MANY CHAPTERS ago, when I was first starting out as a journalist, there were a few kind people out there who helped pave the way in the community.
Los Angeles is a tough place to report in, particularly if you don’t have key people in specific communities who can vouch for you. Reporters often need a key source who can help them not only gain a better understanding of the territory, but who also can unlock the door to other worlds — voices, points-of-view different takes on things. Cecil Fergerson was one of those people for me.
I got news this morning that Cecil had passed away after a long illness.
Cecil had seen it all and because of it nothing, it seemed, fazed him. He dispensed his wisdom with a cool stoicism, tested you and wanted to know all about your intentions — but the light in his eyes told you what he loved the most — art and ideas and the moments he was talking about it.
There will be many remembrances that will float up in the next few hours and days about Cecil, but mine for now will be the feeling that came over me as I drove up to his house on South Ogden Drive, near the Los Angeles County Art Museum where decades ago he first began work as a janitor and later became a curator there.
The climb up, he’d told me over the phone, had made its mark.
Below is clip from an expansive and elegant profile Emory Holmes II wrote for the Los Angeles Times Magazine back in 1999.
Los Angeles was a very different city in 1948. For most blacks, it meant living in one of two residential pockets, in South-Central or Watts. Fergerson and his family lived in the latter community, which at the time was also home to working-class Latinos and whites. (Fergerson once mounted an exhibition of vintage photographs of Watts, which included a picture of the president of a local bank “running out, late for a Ku Klux Klan meeting, putting on his robe.”)
On that first day of work, Fergerson’s boss informed him that there were only two sure ways of keeping his job. No. 1: keep a broom in your hands at all times and walk fast. No. 2: always keep a white man white. Meaning–always make a white man feel superior. “Now, I can’t rewrite my history,” says Fergerson. “It’s too late. I was born in 1931! I became aware of the arts 17 years later, in a very hostile community, [with] no representation of my people, none in history, in the arts, in science, not even in California history. I’m 17 years old, and I gotta walk through the halls every night, sweeping them floors, mopping and cleaning up, and not seeing any representation. So I did get bitter.”
Bitter, but wise.
Just a few weeks ago, I found myself riding through Watts on my way to yet another reporting assignment and I saw Cecil’s face floating up. There he was, bigger than life, on a wall near the Art Center, where he’s been for years. Though this street was miles away from South Ogden and the hospital bed that I’d heard he was now resting in, fighting for his life, but still, there he was overlooking the old neighborhood.
I took it as a sign.
It had put me in mind of that day, so long ago, when I was making my way to his home for the first time on South Ogden. He had told me to look for the purple house. But when I arrived, I realized this “purple house” was beyond my imagining. It glowed purple — even the painted walkway, leading up to the entrance.
Purple, he told me, was the color of power. It was regal.
That was Cecil Fergerson talking not just about his house but about himself.
image Cecil Fergerson mural by Richard Wyatt via You are Here L.A.