as an assistant professor for the Philosophy Department at UCLA. Davis was an activist, radical feminist, a member of the Communist Party, with ties to the Black Panther party. Months after she was hired, under the urging of Governor Ronald Reagan, Davis was fired by the Board of Regents at UCLA, mainly because of her membership in the Communist Party.

When her position was reinstated, largely because a judge ruled that the Regents could not fire her based solely on her political affiliations, the Regents released her again in 1970, firing her this time for language she used in her speeches at school.

It was around this time that the Soledad Brothers’ trial began. The Soledad Brothers were 3 African American men who had been accused of killing a prison guard at Soledad Prison. During their trial in 1970, an African American high school student named Jonathan Jackson held the courtroom hostage. Jackson was heavily armed, and while attempting to escape with the one of the defendants and hostages, the police opened fire on their vehicle, killing Jackson, the defendant and Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, who had been one of the hostages. Angela Davis had purchased the firearms used by Jackson days earlier and had been corresponding with one of the inmates. Based on this evidence, she was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder in the death of Judge Harold Haley.

The subsequent manhunt for Angela Davis, which began on August 14, 1970, earned her a place on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive list. Davis fled California, staying at friend’s homes and moving from place to place regularly. On October 13, 1970, FBI agents found her at a motor lodge in New York City, earning the praise of President Nixon on the “capture of the dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis.”

In the months she spent in jail before her trial, the “Free Angela Davis” movement grew and was in full force. Songs were written,  committees were started, in the United States and throughout the world, all with the goal of freeing Angela Davis. Bail and portions of her legal defense were paid for by churches and local businessmen. When a TWA flight was hijacked in 1972, one of the demands was the release of Angela Davis.

Which brings us to our mystery pictures:

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You’ll have to excuse the quality of the pictures. I used the app on my phone to create positives from the negatives. It began with the picture of Billy Mills with the woman in glasses. This photo was part of the group indexed under Mills, Billy. The woman was unidentified. I couldn’t even read her pin. At the time, nothing else in the picture indicated the event, so I put the photo aside to identify later.

I then stumbled upon these pictures, which were indexed under Operation Breadbasket.

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This was obviously a rally to free Angela Davis by Operation Breadbasket. It had been filed with all of the other Operation Breadbasket pictures. However, I recognized the woman Rev. H. H. Brookins was shaking hands with. With the help of my trusty jewelry loupe, I was able to read the award and identify the woman as Sallye Davis, the mother of Angela Davis, who had attended the Operation Breadbasket meeting.

It struck me as strange that the meeting seemed to be outdoors. All of the Operation Breadbasket meetings were indoors, at least in the pictures. I did a bit of digging and found an article in the Los Angeles Sentinel talking about the meeting.

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She’s even wearing the same outfit in the picture! Hair, necklace, glasses, pin and everything! It turns out that the meeting began at Elks Hall, where Operation Breadbasket normally had meetings. However, in the middle of his speech, Reverend Jesse Boyd had been told that there was a bomb threat placed on the building. The building was evacuated, with hundreds of newly evacuated people milling around in the parking lot. Rev. Boyd and Rev. Brookins stood on a car bumper and called the people to order. A table was brought out and became a speakers platform, on which Rev. Boyd, Rev. Brookins and Sallye Davis stood for the rest of the meeting. Rolland Curtis was there to capture the entire event.

The police continued to search the building but found no bombs at Elks Hall. Davis was acquitted of all charges in June of 1972, by an all-white jury. The remaining Soledad Brothers were acquitted of all charges in March of 1972.

 

References:

Cleaver, Jim. 1971. “Angela’s Mother Speaks Despite Threat of Bomb.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), Jul 15, 2. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/564989128?accountid=6749.

