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Their Paths Are Visible in the Ashes of the Watts Riot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Generations of students at John C. Fremont High School have called themselves the Pathfinders, their slogan “Find a path, or make one.”

On Sunday, graduates in the class of 1966--the first to follow the Watts riot--came back to say a few words about finding their own path out of the grips of what society calls the ghetto.

“Find the way or make one--we learned how to do that more than we ever imagined,” said Yvonne Tyler, a graduate who came Sunday to a 25th reunion picnic at the South-Central Los Angeles campus.

Sipping colas near Fremont’s tiled courtyard fountain, many talked about what it was like being the first high school graduates in their families, and often the first to rise into the middle class.

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They grew up in a time of dramatic change for black residents of the Los Angeles inner city. The high school was then more than 90% black. The civil rights movement was re-creating American society, the Watts riot occurred not far from their homes, and the government was making its initial steps into affirmative action.

“Many of us were the first blacks in our jobs to rise to any position,” said Tyler, a receiving and traffic manager at McDonnell-Douglas in Long Beach. “Many of us are still unique, still the only ones in the company, the only ones risen to that position.”

Many said they were proud of themselves and want to be considered role models for young blacks--and for other minorities, now that the Fremont student body is about half Latino and half black.

As part of their reunion, they called a press conference at the school Sunday to talk about themselves, “to counter the stereotype of inner-city black youth,” said Cheryl Wossenu. Though she had no statistics, Wossenu said many of the more than 560 graduates became professionals--attorneys, accountants, teachers, ministers, hospital administrators. Wossenu still lives in South-Central, where she is a community activist and real estate investor.

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Oreal Cotton became a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy originally because he wanted “to help my people. An individual who grew up in South-Central is used to seeing a police car riding down the street with two white law enforcement officers in there. You see the brutality against your people and go into it to make a difference.”

Cotton, however, found the old-boy network to be an immovable force. After 13 years as a sheriff’s deputy, Cotton left eight years ago to become an investigator for the Los Angeles County district attorney. Though he lives in Walnut, he lectures to inner-city school groups and is involved in various sports programs.

“You have to get back into the community--you’ve got to bring somebody else along the way,” Cotton said. “So I would still say I’m trying to attain the goal I set for myself 21 years ago.” A name mentioned often Sunday was Clarence Thomas, the controversial Supreme Court nominee who is black, and at 43 the same age as many of the Fremont graduates. Thomas did not go to an inner-city high school like Fremont--he attended a Missouri seminary where he was one of only four blacks--but many identified with his image as a black man who broke barriers.

While some said they do not agree with Thomas’ conservative beliefs, they applauded his opinion that self-help is the key to the success of black youths.

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“I agree with his beliefs about self-actualization,” said Andrew Smith, a certified public accountant living in Carson. “I think he symbolizes that you can do your job well and end up on the highest court in the land.”

Said Carl Bedford, a financial planner now living in Arizona: “I think he’s a remarkable man to have risen to the stage we can have a debate whether he should be on the Supreme Court.”


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