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Memorial Becomes a Lesson in History

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There were mourners who wore spandex shorts and Reeboks, and one who arrived with a pair of tap shoes slung over his shoulder. Another sported a message to the departed shaved into the back of his hair.

Many had come to mourn, and more than a few to gawk at celebrities. And outside, on a porch of the funeral hall, 47 youngsters had gathered, solemn-faced and dressed in their school uniforms, to learn about a man and his part in their culture.

The funeral, of course, was for Sammy Davis Jr., who died this week after an eight-month battle with throat cancer and a show business career of more than 60 years.

The students were third-, fourth-, sixth- and eighth-graders from United World International Learning Center, a private school in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw district, and they were on a class assignment.

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They sat cross-legged and quietly under a loudspeaker listening, as a teacher put it, to their history “being made and told.”

The students were among hundreds of mourners who could not get into the Davis funeral service. Scores of journalists surged around them on the stone porch outside the Hall of Liberty at Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills. Looming above them on the side of the building was a giant mural showing scenes from early America, scenes that showed no African-Americans.

Shellie Banks, 47, a teacher at the school, and Ina Smiley Clayton, an administrator, kept a watchful eye from a few feet away.

“I just wanted them to be a part of history and to hear what the speakers say about Sammy Davis’ life, rather than just watching me standing there telling them something,” Banks said. “These kids are too young to really know firsthand about Sammy, but they do know a lot of people whose style he has affected, like Michael Jackson.”

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Although Davis had been harshly criticized in the 1960s by some black people for being what they thought of as “not black enough,” there was none of that criticism Friday.

Banks’ and Clayton’s students instead heard one eulogy after another in which the man was described not only as a consummate entertainer, but as a champion of the civil rights movement and a tireless battering ram against racial barriers in show business.

One speaker told of how Davis marched with Martin Luther King Jr. “not only in Washington, D.C., but also in Mississippi.” Others spoke of his determination to destroy the idea that black entertainers were one-dimensional. Still others described the deepness of his pockets when it came to raising money for black schools and other such causes.

Clayton nodded in agreement.

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“He was a prince of the black race” and a “darn good role model,” she said, speaking loudly enough for her pupils to hear.

And what did the children make of all this?

“He was a hero,” 11-year-old Donte Robinson said, waiting to return to school.

A lesson learned.

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