 

 

The Mystery Man with Tom Bradley and The Lady with a Cat

Box 5 of 6

Beginning count: 9,214

Today: 223

Total: 9,437 photographs and negatives since July 7th, 2015

I’m over halfway done with the collection at this point and some of the loose threads are coming together. Several of the photos I encountered earlier in my processing, and which I initially listed as “unidentified”, have been grouped with later photos I’ve found belonging to the same event. The photos had been separated by subject when I first began work on the collection. This was the case with the photograph below:

Tom Bradley with Momolu Dukuly

When I first processed this photograph, I entered it into my spreadsheet as “Tom Bradley with unidentified man.” I entered a detailed description of the man into my spreadsheet, numbered the photo, and then moved on to the next. In the time I’ve spent working on the project, there are hundreds of entries in my spreadsheet titled “unidentified man,” “unidentified event,” and “unidentified group,” etc. These entries all have to be identified and described if they are to be findable in the online photo collection.

This picture was filed under “Bradley, Tom” and I processed it in July of 2014. A few weeks ago, I recognized the man in this picture:

Momolu Dukuly with Tom Bradley and group

This photograph was filed under the name of a women’s group, which was incorrect. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, negatives are difficulty to identify and its easy to make mistakes when filing negatives. The person who worked on the collection before me didn’t have access to apps such as Negative Me to aid in processing.

The great thing about negatives are the amount of detail they can capture if the picture is in perfect focus. In the case of this particular negative, I was able to use my jewelers loupe to read the writing on paper the man is holding.

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The letter is from Mayor Sam Yorty, and it welcomes Momolu Dukuly to Los Angeles for his visit. I can even read the date the letter was written. Dukuly held the offices of Liberian Foreign Minister and Secretary of State during his political career.

Last year, I also encountered this picture, which had been filed under “Cat.”

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This is the problem with filing photographs by subject. Because the person initially processing the collection was unable to identify the woman, she filed it under what she did know, which was that there was a cat in the picture. However, the likelihood of anyone searching through the Curtis collection for a picture of a cat is very miniscule. In addition, the woman in the picture with the cat, who was unidentified, would never be searchable or found in the photo catalog because she wouldn’t be mentioned in the description “Cat.” I entered this photo into my spreadsheet as “woman with cat” and resigned myself to the possibility that I may never discover who the woman was.

Last week I was processing a batch of photographs of a woman named Louise Ridgle, who was campaigning for a seat on the California Assembly. I was searching through newspapers for information on the photographs that Curtis had taken, when I stumbled upon this article:

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I recognized the woman on the left immediately as the lady with the cat. And luckily enough, the newspaper had the woman’s name in the caption. It seems that Amy Harris, who worked for candidate Louise Ridgle during her campaign for Assemblywoman, also adored her cat enough to ask Rolland J. Curtis to have her portrait taken with her cat. Another mystery solved!

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Elgin Baylor of the LA Lakers with John Roseboro of the LA Dodgers at City Hall

This week has been quite busy so this is just a quick post! This is one of the photographs that have already been digitized in the collection. We’ve been able to identify Elgin Baylor and John Roseboro in the picture, but have yet to determine the background for the photograph. The adventure continues!

Negative Me and seeing the Positive

Beginning count: 5964

Today: 133

Total: 6097 photographs and negatives

A large percentage of the Curtis collection is comprised of negatives, with no physical print available. This complicates the processing of the collection for several reasons. First, processing photos of the fragmented collection becomes more arduous when using negatives. The negatives are difficult to compare against other prints or negatives for obvious reasons, like colors and details that I fail to associate because I am unable to translate them to the same colors and details without help. Second, the people in the photographs are more difficult to identify in negatives, further complicating the identification of events. Sometimes, the image needs to become a positive in order to identify events, colors and people in the photographs.

A few of the photos have already been digitized, allowing me to sort through the processed photos and negatives to make corrections; photos that should be grouped together, separated, etc. But the un-digitized photographs, the negatives, continued to plague my work, especially since they make up such a large part of the collection. This was until a few days ago, when I discovered an app called “Negative Me.”

“Negative Me” allows me to create digital positives of the negatives using my phone, allowing me to quickly identify the details, people, and possibly the event the negatives belong to. Here are a few examples.

