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Odessa B. Cox, 79; Helped Found Southwest College

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She had a dream. Several, actually, but one that was paramount: quality education for African Americans and a community college where they could get it.

Seventeen years after she organized a citizens committee to get the job done, she welcomed the first 13 temporary bungalows where teaching could begin. The first permanent structure took another six years’ work.

Odessa Brown Cox, the principal founder of Los Angeles Southwest College at Imperial Highway and Western Avenue, has died, college officials announced. She was 79.

Cox, who died Oct. 27 at her home in South-Central Los Angeles, had been confined to a wheelchair since she had a stroke 11 years ago.

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Born and reared in Whatley, Ala., Cox was the daughter of a union organizer and learned from childhood the importance of working to improve human rights. Education became the core of her commitment.

She moved to Los Angeles in 1943, two years after marrying Raymond Cox, and together the couple took community college classes on everything from animal husbandry to dry-cleaning. They opened Utopia Cleaners in Watts in 1945 and remained in business for 48 years. Her husband died in 1994.

The couple worked on projects such as organizing the Southeast Interracial Council and organizing the Independent Progressive Party campaign to increase hiring of African Americans and Mexican Americans at banks and grocery stores in Watts.

But mostly, Odessa Cox worked for education. As the mother of three daughters, she wanted the best possible schooling for her children and for her community.

She worked to improve the depiction of African Americans in textbooks approved by the state Board of Education. And she helped organize community support for construction of Henry Clay Middle School. Then she helped start the school’s Parent-Teacher Assn.

In 1950, Cox launched a lengthy crusade that would become her crowning achievement: the South-Central Junior College Committee to establish an institution of higher learning for inner-city residents.

Seventeen years later, the Los Angeles Board of Education opened the first classes at Los Angeles Southwest College.

Cox ran for the board of the new Los Angeles City Junior College District when it separated from the Board of Education in 1969, but placed eighth in the election for the seven-member board.

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Undaunted, she kept working for her neophyte junior college campus and, in 1973, saw its first building dedicated. The building was later named for Odessa Cox.

Southwest College was not an unqualified success, with continued and unblemished development. Enrollment grew to 8,000 students in 1981 amid high hopes fostered by Cox and her committee. But failure to complete construction of the campus, poor administration and economic factors combined to send enrollment plummeting to 3,000 by 1985. Two government watchdog agencies even recommended closing the college.

But after a board-ordered change of leadership, the school revived and, in 1990, Cox spoke at another groundbreaking ceremony--for a $7-million technical education center.

“It feels so good to see the things we have fought for for so many years finally coming to pass,” she said to a standing ovation.

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Cox also used her lobbying skills to influence the location of what is now Cal State Dominguez Hills so it could benefit the inner-city community, defeating an alternate plan to build the university on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Active in Democratic grass-roots politics, Cox organized the New Spirit Democratic Club, participated in the California Democratic Council and, at the time of her death, was a member of the Martin Luther King Democratic Club.

She is the subject of a University of California oral history project in a segment titled “Odessa Cox, Challenging the Status Quo: The Campaign for Southwest Junior College.”

In the last few months, Cox has been honored as the Los Angeles Sentinel’s Mother of the Year, the “education honoree” of the local chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women Inc. and by the Los Angeles Southwest Community 21st Century Higher Education Alliance.

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She is survived by three daughters, Brenda C. Cox, Reba L. Cox-Long and Sandra E. Cox; and a brother, Theodore Brown.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday in the Physical Education Center at Southwest College.


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