A Painful Lesson in Division

Sandy Banks, Los Angeles Times, Aug. 28

The graduates of Inglewood High’s Class of 1975 assembled on the football field and applauded Scott Mosko as he took the podium. “Congratulations,” the valedictorian said, “for surviving the utter hell we’ve been through at Inglewood High.”

The school’s “forced integration” had failed, he continued. The proof was right before their eyes: Two groups of graduates—one black, one white—sitting on separate sides of the field.

“The theme of my speech was: Look at how well this idea of integration has worked,” Mosko recalled. “You can force us all to go to the same school and sit in class together, but when you give us a choice, the students choose individually to sit with their own racial kind.”

They were Inglewood High’s second integrated graduating class, a product of the district’s court-ordered desegregation in 1970 that delivered hundreds of black students to a campus that had been virtually all white for half a century.

The transition was abrupt and rocky. Some students rolled through their four years at Inglewood High unscathed. But for others, the resulting racial tumult stoked prejudices, fueled fears and brewed resentment that has lingered for 30 years.

This summer, a round of class reunions brought their adolescent struggles back into focus. Even now, graduates look back through a haze colored by race, economics and culture.

“When you talk to people from my class, they’ll say high school was one of the worst times of their lives,” said Norm Drexel, class of 1975. “What’s stayed with me, with many of us, is anger, that I didn’t enjoy high school.”

Drexel is a product of old Inglewood, which for generations was proudly, and stubbornly, white. His father grew up in Inglewood, and his grandparents worked for the family of the city’s founder, Daniel Freeman.

In 1960, the census counted only 29 “Negroes” among Inglewood’s 63,390 residents. Not a single black child attended the city’s schools. Real estate agents refused to show homes to blacks. A rumored curfew kept blacks off the streets at night.

The Watts riots in 1965 spurred white residents to flee and opened the city’s doors to minorities. By 1970, Inglewood had more than 10,000 blacks among its 90,000 citizens.

Virtually overnight, Drexel recalled, his neighborhood became “an area where nobody wanted to be out front anymore. And when we did, there were always fights.”

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Inglewood’s new black residents wanted access to better, less-crowded schools than the ones they had left behind in South Los Angeles.

By 1970, the city’s schools had 2,500 black children among 14,000 students, but they were clustered on a handful of campuses. Inglewood High had only 17 black students, while Morningside High had more than 600.

That year, parents of 19 black students sued, accusing the district of fostering racial polarization. A federal judge agreed and ordered the immediate desegregation of city schools. Cross-town busing began in the fall of 1970, as the class of ‘75 entered eighth grade.

The next year, they would arrive at Inglewood High, and their divisions would unsettle—then remake—that campus.

Rude reception

“There were problems from Day One, when we got off the bus,” said Dwain Lewis, who would have gone to Morningside had the federal judge not intervened. When his class arrived at Inglewood High in 1971, the 11th and 12th grades were virtually all white; the ninth and 10th grades were about evenly divided between blacks and whites.

Crowds of whites—adults and students—would rock the bus and yell racial slurs. Blacks who dared to answer back were jumped and beaten in the hallways between classes.

“There would be signs on our lockers, calling us gorillas,” Lewis said. “There was a white gang called the Chain Gang, and they would drive by, open up their van, call us niggers and tell us to go back home.

“Our class just had to suck it up, get used to the harassment. It was very intimidating. They were bigger than us, and we were outnumbered.”

Over the next few years, as the number of black students grew, so did their confidence. Their parents pushed the school to hire more black teachers, and those teachers preached a “race pride” ethos. “Black Power” had become a cultural mantra, and the students embraced it. They would sweep through the halls in boisterous groups, forcing whites against the lockers as they passed.

“The tables had turned,” Lewis said. “We had a little swagger then, because it was like ‘OK, we took all this and we came through. Don’t even think about reverting to those days.’ “

But by then, there was a new threat on campus. Violent street gangs had made their way to Inglewood from South Los Angeles. “In ninth and 10th grade we had to worry about the white kids,” Lewis said. “When we got to 11th grade, we had to worry about the Crips.”

The tension on campus was palpable. Newspaper stories from the time describe a campus dangerously out of control, with daily scuffles, beatings and robberies. The problems were blamed by a school board member on “black aggression or white racism, or both.”

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