L.A.’s Forgotten Civil Rights Champion

As executive director of the Los Angeles Urban League, Floyd C. Covington made a difference in the lives of the African American workers he fought for—not only in the workplace, but in housing, in education, and at the voting booth.

Los Angeles civil rights leader Floyd C. Covington, 1942.
Los Angeles civil rights leader Floyd C. Covington, 1942.
COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, ON BEHALF OF THE USC LIBRARIES SPECIAL COLLECTIONS.

Floyd C. Covington was exceptionally good at his job. When he identified a white businessman open to his ideas, Covington would correspond or meet with the man for weeks, sometimes months—however long it would take for the white man to employ black workers.

As executive director of the Los Angeles Urban League in the 1930s and ’40s, Covington preached the gospel of what he termed “the Negro Market.” Using statistics, hard sales numbers, boycotts, and old-fashioned man-to-man conversations, he worked relentlessly to convince white business owners that ending their discriminatory hiring policies would benefit their bottom lines.

He called upon Goodyear Tires, Thrifty Drugstores, Bank of America, and many others, persuading them to consider hiring black Angelenos. And not for just any jobs. He wanted African Americans to move beyond the custodial and domestic positions to which they’d been relegated by a white-majority society.

Underlying his approach was a simple, consistent strategy: work harder than anyone else, push for progress day and night, and do the endless, often tedious, always difficult work that had to be done. It sometimes succeeded.

In 1933, Leonard F. Kissig, the vice president of sales at Helms Bakeries, penned a letter to Covington, thanking him for suggesting that he hire black delivery-truck drivers.

“Our experiment with these men to date has been most pleasing,” Kissig wrote. “Before trying this out we had one route in this particular section which we had difficulty keeping men on. The most it was possible for them to sell was $130.00 per week. With only a few weeks of experience we are now selling $438.00 in this same territory—and as I have said before, sales are constantly mounting.”

But for each white businessman Covington convinced, there were many more who shut the door in his face. And just because someone works tirelessly, it does not mean they don’t get tired, or even exhausted.

One day, when Covington was feeling weary (or exasperated or depressed or some combination of those emotions), he took out a torn piece of scrap paper and in his signature cursive style—large and wobbly—wrote out a promise to himself that someday this endless whirlwind of work would cease.

“As soon as the RUSH is over I’m going to have a NERVOUS BREAKDOWN,” he scrawled, adding a justification below. “I worked for it, I owe it to myself and NOBODY is going to deprive me of it!”

It’s impossible to know when Covington wrote those words. The scrap of paper is not the kind of document one signs or dates, and he did neither. But he also never threw it away—retaining it, I imagine, as a talisman of sorts. On more than one occasion, he would fulfill its grim promise.

COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, ON BEHALF OF THE USC LIBRARIES SPECIAL COLLECTIONS.

THE DUSTBIN OF HISTORY

I first encountered Covington’s intimate note while inside the cool, dark, wood-paneled Special Collections room at the University of Southern California’s Doheny Library. It was the summer of 2018, and I was alone except for a quiet and apparently bored student monitor.

William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and an Alta contributing editor, had invited me to examine Covington’s archives. “Once you peel back [the layers of] mid-20th-century Los Angeles African American civil rights, Covington pops up because he’s so busy,” Deverell told me. “He’s at the front lines of housing equality, educational equality, workforce equality, civil rights, and voting rights. He’s a hero.”

After a few days of sifting through Covington’s meticulously preserved archives—newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, photo albums, correspondences, yearbooks—I had ample evidence that he was a hero, yes, but an unsung and mostly forgotten one. To date, no biographies or dissertations about Covington have been published. While historians like Deverell have encountered Covington’s name in their research and have been aware of the broad outlines of his story, the details of his life and work have been, seemingly, lost to history. That is, they were until USC procured Covington’s archives after receiving a cold call from an elderly gentleman who had come into their possession and wanted them preserved.

