Not Asked to the Dance : Black Parents Charge That Racism Barred Children From Being Invited to Join Cotillion

Times Staff Writer

The worst part, Patsy Pressley said, was having to sit down with her 10-year-old daughter, Melissa, and explain some grimmer facts of life.

"I had to tell her about discrimination and de facto quotas," Pressley said. "Not at 10. Not yet. I shouldn't have to do that."

Melissa, who is the only black among 40 fifth-graders at her private school in Hancock Park, had had her feelings hurt. She had found that most classmates, but not she, had been invited to join the Ebell Cotillion, a social institution that teaches ballroom dancing, etiquette and other social graces on an invitation-only basis.

But when it comes to the cotillion, Melissa is not the only one with hurt feelings these days. Patsy Pressley's feelings were hurt as she grew convinced that her daughter had been snubbed by the organization because of her race. Cotillion leaders had their feelings hurt as they grew convinced that an innocent oversight was being turned into an unfair allegation of discrimination. And the Rev. Charles Rowins, headmaster of Melissa's school, had his feelings hurt as he grew convinced from past experience that Melissa's case is not unique.

On the surface, Patsy Pressley's two-month spat with the cotillion ended a week ago when organization leaders agreed under pressure from Rowins to sign a pledge of non-discrimination.

Underneath the dispute, however, was a microcosm of contemporary racial relations, full of righteous indignation, heightened sensitivity and suspicion.

On one side were two middle-class black families embittered by their belief that subtle, unprovable racism from an unanticipated source was poisoning their children. On the other were cotillion leaders who, while denying racial discrimination, pride themselves on selectivity. After all, one said, "the experience of not being included in everything is a fact of life."

The Ebell Cotillion serves Hancock Park, one of Los Angeles' poshest neighborhoods. It is a branch of the 70-year-old Los Angeles Cotillion, the oldest of several Southern California cotillions. Each cotillion is operated by experienced etiquette instructors and sponsored by "patrons" and "patronesses"--parents who decide which children should be invited to attend after-school classes at an average monthly cost of $75 to $100.

The most common recruiting network is private schools, like Melissa Pressley's St. James School, an Episcopalian school on St. Andrews Place in Hancock Park. Separate classes are held for various grade levels. The schools have no formal connection with the cotillion, but patrons and patronesses have used school directories to decide who to invite, Rowins said.

Earlier this fall, Melissa Pressley came home and asked her mother what a cotillion was and why she wasn't going to be a part of it.

That "was not the first unhappy situation we've known about," Rowins said in an interview. "We've tried to make it clear to families who are involved (in the cotillion) that we don't approve of the impact the exclusion has on our school community."

The problem, Rowins said, is that children and some parents tend to mistakenly regard the cotillion as school-related.

"They think it's some sort of school group that they've been left out of," Pressley said.

Rowins Wrote Leaders

After speaking to Pressley, Rowins wrote to the cotillion president, Marilyn Kezirian, asking that she sign a non-discrimination pledge that he could use to reassure Pressley or other concerned parents. There was no immediate written response. Instead, cotillion leaders met with Pressley in an unsuccessful attempt to convince her that her daughter had simply been overlooked when the invitation list was drawn up.

Pressley, a paralegal at a large downtown law firm, and her husband, an oil company compensation director, had enrolled their daughter in St. James two years ago. The school was far from their home in Laurel Canyon, but it met their desire for a private school near their offices. Pressley said the couple "wanted a church school because we didn't want to get into the social climate you find in a lot of (secular) private schools, the exclusivity."

Pressley said she had never heard of the cotillion before her daughter's encounter, but in her inquiries she was told by a parent whose child is enrolled in the organization that race played a part in Melissa's case. Her suspicions were further strengthened, she said, when she ran into George Sneed, a black architect.

As Sneed tells it, the same thing that happened to Melissa Pressley in 1985 happened to his son, Christopher, in 1984. Sneed, who lives in Hollywood, said he had sent his son to St. James because of its reputation for a quality academic education. Like Pressley, he said he began making inquiries about the cotillion after Christopher came home worried about why the boys whom he associated with in school, sports and Cub Scouts had received cotillion invitations. Chris had not been invited.

