Almena Lomax, longtime civil rights activist, journalist and former editor of the Los Angeles Tribune, died Friday, March 25, 2011, in Pasadena after a short illness. She was 95, and is survived by four children.
Hallie Almena Davis was born on July 23, 1915, in Galveston, Texas, the second of three children of a seamstress and a postal worker. She attended public schools in Chicago, where her family moved when Mrs. Lomax was two to escape Jim Crow, finally, like many others in the Depression era, settling in California. Despite a more enlightened racial climate in Chicago, Mrs. Lomax’s mother, whose father was white, found it necessary to pass for white to work as an expert fitter and alterer in the exclusive women’s dress shops lining Michigan Avenue, which had a profound effect on her daughter’s life.
A graduate of Jordan High School in Los Angeles, she studied journalism for a year and a half at Los Angeles City College, many of whose journalism students went on to staff Los Angeles’ major daily newspapers. “They were taking them out of there as fast as they learned who, what, when, where…A grand how,” Mrs. Lomax said in an oral history recorded for California State University at Fullerton in 1967, “…and nobody would hire me.” So, in 1938, she went to work at a black weekly, the California Eagle, under Charlotta A. Bass, pioneering journalist and future Independent Progressive Party vice presidential candidate, reporting, proofreading, selling ads and subscriptions, and making up the paper, all for ten dollars a week. She left in 1940, when, as her reputation grew, she began a popular twice-weekly news and interview program for Gold Furniture Company on Los Angeles radio station KGFJ, and Mrs. Bass gave her an ultimatum: choose between the newspaper and the radio program.
She left the Eagle, starting the Los Angeles Tribune in 1941 with $100 she borrowed from her future father-in-law, Lucius W. Lomax, Sr., proprietor of the legendary Dunbar Hotel on Los Angeles’ Central Avenue, a man of wealth with extensive business interests, both legitimate and illegitimate, in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Houston. A former Buffalo Soldier and fellow Texan, Mr. Lomax wanted to see black business flourish, but expected a benefit to his own business and political interests when his son, Lucius W. Lomax, Jr., joined the Tribune as publisher in 1943. Mrs. Lomax later described the “pay to play” atmosphere of African-American journalism of the period: “Everything you saw [in print] was paid for, and everything you didn’t see was also paid for.” Lomax Sr., who, Mrs. Lomax said, paid $1,000 a week to Mrs. Bass to influence Eagle editorial policy and political endorsements, was angered to find his bookie joints and the graft he paid to Los Angeles Police Department officers favorite targets of his future daughter-in-law and of the Tribune.
With the $100, Mrs. Lomax bought a weekly newsletter called the Interfaith Churchman for $50, and with the remaining fifty, printed the first issue of the Tribune in July 1941, eventually transforming the newsletter into a 24-page, five-column tabloid, full of news, lively opinion pieces, book and movie reviews, and political commentary, with a circulation of 25,000 at its peak. Contributors to the paper were what we would call a multicultural group today, including whites and Asians. She hired two Japanese writers, Wakako Yamauchi and the late Hisaye Yamamoto DeSoto, when they were released from internment during World War II. Both women went on to achieve distinction as writers of fiction.
Over the next two decades, Mrs. Lomax became a force in African-American journalism, developing a nationwide reputation among politicians and journalists, both white and black, for fearlessness in battle-with Hollywood over the industry’s racial practices and the studio blacklist, with the white Republican power structure of California, including then-Governor Earl G. Warren and the Chandlers, founding family of the Los Angeles Times, which she would sue in 1976 for racial discrimination in hiring (eventually settling out of court), and with federal officials over the timid, waffling civil rights policy of the federal government. With her reputation for controversy, and what one of her admirers, Langston Hughes, called her “impish humor,” in 1946 she was awarded the first prize in the Wendell L. Willkie Awards for Negro Journalism, sponsored by the Washington Post and named for the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, for a column debunking the myth of the black male’s sexual prowess, riffing off reports that English girls wept when black troops went home to America after World War II. The article, written when she was just 30, was typical of the provocative, incendiary journalism she became noted for. One of the award judges hailed the then Miss Davis’ weekly feature articles as “high quality newspaper work-splendidly done by any test.”