Digging through the Covington archives felt a little like solving a mystery and a little like going through a stranger’s attic. In each box, I found a revealing clue that told me something new about Covington: what brought him joy, led him to despair, kept him going. But I also felt immense sadness that I—and so many others—had never heard of him, that he hadn’t been accorded the prominent place in L.A. history that he deserved. And then there was the note. That strikingly passionate bit of chicken scratch, tucked between a stack of old medical bills and a magazine, inside a box. People tend to preserve artifacts from good days, but this was a relic from a bad one.

Eventually, this research project would lead me to a house in El Segundo where I’d spend a lovely few hours with Covington’s grandson, Keith Covington, and Keith’s wife and daughter. And slowly, over the next 18 months, as a fuller picture of an impressive, beautiful, complicated life emerged, I felt I got to know Covington, becoming acquainted with both the passion that drove him to work so tirelessly and the personal demons that compelled him to write that ominous note.

FLOYD AND SUGIE

Covington came to Los Angeles following a personal tragedy. Born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1901, he was the second son of Lulu Jeltz Covington and Charles B. Covington. Little is known about Charles, who was, quite literally, out of the picture by the time Covington was a toddler; in family photos from the early 1900s, Covington and a brother stand stoically on either side of their stern-faced single mother.

By the time he was 13, Covington’s mother had died, most likely from tuberculosis. His brother seems to have stayed in Colorado (there are no references to him in the archives after this time), while Covington went to live with his mother’s second cousin in Los Angeles.

That second cousin was Lillian Jeltz Craw, a bright and educated playwright, teacher, and minister’s wife. Throughout his life, Covington consistently described Craw as his inspiration and the driving force behind his educational and professional success; she helped him complete a belated high school education in his early 20s, and he attended college at her alma mater, Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. Later in life, when he spoke about his beloved mother, he was actually referring to Craw.

In Los Angeles, Lillian Craw and her husband, the Reverend James Logan Craw, introduced Covington to a thriving, established black middle-class community. Reverend Craw was the pastor of the First AME Church of Los Angeles, the oldest black church in the city. It was a hub of black social, cultural, and political activity in its prominent position at the corner of Eighth and Towne Streets.

Through his foster parents, Covington came into contact with Thomas A. Greene, the executive secretary of another important black institution: the 28th Street YMCA, the first Y to serve the black community on the West Coast.

Greene gave Covington his first job in Los Angeles, as the membership secretary of the 28th Street YMCA, and helped him gain a professional foothold at the Los Angeles Urban League. The two men’s relationship was destined to become personal as well; at some point during his teens or early 20s, Covington fell in love with his mentor’s second daughter, Willa Alma Greene.

She went by Alma, but in love notes and Valentine’s Day cards Floyd called her Sugar or Sugie. Floyd and Alma maintained a long-distance courtship while he was away at school. In July of 1929, within a year of his move back to Los Angeles after graduate school, they married in a ceremony held at the 28th Street YMCA. Six years later, they would have a son, their only child, Floyd Jr.

Alma and Floyd exemplified the generation and community of which they were an integral part. The sons and daughters of turn-of-the-century migrants from the Jim Crow South, they were educated and confident, determined to complete the journey their parents had begun, albeit in their own, more modern way.

As the Covingtons worked to improve the lives of their fellow black Angelenos, they also enjoyed theirs to the fullest, packing their social schedule with dinners, plays, and concerts featuring black classical musicians and opera singers. This was the period of the Harlem Renaissance, and, as Douglas Flamming, author of Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America, writes, “ ‘New Negroes’ in L.A. wanted a homegrown Renaissance.”

Covington (far right) with clerks at Pay ’n Takit, a Los Angeles store whose workforce he helped integrate, circa 1933.
Covington (far right) with clerks at Pay ’n Takit, a Los Angeles store whose workforce he helped integrate, circa 1933.
COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, ON BEHALF OF THE USC LIBRARIES SPECIAL COLLECTIONS.

PEACE AND WAR

In a photo from around 1933, Covington stands proudly in white pinstripe pants and a dark suit vest and jacket next to a group of smiling black and white clerks, the “Opening Crew” of the Pay ’n Takit Store at 50th and Central.

