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A Painful Lesson in Division

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.”

Rick Beam was in elementary school when the riots swept through South Los Angeles, which borders Inglewood. He saw the smoke rising from the smoldering ruins of Watts, the guards posted around neighborhood liquor stores, the armored vehicles carrying National Guard troops, rolling down Manchester Avenue to the city line.

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“Right where the Forum was breaking ground on Prairie, I remember all the white fathers lined up with their guns, and blacks coming down Manchester with their guns, as vivid as if it was yesterday,” Beam said.

His father was part of Inglewood’s old guard, which gathered regularly in his living room to blast the mayor for “giving in” to integration, he said.

“Inglewood was bound and determined to stay all white. The black people living in Watts wanted the right to live where they wanted. That kind of conflict can’t help but spill over into the next generation.”

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

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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

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“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.”

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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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Whites were afraid to eat in the cafeteria, which black students claimed as their hangout. White girls complained of attacks in gym class; boys of being jumped on the way home. Rumors circulated that the Crips planned to snatch blonds and cut their hair.

“Our perception was fear,” Drexel said. “A fear of physical risk, a fear of walking around outside the campus alone, a fear of the black people in Inglewood.

“Even the teachers were uncomfortable correcting them in class. They didn’t want to make enemies either. Everyone was scared.”

White flight

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By the time the class reached 11th grade, in 1973, the school was 50% white and 40% black, and both sides were bent on muscle-flexing. “It was about survival, protecting yourself,” Beam said. “If you stood up and people realized you were ready to roll, they’d back down.”

When Beam heard that a group of black gang members had beaten up a white buddy and “curbed” the boy’s sister -- slammed her head into a curb so hard her jaw was shattered and front teeth dislodged -- he and carloads of white friends headed for the black kids’ hangout, Darby Park. “We sent a few decoys out, yelling” racial slurs, he said. When that drew blacks to the parking lot, Beam and his buddies piled out of their cars and beat the black kids.

That was his last year at Inglewood High. Fed up with the fruits of integration, his father moved the family to Diamond Bar. More than half the whites from the class of ’75 left before their senior year. The rich kids from Ladera Heights moved to places such as Beverly Hills and the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The working-class kids from Inglewood transferred to whiter schools outside the city, such as Westchester and El Segundo.

The whites who stayed saw the school change hands. The band, sports teams and student clubs were dominated or run by blacks. The payoff came on the athletic fields, where the influx of black athletes turned marginal teams into powerhouses.

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Unforgettable lessons

Reggie Theus had lived in Inglewood long enough to believe that black people weren’t wanted.

In his junior year, on Christmas Eve, the lanky, budding basketball star and two teammates were forced from a local hamburger joint by police who “rolled up, sirens flashing, guns out, put us against the car and handcuffed us,” Theus recalled. The officers were looking for three tall black guys with afros -- “just about any black kid in Inglewood in those days” -- who had snatched gifts from an elderly white couple. Theus and his friends were on their way home from the gym. One officer dared the boys to run. “All I want for Christmas,” the policeman told them, “is to shoot a nigger in the back.”

They spent half the night in jail before being released.

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Still, when Theus led the Sentinels on the basketball floor, Inglewood High’s green and white was the only color that mattered.

Until he was stuffed by a white boy.

His coach grabbed Theus by his jersey during the game, pounded his chest and shoved him back against a locker. “Don’t you ever let a white boy do you like that,” he growled. “You kick his ass, even if you foul out.”

Theus was stunned, then embarrassed. He went back onto the floor on fire. “Needless to say, I didn’t stay in the game,” he said. He doesn’t remember whether they won, but he’s never forgotten the lesson.

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It wasn’t about sports, but about life.

“Our coaches taught us that, as young black men, it’s not enough to be good. If you’re not better than, you’re not going to get the shot,” said Theus, who went on to play in the NBA. “Not on the court, not in life.”

By the time his class reached its senior year, Inglewood’s basketball team was nationally ranked. It had 11 black players and one white: Paul Burt.

Burt had lived in Inglewood all his life. His mother saw the city changing, “but she knew we weren’t going to move,” he said. “So from the time I was in kindergarten, she wouldn’t let me play sports in the white part of town. She made me play in the park with the black kids.”

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When he reached Inglewood High, Burt found blacks and whites divided. “The opportunity to mix was there, but both sides just stayed to themselves,” he said. “The dances were awkward -- Al Green on one hand and Led Zeppelin on the other. The pep rallies were throwbacks to the ‘50s. For the white kids, that was tradition; to the black kids, they were hokey.”

Burt understood that the forces roiling Inglewood High were not of the students’ making and would not be resolved by the class of ’75. When he tried to straddle racial lines, he wound up taking abuse from both sides.

One afternoon in his sophomore year, Burt was heading back to school from lunch when two black classmates approached. Their cigarettes, maxi coats and wide-brimmed hats signaled they weren’t about to talk basketball.

“What’s up, Burt?” one asked, leaning in close to pat his pockets. “How much money you got?”

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Burt handed over all he had -- a buck and a half -- then dashed back to class.

