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A Hidden Gem: Just in Time for May Day

One of the wonderful things about Los Angeles is that just when you think you’ve seen it all, you happen upon a hidden gem. I had that experience recently at the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research in South Los Angeles.

In the course of researching the history of the Women’s Rights Movement in Los Angeles, a friend of mine who works on social justice projects suggested I check out the library. I had never heard of it. Upon visiting the website, even this old, cynical, former advertising executive was charmed: “Southern California Library: Where Making History Is a Struggle.”

The library was founded by Emil Freed, the son of anarchists, who was raised with the consciousness that the world needed to be changed. After graduating from Manual Arts High School in 1917, he earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California. A member of the Communist Party and a Labor Movement activist, Freed was involved with the California Labor School in Los Angeles, which was formed by several unions.

He began collecting pamphlets and other political material during the 1930s. During the McCarthy Era, a number of Freed’s friends did not want to get caught with the leftist materials they had in their possession. People began to bury or burn them. Freed was afraid the material would be lost to history, so he started taking on the ephemera of his colleagues. First he filled his own garage. Then he filled four more.

By the 1970s, Freed located a former household appliance store with no windows in South Los Angeles. He borrowed money and moved the collection into the building. During the past 50 years, the Library has become a remarkable repository of archival resources on progressives in Los Angeles.

The library’s staff is generous to researchers. On my recent visit, they made available not just material from their processed collections, but boxes of unorganized raw material from the second-wave Feminist Movement. Each box was a reenactment of Christmas morning excitement—never knowing what exciting new treasure lay inside. With so much resource material being digitized these days, it was also exciting to hold original newsletters, pamphlets, and photos in my hands. It makes a tangible connection to history that no scan can replicate.

For those of you who find local political history and/or the connection between modern architecture and leftist leanings intoxicating, check out the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research at 6120 South Vermont Avenue (by appointment only).

Sian Winship

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