They aren’t the kind of heroes usually honored during Black History Month. They didn’t challenge Jim Crow laws or invent more ways to use peanuts.
But they were pioneers 40 years ago in this city’s first school integration campaign.
Rudy Pittman, now a teacher, was 14 when he took that first bus ride from Watts, one of seven kids, escorted by police, headed over the hill to Van Nuys’ Birmingham High.
It was 1972 and the Los Angeles Unified School District had been found guilty of intentionally segregating city schools. White families, fearful of having their children bused, had begun fleeing the district and transferring to private schools.
The new busing program, called Permits With Transportation, or PWT, was partly seen as a way to fill empty classroom seats. It was a prelude to the much larger mandatory desegregation program the district would begin in 1978. It helped integrate Valley campuses and extend the bounty of predominantly white suburban schools to a small group of black children from poor neighborhoods.
Pittman’s parents had grown up in Watts. His mother graduated from Fremont, his father from Jordan High. Most of what his family knew about white people, they had learned from radio and TV. “We expected the white boys to be all ‘Alice Cooper,’ doing acid, tripping out,” Pittman said.
His parents worried that the suburban teens might be a bad influence on their athletic, straight-arrow son. “They told me ‘Don’t start messing with those white kids,’” he recalled.
The white parents, no doubt, issued similar warnings.
“I remember one girl couldn’t have us at her house because her dad objected,” said Cynthia Carraway, Birmingham class of ’76. “She said ‘You can’t come over, but I’ll meet you on the corner.’ And we hung out anyway.”
Their numbers grew, from seven black kids that first September to five full busloads three years later. By the time Kenneth Williams graduated in 1979, black and white kids paired up at the prom, ditched class together to go to the beach, and got drunk en masse at the senior picnic.
“Those guys smoothed it out for us,” Williams said. “The racial tension was gone.”
They were known on campus as “the PWT kids” and the moniker has hung on. They grew up to be bankers, business owners, computer techs, teachers, artists, probation officers. Several are still friends with white classmates.
“We felt like we had a responsibility to represent the inner city,” said Peggy Harris, class of ’76, who now works in finance.
An admonition played in their heads, a group of them told me over breakfast at a Westchester coffee shop last month: Don’t go out there and act a fool. Don’t mess it up for everyone else.
But they were teenagers, after all. And there were stumbles.
Like the morning after the television airing of the searing docudrama “Roots,” The PWT kids got off the bus and discovered a crude mural of Africa had been painted on a courtyard wall — with a boat and the bitter rejoinder: GO BACK TO AFRICA.
Pittman and his buddies “started walking through the classrooms, knocking white boys out,” he said.
When the dust settled and the vandals were fingered, kids on both sides were disciplined. But worse for Pittman than the punishment was the revelation that some of the culprits were his buddies from the football team.
“That, for me, was heartbreaking. One was the quarterback of the team. I’d slept at his house!” recalled Pittman, who now lives in the Valley.
The students were ordered to talk about it. The white boys seemed genuinely perplexed that Pittman had taken the racial slur so personally.
“‘We didn’t mean you,’ they said. ‘We meant those other ones,’” Pittman told me.
“They didn’t know that all of us felt like ‘others’ on that campus then.”
During our breakfast, I was struck by how one-sided the burden of desegregation was for these early pioneers.
But they didn’t consider themselves activists or martyrs. They got used to rising before dawn, riding buses for hours and getting home after the street lights had come on.
I asked if they had regrets about what they’d missed, traveling so far from home.
Steve White, class of ’76, thought for a moment and then laughed. “I missed getting beat up on the way home from school. Getting my lunch money taken by gangsters,” he said. At Birmingham, “you didn’t have to worry about what color you were wearing.... The white folks might not like me, but at least they weren’t gonna beat me up.”
Birmingham offered freedom from fear and danger and violence.
What they learned on the campus didn’t always come from books.
They learned that prejudice is not immutable, and that resistance can give way to relief.
Sharon Figures, class of ’77, remembers the accounting teacher who told her class, with its two black students, that she didn’t think it was a good idea, this integration thing.
Yet three years later, that same teacher helped Figures get a full scholarship to Cal State Long Beach, which led her to a career in finance. “There were kids smarter than me, for sure. But she knew if she didn’t go to bat for me, nobody else would.”
There were complaints from the schools they left behind that the permit program siphoned off Watts’ brightest minds. But the participants can now admit, without feeling like traitors, that they appreciated the more cerebral vibe at Birmingham High.
“You could win a battle with your mind, rather than fighting it out. People respected you for being smart and analytical and inquisitive,” Figures said. “That was considered ‘nosy’ where we come from.”
When Monise Kelly, class of ’77, began researching schools for her two children, she remembered how, during the time she was bused, there had been “one black family” that lived in Encino and sent their kids to Birmingham High.
Their home became the bused-in students’ refuge. “They kind of adopted us,” she recalled. “It was the place you felt safe....I wanted to be that family.”
So Kelly bought a home in Woodland Hills and sent her children to Taft High. She joined the booster club, ran the snack bar and became a fixture on the suburban campus — where buses still roll up every day carrying hundreds of inner-city transfers.