That afternoon he was on the run again, chased home this time by two whites yelling racial slurs because he made the mistake of siding with a black friend in an argument.

A few days later, as he practiced with the track team, his black teammates spotted the boys who had robbed him. They surrounded the pair and delivered a warning: “Don’t you ever take that guy’s money again.” Then they stripped the two of their fancy clothes and made them run into the library in their underwear.

“For the most part,” Burt said, “my black friends took better care of me and treated me better than the white kids did.”

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While his white classmates were getting jumped on campus, Burt was never bothered. “I just looked at it as ‘Get along with the brothers, move ahead three spaces.’ ”

Whites, however, held Burt to a standard of loyalty he found impossible to meet. “We were in print shop, and there was a confrontation between Erwin, a black guy I’d known since first grade, and Gary, a white guy I’d known since seventh grade. I knew Erwin had some homeboys. I kept telling Gary, ‘Back down. You don’t know what you’re doing.’ And telling Erwin, ‘Leave him alone. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ But Gary wasn’t going to back down from the black guy.”

“Later on, a bunch of black guys beat the crap out of Gary. I didn’t see him again for 20 years. And the first thing he says to me then? ‘What are you doing here, nigger lover?’ ”

Jeers for cheers

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Black and white students were crowding the stands at football and basketball games. But by 1974, power struggles were beginning to threaten the school spirit that had sprung from success. For years, black girls had felt locked out of the cheerleading squad. By senior year, the team was integrated and they began pushing their agenda: more dance, less gymnastics, more soul.

“We were taking it to them on the field,” Lewis recalled. “Then halftime would come and our cheerleaders would be out there with their little stick moves, the straight-armed stuff with the hands. It was embarrassing. Other schools would be laughing at us.”

And Mary Lou Demory, a pretty blond from Ladera Heights who had finally made the squad in her senior year, was odd girl out. “I’d waited my whole life to be a cheerleader,” she said, “and suddenly it had turned into dancing.”

She agreed that the new moves were cute. But she had no rhythm; she couldn’t execute. “I had to ask my friend Stephanie to learn the moves, then teach them to me after practice. On the floor, I felt ridiculous. People would chant my name. I’d be out of step.”

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Demory was out of step on the dating scene as well. Her boyfriend was black -- Alfred Bowles, star of the football team and wrestling squad; worshiped by some and feared by others. The son of a doctor, he was smart, tough and more than a little arrogant. “My dad hated him, but it wasn’t because he was black, it was because he wasn’t very nice.”

They dated through her senior year and two years of college. But while Demory braved her father’s wrath, Bowles kept peace in his family: “He couldn’t tell his parents he was dating me,” she said.

‘Everyone was hurting’

The football field was a race-free zone. Not so the stage where the candidates stood, awaiting the announcement of homecoming queen.

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Whites in that fall of 1974 had united behind Irene Goldmann, the popular captain of the cheerleading squad. Blacks split their vote between two black girls.

Goldmann won. She was stunned. “If I had been at an all-white school, I don’t know that I would have been elected at all,” she said. “I didn’t perceive myself as having that all-American beauty.... There was a part of me that felt like a fraud.”

A part of the school felt that way as well. Scattered boos met the announcement. Then she heard two black girls near her yell: “You ain’t no queen, you big-nosed, big-legged kike!”

Goldmann held back tears, then walked home alone, sobbing the whole two miles. She was too ashamed to tell her mother and sisters what happened.

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She tried to smile through the homecoming game but had begged her family to stay away. “I was afraid people would throw tomatoes at me, afraid I’d be humiliated,” she said.

She skipped the homecoming dance that weekend and was too afraid to return after graduation to crown her successor -- a black queen at a school whose racial shift was nearly complete, where whites were now a minority.

For the first time, Goldmann understood what it felt like to be despised for your heritage, your skin color, the size of your nose. “When they called me ‘kike’ ... I had never known that feeling, that somebody wouldn’t like me because of what I looked like, what I represented,” she said.

“But I don’t blame the girls who said those things. They were yelling at me out of their own pain, their own sense of injustice. Everyone was hurting in their own way.”

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The final bitter blow

As their senior year wound down, the class of ’75 settled into an uneasy detente. But the culminating social event would reveal just how deep the rift cut.

Forget arguments over music, a dance floor crowded with classmates you never cared to know. The Ladera Heights crowd decided to boycott the prom and hold their own.

The “white prom,” people called it. Its theme: “The Way We Were.”

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“I don’t think there was any intention to slight the blacks,” said Mosko, the valedictorian. “It was a celebration by the whites of having stayed together for four years. It was held in a protected environment where we could be ourselves for a few hours without being subjected to physical threats, coercion, being told what we could and couldn’t do.”

To blacks who got wind of the plan, it was a final bitter blow.

“It was a really bad idea,” admitted Ken Ostrove, the drummer in the school’s jazz band, who attended the separate prom. “I don’t think people thought of it as cruel, but that sort of speaks to the separation we maintained.

“There was no nice way to explain it. My motivation was not to stay away from black people. But how would the black people have known that?”

