by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The so-called “Progressive Era” was a period of many varied reform efforts, including the growing movement to ban alcohol, limit child labor, establish better food production standards, bust capitalist “trusts” that monopolized industries, and many more. Some of these were driven by moral and religious concerns, and leadership in these causes was often to be found among the clergy, club women, and others primarily in the burgeoning American middle class.
Another issue that emerged from the period was “white slavery,” an unfortunate term by modern standards compared to the slavery endured by blacks for centuries in America, and which dealt with prostitution and other forms of sexual degradation of young white women. In Los Angeles, one of the foremost crusaders against “white slavery” was Charles Edward Locke, long-time pastor of the First Methodist Episcopal Church.
Locke was born in 1858 in Pittsburgh to a minister and his wife and the family also lived in Youngstown, Ohio during his youth. In fact, Locke’s father was the pastor at the church attended by future president William McKinley. When McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo in September 1901, Locke presided over the funeral of the president.
Serving in several churches in Pittsburgh, Portland (Oregon), San Francisco, Buffalo, and then in Brooklyn in New York, Locke came to Los Angeles to assume the pastorate at the First Methodist Episcopal Church in September 1908.
Based on sermons given in the pulpit of his church and responding to “almost innumerable requests . . . from discriminating persons,” Locke published his “White Slavery in Los Angeles” in 1913, a copy of which is in the Homestead’s collection.
He added that “the shocking disclosures” he put forward were “from private sources in the confidential relationships” he’d established “in a great and growing city.” The minister’s aim in publishing the booklet was for “the triumphant day when beautiful Los Angeles will be redeemed from all forms of vice.”
The document is divided into several sections, including a discourse on “the social evil;” the question of licensing prostitution; its oft-assumed status as a “social evil;” the importance of home training and education to prevent young women from falling prey to degradation; the problem of “starvation wages” driving women to the “wicked path;” whether men should be as virtuous as women; and more.
Moreover, “White Slavery in Los Angeles” is chock full of examples of women who had “fallen” into the world of “white slavery,” including instances where a married street car conductor ruined a virgin teenage girl or how a man received ninety days for physically abusing a young woman, among others.
Locke reprinted an April 1913 letter from a young woman who’d heard three consecutive Sunday sermons at his church and stated “you and a great many people, and the wives of many of the prominent men of business of our city would be much surprised if you knew the conditions which exist in the majority of offices today.”
She went on to note that, on two occasions, her employer, married and with children, tried to kiss her. This led the unidentified writer to state that “we must be reserved to prudishness in order to let them know that we do not want their kisses, their company to lunch, their caresses, etc.”
Locke did write that “I note with great satisfaction that the newspapers and the authorities of our city are pursuing the White Slavers . . . and are bringing them to the bars of justice. The minister also noted the role of “the woman panderer who for money and jewels will entice innocent girls into the labyrinths of vice.”
An example cited was of a “pretty and innocent” 20-year old who was at a train station to travel to San Diego and was approached by an older lady who offered to find her an inexpensive place to stay. Another woman overheard the conversation, however, and intervened, threatening to call the police. At this, Locke wrote, “the she-devils beat a hasty retreat.”
The minister called for “some millionaire [who] would take up the fight for the protection of our girlhood” to counteract “infamous millionaires” scheming to seduce young women and work with others “to send some of these reprobates to the penitentiary.” Even then, he concluded “a life sentence would be too short” for “these low panderers” and he prayed, “O, Good Lord, deliver our land from such loathsome and rotten degenerates!”
Rev. Locke continued to serve at the First Methodist Episcopal Church for seven more years. In 1920, he was elected to be a bishop and assigned to work in the Philippines, then an American possession. In 1924, he took up his last pastorate in St. Paul, Minnesota and retired shortly afterward.
Locke’s moral reform work, however, was not over, as he returned to Los Angeles to assume the presidency of the California Anti-Saloon League in 1933, just as national Prohibition was repealed. He lived until March 1940 when he passed away at age 81 and was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.
Tomorrow, we focus on another moral crusader against “white slavery,” an El Monte native named Aletha Maxey Gilbert.