Eula McClaney, in front of her Holmby Hills estate
She went from a sharecropper’s shack to a Holmby Hills mansion”
Eula McClaney came from the cotton fields of Alabama to California and along the way she became one of the wealthiest women in the state. She grew up literally in a sharecropper’s shack in Pike County, Alabama and moved to a mansion in Holmby Hills (the exclusive part of Beverly Hills), California. In the interim, she went on to accrue a fortune in real estate, much of which she eventually donated to worthwhile causes.
During the pre and post Depression era, many Black families migrated from the Deep South to the North, East and West seeking a better life and to escape the pangs of poverty, discrimination, racism and segregation … and McClaney was no different … she migrated too. Her story is truly the epitome of the rags-to-riches story that is often read and dreamt about; her elevation from poverty in the South to riches in the West is considered the story that dreams are made of.
After attaining only a sixth grade education, McClaney ‘entered’ the southern workforce pushing a mule-drawn plow, tilling the soil–planting and picking cotton, and spending her nights in a shack where you can see the sun, moon and stars, and catch water through the roof. That experience may have imbedded an indelible stigma that drove her to the unbelievable heights she climbed in life when she wrote in her autobiography, ‘God I Listened: The Eula McClaney Story’: “I’ve been poor, poor, poor–with the tubs catching water (from the roof) on the stove. So I know both sides. So I want to seriously repeat to you, it’s better to live like I’m living now . . . . I deal with a man called Jesus and I know he owns it all. I’m not afraid to go anywhere except for where the Ku Klux Klan people are…”
McClaney, born the third of five children in 1914, she got married before she was 20 and that marriage produced two girls: Burnistine (Burnie) and La-Doris. Later on she recalled that early in their marriage she had talked him into leaving the South for Pittsburgh where she first began to pray for guidance. Eventually the family left Alabama and headed north and settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as she had envisioned. There they rented an apartment, her husband got a job in the construction and steel industry, and she eased into buying real estate.
McClaney developed a simple, yet masterful plan of saving her pennies from selling sweet potato pie at 10 cents a slice (school children were her best customers); by using public transportation instead of buying an automobile; and taking in foster children. According to her, it took her two years of saving to purchase her first property.
By mid-to-late 1940s, McClaney was able to purchase a three-story home, which she had to fix up, moved her family into it, and rented out the top floor to help make the mortgage payments. That started the McClaney real estate empire. Within a nine-year period, she had acquired 33 housing units and had then moved into an estate, whose previous owner was the publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier. A very religious woman, McClaney attributed her good fortune to a strong belief in God. She said, “I prayed to God to show me what to do because I didn’t want to be poor and struggling all my life.”
As was to be expected back then, when she first started buying real properties, McClaney focused on the Black community–those were the ones that she, as a beginning investor, could have afforded. About that she said, “When I first started buying property, I only had enough money to buy shacks,” and of course, being Black, those ‘shacks’ were located in the Black community. Later on, as her real estate portfolio increased, she ventured outside of the Black community.
Settled and somewhat financially comfortable in Pittsburgh, she and her daughters took an extended vacation to Los Angeles, California. McClaney was impressed by the fact that the motel where they stayed was owned by a Black family. While in L. A., she looked over two pieces of properties–a single family residence which was not for sale–and a motel. She purchased the motel before heading back home to Pittsburgh.
Having been smitten by the L.A. bug, and while Burnie was a freshman at Tennessee State University, McClaney and her youngest daughter moved to L. A. in the late 1950s without her husband. Eventually they were divorced. The motel that she had bought on her first trip, became their first home in the area. (It was located in the area of Washington Boulevard and La Brea Avenue). They lived there for about 10 years before moving to Beverly Hills. She then turned the motel into Flagstone Guest Haven, a residential care facility for the developmentally disabled.
Afterwards, a church became a part of the facility and it attracted celebrities who admired McClaney. Some of those who came included Freda Payne, the late Rev. Ike, Linda Hopkins, and Wally Amos. Amos considered her a role model and so did Linda Johnson Rice who said, “Everyone who knows Eula McClaney speaks very highly of her; she has a very inspiring story.”
Soon after moving to L.A., McClaney had begun acquiring properties in the Los Angeles area–south and west, including commercial land and buildings. She also bought single family homes and apartment buildings; and founded McClaney Properties and McClaney Enterprises Inc. Driving through the West L. A. area, Century City, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Westwood and the Miracle Mile strip, there were apartment buildings with the McClaney signs in front of them–owned and managed by McClaney. By then, she had moved to her Holmby Hills
In the exclusive area that the McClaneys lived (with her two daughters and her mother, Joanna Hendricks), they were sometimes mistaken as the household help especially by travelers on tour buses, who delighted themselves going through the neighborhoods of the ‘rich and famous.’ Throughout the years, McClaney opened her home to “prince and paupers alike” never forgetting her roots and always ready to lend a helping hand to those in need.
She rode around in a rolls Royce and rubbed shoulders with the who’s who of society. Though she only reached sixth grade an elementary school was named in her honor: the Eula McClaney Christian School.
She held fundraisers for elected officials and aspiring politicians including Mayor Thomas Bradley. McClaney also often entertained members of society’s elite–judges, the business and religious community, and Hollywood celebrities. She became tirelessly supportive of various causes and charitable organizations–always giving the credit for her wealth and successes to her strong religious beliefs; she said it was through prayer and sacrifice.
Some of the charities that McClaney supported included: the Charles Drew Medical School Foundation, United Negro College Fund, South Central Regional Center for the Developmentally Disabled, the Sickle Cell Research Foundation, Bethune Cookman College, the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association.
In 1985, her eldest daughter, Burnie, died from lung cancer. The following year, Mayor Bradley honored the McClaneys at City Hall for the generous donations they had made to various charities in memory of the deceased Burnie. The occasion was entitled ‘A Celebration of Giving’ and the McClaneys’ financial gift was designated to form a trust fund for the charities.
Traveling from the cotton fields in Alabama to reach her 22-room, French provincial mansion in Holmby Hills was a long road from where she lived; her neighbors included Henry Mancini, Neil Diamond and Hugh Hefner. Eula McCLaney died in 1986 at 72 years, having traveled a distance that few could have ever imagined.
La-Doris has carried on her mother’s legacy of philanthropy and good works. In 1994, just after the Los Angeles Sentinel was relocated to Crenshaw Boulevard, she honored the Sentinel owners, publisher/Attorney Kenneth Thomas and his wife Jennifer Thomas, at her lavish McClaney Holmby Hills estate–keeping in step with the McClaney tradition.