Monday, February 27, 2017

Sundown

My home town in Southern California was named for John Greenleaf Whittier, a New England poet, Quaker and avid abolitionist. My parents moved us there in 1949 before my first grade year.

We’d moved to California from the Boston area. Mom liked Whittier because of the old homes and large trees in the uptown area and because of Whittier College. And I think she felt at home in a town named for a New Englander. I’m pretty sure neither she nor Dad realized it was a Sundown Town.

Whittier is east of Los Angeles proper. Mom used to take us to East Los Angeles – a predominately black neighborhood – to shop for clothes. We were often the only white people in the store. I don’t remember being bothered by it. But in downtown L.A. the fancier department stores had separate colored and white dressing rooms.

Whittier itself was very white. Even the Mexicans (yes, we called them Mexicans) didn’t come to the older sections of town, a fact no one in my family commented on.

But in 1949, the Whittier School District was already bussing Mexican kids, scattering them through the district. The elementary school closest to where most of them lived hadn’t prepared them well. They’d spoken Spanish at recess and often in class. Those who went on to middle and high school couldn’t compete.

So I shared classrooms and lunch tables with Mary Ortiz, Carlotta Chac√≥n, Julie Perez and Nettie Aguilera. I thought of them as friends, though we parted when the school day ended – they on one bus, me on another. They lived in an area we called Jim Town. I don’t know whether it was within the city limits, but it was clearly within the school district boundary.

Then, in 1957, a black family came to Whittier. The father had been hired as director of a juvenile detention center. He wanted to live where he could walk to work so his wife could use their car during the day.

The detention center was inside the city limits. So was the house they wanted to buy. That’s when we learned about the Sundown Law. They couldn’t buy that house, at least not until the law was repealed. Thankfully, the city saw wisdom - perhaps with some outside encouragement - in doing just that. The three children from that family became the first black kids to attend Whittier High School.

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