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After the Watts riots, a transformative shift in Inglewood

After the Watts riots, a transformative shift in Inglewood
Richard Rankin remembers "the very beginning of the integration process" in Inglewood, after the Watts riots. "The very first time any black kids showed up in our class photo was in '65," he said. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Columns of smoke darkened the sky along the Harbor Freeway as 11-year-old Richard Rankin rode home to Inglewood through South Los Angeles. His father shushed him from the driver's seat when he asked about the fires.

It would have been awkward to explain a race riot to a trio of sixth-grade boys — two white and one black — who had just been at a Boy Scout camp in the High Sierra, where skin color didn't matter.

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It was Aug. 14, 1965, and the Watts riots were winding down.

But the boys in the car knew nothing of the violence that had taken more than 30 lives. They were excited by the sight of a military jeep rolling down the freeway exit ramp, its mounted machine gun manned by the National Guard.

"My dad said: 'Don't talk about it,' which was unusual for him," Rankin, now 61, recalled. "I think he didn't want to upset Eugene, who was in the back seat with me."

Eugene was one of the few black students at Rankin's school, Woodworth Elementary, near Imperial Highway and Crenshaw Boulevard.

Back then, the city of Inglewood was proudly and determinedly white.

But over the next several years, fallout from the Watts riots would remake Rankin's hometown, as black families fleeing South Los Angeles poured in and whites high-tailed it out.

The 1960 census recorded only 29 "Negroes" among the city's 63,390 residents. By 1970, 1 in 10 Inglewood residents was black.

Rankin remembers "the very beginning of the integration process," he said. "The first time any black kids showed up in our class photo was in '65."

Every year after that, there were more black students and fewer whites. Prejudice accounted for some of that shift.

"Some people were like: 'We've got to get the hell out of here. The black people are coming in!' They were the ones who took off right away," Rankin said. "Others started dribbling out to Torrance, Valencia, Calabasas.... They were steadily leaving, and more black families were coming."

As a kid, he said, he'd never thought much about race or skin color. The next several years would deliver lessons he couldn't always make sense of, but had no way to avoid.

::

He and Eugene belonged to the same Scout troop. Their families lived near each other.

"His father was a school principal and his mother was a teacher, just like my mother," Rankin recalled. "They actually lived in a nicer area, a step up from where we were."

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Rankin would ride his bike to Eugene's house before school and sneak his parents' Kools. Eugene would visit and go on outings with Rankin and his two brothers.

"He was always welcome," Rankin said. "My father came from a Jewish family, and remembered being beat up as a kid in Los Angeles. We grew up without a lot of prejudice."

Rankin said he didn't notice "the black/white thing" until about eighth grade.

By then, riot-inspired Black Power had met and married Black Is Beautiful. "A lot of the black kids were wearing their hair in Afros," Rankin said. "You could feel the tension building in school."

At Morningside High, he didn't see much of Eugene. The black kids hung together, the whites stuck with whites, and the cliques taunted each other. "There were fights on campus at lunchtime," Rankin said. "White versus black."

Even recreation took a hit from the riot-related shift.

Rankin and his friends used to ride their bikes all over the neighborhood. "But after the riots, you didn't go east of Van Ness; that was the dividing line," he said. "Kids were getting beat up on both sides. You had to be careful."

For Rankin's family, the last straw came in 1970, on the day of his older brother's graduation: "He was walking on campus and some black kid came over, slammed him against the wall, put a switchblade to his neck and stole his class ring and yearbook."

Months later, they got a call from someone in Watts who'd found the ring and tracked them down to return it.

By that time, they were packing to move. Rankin would begin his junior year at virtually all-white South Torrance High School.

::

Rankin shared his story with me last spring, figuring it might make a nice riot anniversary piece.

He'd connected with Eugene on Facebook a few years ago, and hoped the three of us could talk about how the city had exploded 50 years ago. But when the time came to arrange an interview, Eugene wasn't on board.

I can't say that I was surprised by that.

I was that same stand-out black kid in a class of whites in 1966 when my hometown, Cleveland, was rocked by riots. The unrest was miles away from where I lived. But I remember National Guard trucks rolling down my street; I waved to the gun-toting soldiers from my front porch.

At 11, I understood little of what was going on — but enough to be grateful that it was summer and school was out. I didn't want to have to account for the riots to my white classmates.

I asked Rankin what he makes of the Watts riot and its aftermath. He said the shift disrupted his life back then — but has enriched it since.

He missed "the messy process of integration" when he moved to the "sanitized" campus of South Torrance High. "It made me glad I had the experience of living in Inglewood," he realized.

He studied psychology at UCLA, married a Chinese American woman and joined the Peace Corps. The couple spent two years in isolated villages in the Philippines.

"All of a sudden I'm in an environment where they never saw a white person before. People are running up to me, yelling … wherever we go," he said. "I remember thinking this is what it's like to be in the minority. … But at least it wasn't threatening.

"What I was doing was a very kind of positive thing," said Rankin, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and works with children in San Bernardino schools. "I'd think of what it would be like if they didn't want me here."

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

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