Covington became the Los Angeles Urban League’s executive director in 1931, a critical moment in which demand for job-placement services soared. As it did across the country, the Great Depression caused a surge in unemployment in L.A.’s black community. At the beginning of 1930, unemployment among black men in the city hovered around 8 percent. By 1931, unemployment had reached 30 percent for black men and 40 percent for black women. It had reached nearly 50 percent for both sexes by 1933.

Flamming describes the Urban League’s tactic: “In the 1920s, it was difficult to even imagine an equal-employment law in America. Instead, the immediate concern [of the league] was breaking the employment color line through suasion and negotiation.”

Undoubtedly, Covington’s highly personal approach took a toll on him—even victories could be demeaning. Reading letters from Helms Bakeries’ Kissig, I was struck by how condescending the praise often was, how shocked white businessmen seemed that black employees were clean, responsible, capable workers. Even for an individual used to the ubiquitous racism of the 1930s, that constant undercurrent of prejudice based solely on skin color must’ve stung.

When he wasn’t lobbying for jobs, Covington pushed Hollywood and advertising executives to move away from racist depictions of black Americans on-screen and on food and beverage packaging. “Avoid terms of subserviency,” he advised marketers in a 1940 Business Week article, adding that they should “avoid broad caricatures in picturing Negroes and in their dialect” and, instead, should “recognize that the Negro is a good customer who wants generally what white people want, buys cars, refrigerators, nice clothes, good food.”

During World War II, when the black population of Los Angeles nearly doubled, Covington’s efforts shifted to a new front. He worked closely with the government’s War Manpower Commission to persuade military contractors to hire black shipbuilders and airline mechanics for the first time. “Of course the question always was, ‘Can they do it?’ They haven’t done this type of work before,” he said in a 1967 interview. “This again, you see, was a first.”

Covington faced obstacles from within the black community as well. In that same interview, he described a frustrating “vicious cycle” of racist policies and inadequate educational opportunities. His own league board members sometimes questioned why he spent so much time and effort obtaining so few jobs. “I could work a long time and maybe only one man got in,” he explained, defending his dogged approach. “But the league’s philosophy in the early days, historically, was to work and try to provide opportunities where they did not exist.”

When the interviewer asked him if he ever encountered pushback against some of his ideas, Covington responded, “Sometimes.”

EXECUTIVE ORDER #9835

Covington’s first major mental break occurred in 1944. On a piece of paper inside a folder containing his medical history, he described it as “a nervous breakdown resulting from overwork involving night and day community organizing activities requiring travel over a ten state area.”

His exhaustion must have been tremendous, and the fragility of his mental state extreme. He was hospitalized from May of 1944 until January of 1945, staying first at an Alhambra sanitarium and later at Los Angeles General Hospital. Having given so much of himself to help others, he had depleted himself.

Upon release, Covington jumped back into work, eventually leaving the Urban League and shifting his focus to discriminatory housing policies. He fought against racially restrictive housing covenants and racially segregative local, state, and federal housing laws, first as the racial relations adviser to the Federal Housing Authority and later as the equal opportunity specialist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

But in 1951, Covington received notice from the government that he was under investigation for activities in connection with “organizations designated by the U.S. Attorney General as Communist organizations within the purview of executive order #9835.” It was the height of the McCarthy era, and black civil rights leaders had become targets of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The evidence was flimsy but plentiful. During the 1930s and ’40s, Covington had either attended or spoken at hundreds of meetings, luncheons, and dinners, spreading his message of equal employment opportunity far and wide. If a group like the American Youth Congress or the American League for Peace and Democracy had invited him to speak on black employment or civil rights, he’d said yes.

Defending himself against these allegations took years and cost Covington valuable time and money. The USC archives include reams of transcripts from Loyalty Board hearings in San Francisco and dozens upon dozens of letters of support from character witnesses. I believe these documents to be the most riveting and historically important material in the Covington archives.