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30 years later

It has been 30 years since the class of ’75 left the “utter hell” of Inglewood High. Sensitivity has sprouted in the oddest places.

Mosko, whose mocking graduation speech flouted student divisions, is a lawyer in Palo Alto whose reflections now are tinged with regret. “I wish I knew now as much as I thought I knew then,” he said. “There are things I wish I hadn’t said.... Looking back, I know I gained something.”

Beam, who made sport of settling scores, grew up to run his own plumbing firm and now makes a point of hiring the kind of guys he once battled.

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“I realize there’s good in everybody,” he said. “Anybody can screw up once. We all deserve a second chance.”

The last time Beam came close to beating up somebody, it was “some neo-Nazi types who were threatening to jack up my neighbor -- a hard-working black man who had moved out of the ghetto.”

“Hatred is ugly, in any color. It’s not about race anymore, if it ever was. Back then we were all victims of time and circumstance.”

Some graduates, both black and white, insist that they sailed through Inglewood High unscarred. “The reality was never as bad as the perception,” said Ostrove, now an attorney. “My mother would say, ‘I heard something terrible happened at school: There was a fight. Somebody got knifed. Somebody was caught with a gun.’ As far as I knew, none of those things had happened.”

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But then, Ostrove never expected high school to be the pinnacle of his life. “Some kids thought it would be like ‘Happy Days,’ quaint and fun. They were profoundly disappointed. I was focused on other things -- studying for the SAT, getting good grades, going to college.”

Derek Jones had come from the South, “from New Orleans, so I knew what racism was,” he said. “I didn’t pick up on any animosity. I had quite a few white friends, and race was never a factor.”

He has such fond memories of Inglewood High, he headed the committee that organized his 10- and 20-year reunions.

But others struggled for years to shake a sense of disappointment and failure. “For a long time after graduation,” Drexel said, “I saw the world as a violent place. I felt like I missed out on a lot.”

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Today, blame has given way to soul-searching. Now a salesman in Chino Hills, with a Mexican American wife and two teenage sons, Drexel volunteered this year to organize his 30-year reunion.

“I wanted to know if we’d gotten past all that, if we’ve grown up, or if we’re still stuck reflecting the things around us. I wanted to take those negative experiences and turn them into positives.”

Held last month in Manhattan Beach, the reunion mixed feelings, if not races. The small crowd circulated, exchanging smiles and polite chatter. The tables were still mostly all black or all white.

But Drexel understands it now as the draw of shared associations, not a 30-year-old line in the sand. “We’ve either moved on or reconciled or the world has changed,” he said.

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And as he contacted classmates during the preparations, he learned that memories were as individual as their owners. For every graduate traumatized, another owed a debt to Inglewood High.

Inglewood “was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Mary Lou Demory, now Rheingold, the blond cheerleader who dated the black football player.

Her older brother and sister attended the school when it was all white. But her parents never considered running from integration. “They told me, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine ....’ This is great. This is life.’ ”

Now she lives with her family in Rancho Palos Verdes. But she has worked in Inglewood for 20 years, teaching black and Latino third-graders. She enrolled her own children there when they were young, “so they’d have the experience of being around diverse kids and wouldn’t be afraid of differences.”

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Some might say Inglewood’s social experiment failed because many in the class of 1975 still have no friends of other races. But “forced integration” paid dividends that reached back and stretched forward, beyond graduation

Paul Burt’s father never approved of race-mixing. Paul’s great-grandfather belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, and the Klan had helped their struggling family when his father was a youngster in Texas. “But when I was in 11th grade, my dad welcomed all my black friends to the house,” Burt said. “We were sitting around watching television -- my dad and me and 10 black guys. It was something I never thought I’d see. He had made a complete turnaround. He got to know them, saw what they had gone through and understood.”

Looking back, many realize that the turmoil at Inglewood High prepared them for life’s challenges.

“Anyone who will not say that ultimately those experiences broadened their lives probably wouldn’t have been able to adjust wherever they were, black or white,” said Reggie Theus, a two-time NBA all-star, now a college basketball coach at New Mexico State.

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“The things that we went through back at Inglewood High, we were going to have to deal with in years to come. We just didn’t know it then. That’s the bane -- and the blessing.”

Still on the outside

Lewis skipped the official reunion last month and hosted a barbecue at his Inglewood home for dozens of black graduates from the classes of 1974 through 1978.

He does not harbor hard feelings, he said. It’s not the “white prom” redux. “We don’t have that ‘We’re better than you, so we’re going to have our own event’ mentality. Ours was more like a family thing.”

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Still, the explanation rings familiar. “Some folks are still bitter,” Lewis admitted. “If we messed up their years, well, they contributed to messing up ours as well.”

But 30 years can change a man. Last month, Lewis and his friends flipped through an old yearbook, trying to figure out how it all got so bad. “We went over each picture, trying to remember, and there were only a handful of people -- maybe 25 or 30 on both sides -- who really caused trouble.”

The rest were just people he never knew. “Looking at their pictures, they look like nice people,” he said.

“What if we had really tried to get to know them? What if they had reached out to us? What if we were able to get along back then?”

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