My weekday morning routine is always the same: the only variable in recent years has been where I drop them off – first it was both to Victoria, then Victoria and Gage, now Gage and Poly. Invariably, the car door slams as they hop out and disappear into the crowd. Our goodbyes are always some combination of affection and admonishment. I feel fortunate to have never had occasion to seriously question their safety or the quality of the education they are receiving.
After drop off, for years I have driven the same route downtown, taking Victoria Avenue around the bend and over the bridge where more kids on their way to Poly walk, past the Victoria Club and the arroyo, where rows of mostly bungalows line each side of the road. Just a bit farther down is the intersection of Cridge and Victoria. For years I had driven that route, past the stone-columned multi-hued cottages of Wall Manor, without any knowledge of the history of that plot of land. I only recently came to learn what once stood there – Lowell Elementary – and what its absence represents.
Early in the morning of September 7, 1965, Lowell School was set ablaze. No one has ever been charged, and likely no one ever will be, but it is almost certain that it was arson. And whether or not anyone knew it at the time, that fire served as the catalyst for monumental change.
Set back from Wall Manor, facing Cridge but with a Victoria address, is the St. James Restoration Tabernacle. Originally that building served as a kindergarten classroom for Lowell; now it’s the only remnant of that school still standing.
At the time, the Riverside Unified School District was growing, but as a result of housing covenants restricting where people of color could live, some schools, including Lowell, had become de facto segregated, which is to say, not purposefully but rather as a result of the fact that they were located in neighborhoods where minorities predominated as a result of these covenants. Even where those schools had to some degree been integrated, the opening of new schools in majority white neighborhoods had siphoned non-minority students away.
By the time of the fire, Lowell was populated primarily by African-American and Mexican-American students. Parents of students at both Lowell and Irving schools, the de facto segregated schools located in Riverside’s Eastside community, had decided that they wanted integration.
This fire occurred at the height of the Civil Rights movement, shortly after the Watts riots in Los Angeles. There was some fear that there could be more fires, and that the situation could unravel, but what happened instead was rather astonishing: the community came together, and the students were not just moved but carefully and thoughtfully placed, a few in each classroom throughout the district, so as to ensure not just desegregation but a true integration of these displaced children. Riverside Unified became the first large school district to voluntarily integrate, thanks to its strong and outspoken community leaders, and in particular, Arthur Littleworth, who sat as the chair of school board during this entire period, ensuring that the integration was implemented as smoothly and efficiently as possible.
In November, Poly High School will be unveiling a timeline dedicated to Mr. Littleworth’s life, and at the same time, Inlandia will be releasing his book, No Easy Way, which includes his personal reflections on that period as well as includes interviews with other important local figures who were there too, and details the struggles and events that led up to this voluntary and comparably peaceful integration. I say comparably, because, unlike in other parts of the country, there was no National Guard called in to escort the students, but that is not to say it wasn’t without strife. One of the many things that I learned in bringing this book into the world is that there were parents who objected to the integration, those who were present as the bus pulled up to Alcott Elementary, protesting and harassing the children as they tried simply to make their way to class, in a new school.
These days, children of all races and ethnicities attend these same schools. I don’t know whether or not it is something to be proud of, but my own sons have no clue about the concept of racially segregated schools, except in the abstract. It has never been any different during their lifetime. But now, at Poly, I have had to explain to my son who the theater is named after, and why. Why it is significant. What it stands for. And the struggle for equality in all things is far from over. And that even in a community like Riverside, there is a history that we have to overcome – as far back as the influence of the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s as a result of a nationwide revival—to the neo-Nazi resurgence in recent years, leading to community protests, and finally, the death of a local party leader by the hands of his own child.
When I moved to Riverside in 1994, I had no idea of the history here – and regrettably, so many still do not. But often, when I drop my children off at school, I try to reflect on what brought us here, what it means to be a part of this community, how grateful I am to all those that came before me, paving the way for all of our children’s futures, and how far we still have to go.