The African American History Collection at California State University Fullerton contains an extraordinary, zippy tape recording of a 1967 interview with Covington. Glimpses of his optimism are apparent in the nervous, energetic, passionate way he communicates—“I come from a family of fast-talkers,” he tells the interviewer—but weariness is also audible. He’d watched the fight for civil rights become increasingly violent. The Watts Rebellion had hit close to home in 1965. Even as some battles had been won—the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 must have felt like a huge victory—too many others had been lost.

He retired from HUD in 1970 at the age of 69, and just as he had predicted in that undated cryptic note, the “RUSH” came to an end. No one would stop him from breaking down. Throughout the 1970s, Covington was in and out of mental health facilities and hospitals, often staying for months at a time.

Intake paperwork from one monthlong hospital stay at Gateways Community Mental Health Center in 1979 describes his condition upon his involuntary commitment there: “You were brought in by your family. You were out of touch with reality, not eating, not sleeping and feeling persecuted.”

In one of the last photos of Covington in the USC archives, he and Alma appear flanked by Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley and Urban League president John Mack. It’s 1984 and they are accepting a document proclaiming April 24 Floyd and Alma Covington Day. They are a handsome, impeccably dressed couple. And despite his diminishment from age, Covington’s eyes still sparkle with determined intensity.

L.A. mayor Tom Bradley holds a certificate declaring April 24, 1984, as Floyd and Alma Covington Day; he’s joined by John Mack (far left), then president of the Los Angeles Urban League.
L.A. mayor Tom Bradley holds a certificate declaring April 24, 1984, as Floyd and Alma Covington Day; he’s joined by John Mack (far left), then president of the Los Angeles Urban League.
COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, ON BEHALF OF THE USC LIBRARIES SPECIAL COLLECTIONS.

WHERE THE HEART IS

Floyd and Alma never met their great-granddaughter, Kaitlin Covington, but they would have loved her. She has Alma’s almond eyes and thick, dark hair. A 2015 graduate of El Segundo High School, she shares Floyd’s passion for music, poetry, and literature. She wants to study English literature and someday, perhaps, become a professor. Her future is bright. She can apply for any job she wants. It is, of course, illegal for an employer to discriminate against her because of her race or sex. This is the legacy her great-grandfather struggled to leave her.

I met Kaitlin a couple of months ago, when I visited her and her parents, Keith and Kathy Covington, at their El Segundo home.

Keith’s father was Floyd Jr., Floyd and Alma Covington’s son. Floyd Jr. worked for his father at the Urban League for a while, but his life more or less fell apart. He abandoned his wife and kids when they were young, and Keith has been estranged from him ever since.

I was taken aback when Keith greeted me at the door of his home. He is the spitting image of his grandfather. A Stanford business school graduate, he works in real estate and leads a happy, successful life.

Keith and Kathy were warm and welcoming. They offered me coffee, and we talked about what I had seen in the archives, piecing together the story of Keith’s family.

Keith told me he remembers Alma as a warm, loving grandmother whom he relished spending time with. He remembers the plastic cover on his grandparents’ fancy parlor couch and sliding down the carpeted stairs in their house. He also remembers his grandfather’s pristine Chrysler New Yorker. But Keith remembers little about him, mostly because they didn’t spend much time together. Floyd Covington Sr., he says, was always at work.

Seeing Keith’s happy home reminded me of an article Covington wrote 50 years ago, “Housing Opportunities for All.” It began: “In one of the early Afro-American spirituals there is a descriptive line which says: ‘Everybody talking bout heav’n ain’t going there.’ ” A paraphrase of this line might describe our current housing situation: “Everybody in need of housing ain’t getting it.” And I recalled how earlier this year, the Washington Post had reported that, despite a strong economy, “homeownership levels for [African Americans] have dropped incrementally almost every year since 2004…virtually erasing all the gains made since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.”

When I read statistics like that, I think of Floyd C. Covington. Of the herculean effort it takes to fight for equality and the toll of those battles. Of the glory of the “RUSH” and the humanity of the “BREAKDOWN.” Of how even when progress is achieved, there is so much that does not change.

Catherine Womack wrote about the LGBTQ band Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles for Alta, Summer 2019. Based in Los Angeles, she feels most at home in the dustiest corners of a library.

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