During the 1940s and 1950s, the Tribune grew in importance, as did its editor. In 1952, Mrs. Lomax was selected to serve as a delegate to the Democratic convention. Mrs. Lomax became the first black journalist to be accredited by the Motion Picture Academy, and led boycotts of the movies “Porgy and Bess” and “Imitation of Life,” which Mrs. Lomax believed “libeled the Negro race.” In 1959, Mrs. Lomax and her daughter Michele picketed the opening of “Imitation of Life,” the film remake starring Lana Turner of Fanny Hurst’s tearjerker novel of the same name about a black maid rejected by her light-skinned daughter after the daughter passes for white.
Mrs. Lomax recalled her readers’ eagerness for first-hand information of the 1956 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Readers donated money to cover Mrs. Lomax’s traveling expenses for a trip to Montgomery, with some even offering to babysit her six children. Mrs. Lomax, who stayed with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his family in Montgomery, produced “Mother’s Day in Montgomery: Boycott Leader Serves His Congregation Toynbee, Langston Hughes, Emerson and Jesus Christ, and is Received in Complete Consanguinity” to much acclaim.
Mrs. Lomax helped deliver the liberal vote to Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, father of the present California governor, in the 1958 California gubernatorial race. As an early opponent of the death penalty, Mrs. Lomax crafted a deal with Brown’s campaign manager and a future California Supreme Court justice, Stanley Mosk, for Tribune support in exchange for a pardon of Caryl Chessman, infamous “red light bandit,” an apology to the Japanese for internment, a state Fair Employment Practices Commission, and increased representation of minorities in appointive state positions. Brown delivered on all of the items on Lomax’s wish list except for the pardon for Chessman, who was executed in 1960. With the power of her paper and the force of her personality, she helped shape the careers of Stanley Mosk, diplomat Ralph Bunche, Congressman James Roosevelt, Senator Alan Cranston, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
After her divorce from Lucius W. Lomax, Jr., Mrs. Lomax closed the doors of the Tribune in 1960, and took her children to Tuskegee, Alabama, to live.
Her return to her Southern roots, what she called “a journey to the beginning,” proved a fertile time for Mrs. Lomax’s writing, and also allowed her to observe the progress of the civil rights struggle up close. Her published work was featured in Harper’s and The Nation, as well as in many newspapers.
After her return to California, she became the first black person to work on the city desk of the San Francisco Chronicle, then moved to the paper’s rival, the San Francisco Examiner, as a reporter covering the turbulent social and political environment of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the kidnapping of her boss, Randolph Hearst’s, daughter, Patty, by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Mrs. Lomax once described her most fearful day as a journalist being not in Alabama but in Oakland, during the Black Panthers’ heyday. Lomax was credited with ferreting out the hiding place of the black revolutionary Angela Davis, who was accused of providing guns and ammunition to inmate George Jackson at San Quentin and also with providing the same in the Marin County Courthouse shootout that left five dead.
Mrs. Lomax was preceded in death by her daughter Melanie, former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission and a prominent civil rights attorney, who died in an auto accident in 2006. She is survived by her children Michael L. Lomax, national president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, of Washington and Atlanta; Mark W. Lomax, an attorney, of Los Angeles; Mia D. Lomax, of Los Angeles; and Lucius W. Lomax III, of Austin, Texas, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Michele Leslie Lomax, one-time film critic at the San Francisco Examiner, died in 1987.
A fervent agnostic, Mrs. Lomax nonetheless believed in Biblical retribution for wrongs committed against her people. She later justified a hard-nosed political style as being required by the times in which she lived.
“I’m not Jesus Christ,” she was fond of saying. “If you slap me, I don’t turn the other cheek.”
Funeral services will be private. In lieu of flowers, the family encourages donations to the United Negro College Fund.