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This negative was only partially identified, filed with Billy Mills’ photographs. Experience allows me to identify Mills near the center, and even Tom Bradley next to him, and Finnie Jackson on the far left, but everyone else is a mystery. Using, “Negative Me”, this is what I get:

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Suddenly, we not only see Finnie Jackson, Tom Bradley and Billy Mills in all their City Hall glory, we also see, to the right of Billy Mills, Academy Award winning actor Sidney Poitier! Now I know the event it belongs to, because Poitier visited City Hall for a resolution. And there are other photographs that should be grouped with this negative because they also capture the event.

The app was also useful yesterday with this negative:

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Once again, I can identify Billy Mills, but I have no idea who the woman is next to him. Using the app, I was able to create this positive:

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After consulting the brilliant Photo Collection team member, Christine Prime*, I discovered that the woman is actress Diahann Carroll, one of the first African American women to star in a television series. She was the lead role in the show Julia, one of the first shows that didn’t portray an African American woman as a domestic worker. She was also cast in some of the first movies, by major studios, that featured an African American cast. Her career in Broadway earned her the first Tony award ever bestowed upon an African American stage actress. Her film career earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her work in Claudine. 

Here’s a link to the app on Apple’s App store if you’re interested. It’s free and I have not been paid to review it:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/negative-me-free-best-image/id488565628?mt=8

*Christine Prime is the senior photo archives contractor in the department. I say senior because she’s been working for the department for 3 years. Her name isn’t really Christine Prime, but I’ll be calling her that in the blog because she was here first, and because she’s super knowledgeable. Christine Prime is not to be confused with Christina, who runs the entire department, and who is our boss. We could start a band if we wanted to, Kristine, Christine and Christina. We even have a Chris who volunteers.

The Life and Death of Rolland J. Curtis

Beginning count: 5,812

Today : 159

Total processed: 5971 photographs and negatives since July 7th, 2015.

Rolland Curtis with his mother Mathilda and brother Charles.

There isn’t a great deal of information readily available about Rolland J. Curtis. A good amount of research is required in order to fill out the early sections of his life, which I plan on accomplishing after the photographs are processed. The information we have is based on newspaper articles and information provided by the volunteer who initially processed the collection.

Rolland Curtis moved to Los Angeles from Louisiana in 1942 without even enough money to pay for a formal place to stay. There were no rooms available at the time so the YMCA director was kind enough to let him sleep in a closet at the 28th St. YMCA.

By 1951, Curtis’ life was vastly different. He was attending USC for his BS. He started a business with his friend Sterling Wallace called Trojan Chevron Service, a gasoline service station that employed other students. He hoped to finish his degree soon so that he could attend law school. He also played football at USC, which may be where he received his nickname “Speedy” and his trademark greeting of “Hey Coach!”

His “Hey Coach” greeting became a byword, and even when things were not going well for him, one never knew because he always had a smile and a good word.

Rolland J. Curtis playing football at USC

Curtis earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration from USC as well. He spent four years in the LAPD’s Newton Division as a patrolman with Tom Bradley before becoming Bradley’s Field Deputy in 1964.

Rolland Curtis with Tom Bradley, his staff and Councilwoman Roz Wyman.

In 1967, Curtis became field deputy for City Councilman Billy G. Mills, where he remained until his assignment to the Model Cities program by Mayor Sam Yorty in 1972.

It was during his time as a field deputy for both Bradley and Mills that the pictures in the collection were taken.

Whenever there was a community affair, “Speedy” would be seen right down the front, sometimes taking pictures with his huge view camera, or sometimes just there to lend his support to community projects. But he was always there and he always had a smile.

There are only a handful of photos of Curtis in the collection, but the photos are rare enough to warrant special consideration. He seemed to favor taking photos with great men in sports.

Rolland Curtis meets Jackie Robinson

Rolland Curtis meets Joe Louis

On October 5th, 1972, Curtis was chosen by Mayor Sam Yorty to take over the troubled Model Cities Program. He resigned on February 2nd, 1974 due to continuing issues with the program itself. Curtis began a small publicity business after his resignation called SRO Curtisun Publicisits.

He operated a publicity business in a quonset type building off Western Ave. north of Adams. It was the cleanest, the neatest print shop I’ve ever seen. The floors were so clean you could eat off them. The machinery always looked new because it was constantly dusted and wiped and when not in use, kept under vinyl covers. Speedy was proud of that place, and he had every right to be.

