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Three generations deep, the Colberts of Compton reflect on their roots in the city


David Colbert Jr. grew up in Compton and always knew he was surrounded by greatness – even if the outside world couldn’t see it yet.

He could point to the tennis courts where Venus and Serena Williams honed their skills. He had seen Kendrick Lamar rise to superstardom in the rap world. He attended Dominguez High School with future Oscar-winning director Travon Free, who won a statuette for his film ‘Two Distant Strangers’. He watched former NBA stars Tayshaun Prince and Tyson Chandler play in high school basketball games.

A man stands in front of a large window next to a painting hanging on the wall.

David Colbert Jr. in his Gallery 90220.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“What sets Compton apart is that we have a long line of success stories,” says Colbert, a gallery owner and art curator. “So I was always proud of that and wanted to make my mark.”

That’s why when SoLa Impact – an investment firm for affordable housing and real estate – offered Colbert the chance to open the first business in its South LA complex, known as the Beehive in 2021, Colbert made sure to represent his hometown from the jump.

“I could have called the gallery anything,” he said about it Gallery 90220, which was inspired by his zip code in Compton. “But it was important to me to say like, ‘Hey, I’m 90220. I’m from Compton’ in every room.” He plans to open a full-scale gallery or museum in Compton in the near future.

Colbert’s dedication to his hometown, whether through Gallery 90220 or the Compton Art Walk – which he launched in 2018 – stems from his roots in the city, stretching back three generations.

At age 85, his only living grandparent, Maryland Morris, is one of Compton’s oldest living residents. Colbert’s parents, Yolondra and David Colbert Sr., who have been married for more than 40 years, met at Compton High School and regularly volunteer at their alma mater and other local non-profit organizations. And Colbert’s younger sister, Christian, has a clothing brand called Compton flight crewwhich pays homage to their hometown.

A man points to a painting of a family

David Colbert Sr. points to a painting of himself and his sisters as children, painted by his eldest granddaughter, Leslie Colbert, from a photograph taken a few months before the 1965 Watts Rebellion.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“Our passion for the city is multi-generational,” said Colbert.

Morris, Colbert’s maternal grandmother, was born in Chicago and moved to LA with her mother and sister when she was a toddler. Her mother had just divorced and wanted to be closer to her brother, who already lived in the city, which offered black people more job opportunities.

Morris had fond memories of her South LA neighborhood, which was diverse, but in 1962 she found herself in Compton, where she was able to fulfill one of her life goals: to buy her own home. With three children, including Colbert’s mother, Yolondra, Morris stayed home while her then-husband worked. She later became an occupational therapist and earned her bachelor’s degree online at the age of 72.

“I’m a go-getter,” Morris said, adding that the women in her family have passed their drive onto her. “I’ve continued that with my kids,” and now they’ve taught that to their kids.

“It’s just amazing for me and I’m so proud of it. It really brings tears to my eyes,” Morris added. “We are just a proud family. Always been.”

She has remained in Compton and lives in the same house she bought more than 50 years ago. Her community, which went from mostly blacks to mostly Latinos in the 1970s, has changed considerably, but her reason for staying in town is simple: “I just love Compton,” she said. “It’s a beautiful city and I’ve been here so long.”

The journey to Compton for Colbert’s paternal side of the family was very different. His grandfather – a blues musician who bore the name Stormy Herman – left his home in Louisiana after both his parents died. As a teenager in the 1930s, he bounced around the country, being swamped by the emerging Delta Blues scene, before heading to LA. In the late 1950s, he married Colbert’s grandmother, Vernice, who was also from Louisiana.

The couple had four children, including Colbert’s father, David, and moved into a small duplex in Watts, one of the few neighborhoods where black people were allowed to live due to restrictive covenants, he said. But their lives changed after the Watts riots happened in 1965.

“We literally lived a few blocks from downtown, so I remember the flames,” said 61-year-old David, who was 4 years old at the time. “I can remember standing on the sidewalk, watching white National Guardsmen holding guns, literally driving down my street.”

When word began to spread that black people could buy homes in Compton—which was considered a suburb at the time, according to David—his family jumped at the chance.

He later met his wife, Yolondra, through a mutual friend during his senior year at Compton High School. The couple married shortly after graduating from college and decided to plant their own roots in the city in 1985 by buying a house – where they still live – in 1985.

    A multimedia artwork features tennis coach Richard Williams and his tennis star daughters Venus and Serena

An artwork depicting Compton-based tennis coach Richard Williams and his tennis star daughters Venus and Serena hangs in Gallery 90220 by David Colbert Jr. in Compton.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“We practice what we preach,” says David, who was a meat manager for 35 years. “Instead of saying I’m from Compton” and then moving to the suburbs, “I preach to my kids, ‘You’re from Compton, then you should be in Compton.’ You have to bring positive change.”

The couple, who are longtime real estate investors, can often be seen selling soul food through their vendor company, Colbert’s Southern Gourmetat local events, including Colbert’s Compton Art Walk.

In many ways, each generation of the Colberts has become synonymous with community service and Compton, something they are proud of. And that positive reputation, along with his own motivation and artistic taste, has led to Colbert becoming a well-known connector not only in the art world, but also in entertainment.

As you step into Gallery 90220 – Colbert’s first gallery – his passion for empowering black history and culture is palpable. There’s a dedication wall full of covers from the historic Jet magazine – Black’s landmark issue – that he created with USC lecturer and Gensler designer Kevin Sherrod. A recent exhibition from the New Orleans native photographer Delaney George shows all black women.

Another exhibition from an LA-based artist Will Raojenina features paintings of several notable black athletes, including Jackie Robinson, Michael Jordan, and the Williams sisters. Thanks to Colbert, both artists were able to exhibit their work at Frieze Los Angeles – the huge art fair.

A native of Montreal, Raojenina struggled to break into the art scene when he moved to LA nearly two years ago. For some galleries, “If you don’t pop or aren’t someone who’s considered famous, then they don’t really mess with you. But (Colbert) gave me a chance,” said Raojenina, who held his first solo exhibition at Gallery 90220.

A man stands with his parents in front of a modest house.

David Colbert Sr., with his wife Yolondra and son, David Colbert Jr., in front of his home in Compton, says, “I preach to my kids, ‘You’re from Compton, then you must be in Compton.’ You have to bring positive change.”

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Raojenina added that Colbert “literally opens doors, but he also connects us with other people in the arts and other creatives,” which is invaluable.

During conversations, Colbert regularly sprinkles the names of other creatives in various fields. It’s natural to him and it’s the main reason he opens his gallery to others, especially those from his hometown. Since opening, Gallery 90220 has hosted everything from book signings to networking events and panels, and Colbert has even had musicians make music videos there.

Reflecting on his personal journey and that of his family, Colbert’s mindset makes sense.

“I know what it’s like not having access to things,” Colbert said. “So if I can help other creatives make it easier,” I will. “I’m always sensitive to someone’s arrival and start, and I think talented people deserve space. So I always enjoy sharing space and uplifting others.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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