The area now known as Watts began its modern history after the arrival of Spanish-Mexican settlers, as part of the Rancho La Tajuata, which received its land grant in 1820. As on all ranchos, the principle vocation was livestock grazing and beef production.
With the influx of white Americans into Southern California in the 1870′s, La Tajuata land was sold off and subdivided for smaller farms and homes. In those days each Tajuata farm had an artesian well. The arrival of the railroad spurred the development of the area and in 1907 Watts was incorporated as a separate city; named after the first railroad station built in the town, Watts Station. The city voted to annex itself to Los Angeles in 1926.
A vision of Los Angeles 100 years ago
Along with more Caucasian Americans, Mexican and Mexican American railroad workers (“traqueros”) settled in the community. Blacks came in later and many of the men were Pullman car porters and other railroad workers. Schoolroom photos from 1909 and 1911 show only two or three black faces among the 30 or so children pictured. By 1914, a black realtor, Charles C. Leake, was doing business in the area.
Watts did not become predominantly black until the 1940′s, as the second Great Migration brought tens of thousands of migrants from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas who left segregated states in search of better opportunities in California. During World War II, the city built several large housing projects (including Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts) for the thousands of new workers in war industries. By the early 1960′s, these projects had become nearly 100 percent black, as whites moved on to new suburbs outside the central city. As industrial jobs disappeared from the area, the projects housed more poor families than they had initially.
Longstanding resentment by Los Angeles’ working-class black community over discriminatory treatment by police and inadequate public services, (especially schools and hospitals), exploded on August 11, 1965 into what were commonly known as the Watts Riots. The event that precipitated the disturbances, the arrest of a black youth by the California Highway Patrol on drunk-driving charges, actually occurred outside of Watts. Mobs did the most property damage in Watts during the turmoil.
Watts suffered further in the 1970′s as gangs gained strength and raised the level of violence in the neighborhood. Between 1989 and 2005, police reported more than 500 homicides in Watts, most of them gang-related and tied to wars over control of the illegal but lucrative drug market in the area. Four of Watts’ influential gangs (Watts Circle City Piru Bloods, Grape Street Watts Crips, Bounty Hunter Watts Bloods and PJ Watts Crips) formed a Peace Treaty agreement in 1992 following just over four years of peace talks which were initiated in July 1988 with support of the local community. The spokespersons for groups taking part in the peace talks were Twilight and Twelve.
Twilight and Twelve photos from the 1988 Peace Talks press conference were printed on the front pages of regional and local newspapers and their interviews with TV news crews were on every news channel. In the months and years to follow Twilight would appear on National TV talk shows and speak at several college and university campuses. Both Twilight and Twelve received death threats due to misinterpretation of newspaper articles by their peers, many of whom would join the peace movement in the months and years to come.
After four years of peace talks the Peace Treaty would be drafted and then agreed to the day before the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The pact is supported by a community based education initiative and private investments from prominent members of the community e.g. Jim Brown continues to contribute to the decrease in gang related deaths in Watts and greater South Los Angeles area since 1992.