Shortly there after, Billy Mills called him back to service and Curtis rejoined the councilman’s staff. When Mills was named to the Supreme Court by Governor Ronald Reagan, Curtis ran for his seat against his fellow staffer Robert Farrell.

Billy Mills with Rolland Curtis

Although he had the endorsement of Billy Mills, Tom Bradley supported Farrell, who ultimately won the seat. 4 years later, Farrell was the subject of a recall and Curtis once again ran for the seat and lost.

His ill-fated political campaigns did not leave him with bitterness. His was always a “wait-until-next-time” kind of attitude.

On May 13th, 1979, Mother’s Day, Rolland Curtis was delivering Mother’s Day bouquets to women in the community. Acts like this were common with Curtis.

Mills recalled Curtis was always concerned about other people, often taking up collections for those in need. “usually without the person’s knowledge.

As a man who throughout his life sought to assist others, he was never one to deny financial assistance to those in need, even if it meant going into debt himself. “Speedy was the kind of man who would have given his last dime to someone in need…”

He never forgot his friends and when the holidays rolled around, one could expect to see “Speedy” bearing gifts.

His wife Gloria returned from Mother’s Day celebrations later that day and found Rolland murdered, the victim of a robbery gone wrong. Police believed that Curtis interrupted a thief who had snuck through the doggy door and hit Curtis with a blunt instrument when Curtis discovered him.

It took 3 years for police to make an arrest in connection with the murder. The man was already serving a sentence and the officers searched through hundreds of fingerprints by hand until they found the suspect. Although charges were filed, we are unsure if the suspect was ever convicted. We are still researching the outcome.

What little we know about what Rolland “Speedy” Curtis was like, we can gather from what was written about him. The quotes throughout this post were snippets from the articles and obituaries written about Curtis after his death. I’ll leave you with one more quote about the man himself.

Speedy Curtis, the person, was industrious, gregarious, loud in a non-offensive manner. He was an archetype of the political showman. Possessing a booming voice, he never would greet you in a whisper if he could greet you with a shout. His opening lines were never serious if he could make them comical. His handshake never was merely strong if he could make it a knuckle-crusher. If you ever met Speedy Curtis, the person, you’d never forget him.

Speedy Curtis, the political operator, was much like the actor who always plays himself, regardless of the role. Playing himself, Speedy rarely failed to attract attention.

Bibliography

“Another Tragedy.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), May 24, 1979. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/565376434?accountid=6749.

“Councilmen Clash Over Model Cities.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), Oct 19, 1972. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/565019731?accountid=6749.

“Council Race Promises Major Battles.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), Jan 04, 1979. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/565271328?accountid=6749.

DOC YOUNG, ,A.S. “Death Scores a Double.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), May 31, 1979. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/565325983?accountid=6749.

Durant, Celeste. “Former Yorty Aide found Slain in Ransacked Home.” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), May 15, 1979. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/158903909?accountid=6749.

Harris, Lee. “Bradley Likely to Endorse Aide in Council Race.” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), Jun 08, 1974. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/157498870?accountid=6749.

“Inquiring Reporter.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), Oct 18, 1951. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/562233556?accountid=6749.

Jones, Jack. “Suspect found in Slaying of Ex-City Aide.” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), Feb 11, 1982. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/153047202?accountid=6749.

L C FORTENBERRY Sentinel,Staff Writer. “Recall Showdown Tues., Aug. 15.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), Aug 10, 1978. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/565272510?accountid=6749.

Mazique, Robert J. “Yorty Moves to Oust Model Cities Chief.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), Sep 28, 1972. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/565027493?accountid=6749.

“Memorial Fund.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), Jun 07, 1979. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/565380885?accountid=6749.

NICK BROWN Sentinel, Staff Writer. “Who Murdered ‘Speedy’ Curtis?” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), May 17, 1979. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/565382619?accountid=6749.

“Photo Standalone 41 — no Title.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), Aug 01, 1963. http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/564659894?accountid=6749.

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