"I found out his name had been submitted and had been turned down," Sneed said. "Then I began to get stories from other kids' parents who said (the cotillion) had a racial policy, especially against blacks. I had four sets of parents tell me that."

In the wake of the rejection of Sneed's son, one white cotillion parent involved in the screening process resigned from the group. She declined to discuss her decision beyond calling it "very personal."

Both Pressley and Sneed said they had been unable to persuade parents who told them that the cotillion employed racial standards to talk to a reporter. They said they were disappointed by a lack of support from such cotillion parents.

"There's a whole series of 'Christian' parents who have not taken a stand," Sneed said. "They're acquiescing. No one has stood up and said, 'This is wrong.' "

1 Nonwhite Invited

Pressley said that from talking to cotillion organizers and St. James parents she learned that of the 29 white fifth-graders at St. James this year, all but one were invited to join the cotillion. By contrast, she said, of the 11 nonwhite students in the class--one black, one Latino and the rest Asian--only one, an Asian, was invited.

Patricia Stinehart, a cotillion patroness and one of two Hancock Park parents who screens St. James fifth-graders for the cotillion, said she was sure more than one white student was turned down, but declined to offer statistics to counter Pressley's.

"I truly do not believe (Melissa's omission) is a racial issue," said Stinehart, the only cotillion leader who agreed to be quoted by name. "We did our best to put together a group that would work well." She said she explained to Rowins weeks ago that "our bylaws make it clear we don't discriminate according to race."

Stinehart said cotillion classes include children from racial minorities, a statement confirmed by other parents who have enrolled their children in the organization.

A Racial Context

Unconvinced, Pressley and Sneed said that when their children were asked why they had not been invited to the cotillion, they felt compelled to put their answers in a racial context.

"We know it's racial," Pressley said.

Both parents said the experience has been difficult for their children.

"Some of the kids who were invited are her very good friends," Pressley said. "The fact she's excluded tends to make her think something is wrong with her."

Added Sneed: "The boys Chris was in the same class with and played sports with were being invited, and he wasn't. He kept asking me why, and I had to get into it and go all the way back to slavery and explain to him what he'd seen on TV but that had never impacted him, and what this fear was--why these white folks were afraid of having him mingle with their daughters. He didn't understand that because he doesn't like girls, period. I told him that it wasn't important to join this organization, but what was important was a situation where he was being denied an opportunity to do something that under the Constitution is his right to do."

State Prohibition

The 1964 federal Civil Rights Act exempts private social clubs from its racial discrimination ban. However, the state Unruh Act, California's basic civil rights law, is far more expansive, prohibiting discrimination in any business establishment. In October, the state Supreme Court defined business establishment broadly enough to bar a nonprofit organization, the Boys Club, from refusing to admit girls.

Pressley said that in her conversations with cotillion leaders she was told that Melissa should have been invited because she met the group's standards for grades and good conduct. She said the leaders had told her that Melissa's name simply did not come up because the girl does not live in the Hancock Park area and was not as well-known to St. James parents and children.

Stinehart confirmed using that rationale and suggested that there had been another, ironic obstacle this year: Under pressure from Rowins to stop using the St. James directory for recruiting, the cotillion patrons and patronesses were forced to rely on their personal contacts to decide who to invite.

Pressley said she did not believe those arguments because Melissa's 19-member fifth-grade class, one of two at the school, "was extremely close-knit. . . . These children sleep over at each other's houses."

'Discipline' Problems

In Sneed's case, his son's name was rejected rather than overlooked. Stinehart said she had not been involved in the selection process that year but another person familiar with Sneed's case said Chris was considered to have "discipline" problems and was viewed as not appropriate for the cotillion.

Sneed said he had heard that description and felt it was untrue. Rowins agreed.

"It's an unfair characterization from the standpoint of his conduct in school," Rowins said.

The person familiar with Sneed's case said that, while it was possible that racial considerations had played a part in that rejection, the cotillion in general had been attempting to broaden its racial diversity, particularly in recognizing an increasing Asian population in the Hancock Park area.

"That's garbage," said Sneed, adding sarcastically: "By the year 2020 it may be on track. Someone needs to confront these people."

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