The Heroic Hours: Men Who Changed Education in Riverside -- and America

Dell Roberts | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

"The heroic hours of life do not announce their presence by drum and trumpet."
- Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, 1870-1938


As we come closer to the end of another school year, and my last child prepares to graduate from Riverside Poly High School, I keep driving around the city and looking at the different buildings which have housed us -- her grandmother Alberta Sims and her three sisters, who all went to school here; her father and I, who met in junior high here; and our three daughters, who all walked to junior high two blocks from our house, and then went to Poly.

This year I spent time with four men who changed education here, back in 1965 when de facto segregation was the norm in California, when violently-enforced segregation was the law of the South. Back in 1965, Riverside became the first large school district in America to desegregate through voluntary busing, without the enforcement of court order. Three other men who were instrumental in that historic time died within a week of each other this winter. The heroic hours may be quiet or public -- their legacies useful to remember now.

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Alberta Sims, my mother-in-law, arrived in Riverside during the 1930s with her mother and sisters, who'd made their way from Mississippi to Arkansas to Texas to California. California was very segregated then - "sundown towns" like Tarzana, Culver City, La Jolla, and Hawthorne were open about not wanting black people to linger (a sign was actually posted at the city limits: "N-----, Don't Let the Sun Go Down on YOU in Hawthorne") much less live and go to school. She went to Irving School, which was 99% African-American and Mexican-American (there is one white child in her first grade photo taken on the school steps in 1940). A few blocks down Victoria Avenue from Irving, Lowell School had been built in 1905 -- only one or two "exceptional" black or Mexican-American children attended each year.

Alberta Sims in her 1940 Irving School Class Photo

But by 1965, when another school was built across the Victoria Arroyo, Lowell's enrollment was almost immediately black and Mexican-American. It was a time of unrest -- Eastside parents were angry about the inequities. Organizers had prepared to speak to the school board about substandard books, little food at the cafeteria, deterioration and neglect at the building, and de facto segregation. But on the Sunday night before the first day of school in September, the school was set aflame by some means, and damaged beyond repair except for the wood-frame kindergarten building which was separate from the brick school. To this day, no one knows how the fire was started, or who set it.

Arthur Littleworth was already thinking about what to do. "It was a time of anger," he said softly. His father had been born in England, a man in charge of hunting dogs on a huge estate; Littleworth was born in Northern California, but had seen segregation during the war, and then in the city where he'd moved. While most of the Lowell buildings were smoldering rubble, the debates began. Should Riverside's schools integrate? Littleworth, a well-known attorney, was then president of the Riverside School Board. "I thought we should be one city," he said simply in February, at his house in a hundred-year-old orange grove -- on Victoria Avenue, only a few miles from where Lowell had burned. "One city."

Arthur Littleworth and Justice John Gabbert. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Littleworth and Assistant Superintendent of Riverside Unified School District Ray Berry drew up a plan to integrate. Black and Mexican-American students from Irving and Lowell Schools, as well as Casa Blanca School, which were nearly all minority enrollment, would be bused to Highland and Hyatt Schools. This wasn't an easy decision -- he sat on a stage at Irving School while invective and questions were hurled with equal force. As Justice John Gabbert, a native of Riverside and retired judge, recalled at Littleworth's house, sitting beside his friend, "Riverside had plenty of people who never wanted their children to mix. There was a strong Ku Klux Klan presence here in the 1920s -- that's sometimes forgotten, but there was animus and distrust." Littleworth's stance was brave -- he was threatened, he sent his wife and children away because of those threats, and he slept at the houses of various friends, for protection from possible retribution. But he didn't waver from the plan.

And sitting beside Littleworth in 1965, on that stage at the old Irving School auditorium, was Dell Roberts. Roberts had lived in the neighborhood all his life, and was in his first year as football coach for Poly High, his alma mater. Roberts began working at Butcher Boy, just down the street, when he was in elementary school at Longfellow. "I was strong enough to work, so they hired me. I started doing clean-up, and then unloading the trucks that used to bring the meat three nights a week from L.A. Harry Roberts had me hire crews to unload -- I got all the guys from the football teams. Robert Bonds, Art Gilmore -- they all worked with me. Eventually, I was in charge of operations for the trucks." Butcher Boy supplied meat for the nation's first ever McDonald's, in San Bernardino. Dell Roberts was still in high school.

By 1965, Dell Roberts slept only a few hours a night. He worked at Butcher Boy from 4 a.m. until noon, worked as a campus supervisor at Poly 12-3, then coached the football team, and then worked for Parks & Recreation until about 10. When Lowell School burned, and Art Littleworth was taking heat, "I sat with Art many a night up there at Irving on the stage," Roberts said. "He was a brave man -- people were really angry about desegregation. He had to move his family. I wanted to show my support."

Months later, Riverside began the busing program, and no court order or police presence was necessary. That didn't mean it was easy for many of the children, or their teachers, who were bused away from the Eastside -- Susan Strickland, who'd gone to Irving School with Alberta Sims, said, "I was teaching at Emerson then, and they took two of us teachers out of Emerson and had us ride the bus with the kids. I went to Highland. I had second grade. Lydia Wilson was probably in sixth grade, and one day early on, her teacher used the n-word. Oh, Marcille Wilson was upset. She called me right away and said, I'm headed up there to that principal in the morning."

I was there, walking every day to kindergarten at Highland Elementary. I saw the big yellow buses, and wished I could ride with my face pressed to the window, as I'd seen on television. Because of Littleworth and Roberts and Strickland, I never knew classrooms were not mixed almost equally with white, black, and Mexican-American students. We were together on playground swings and sports teams. Lowell's legacy accomplished this -- our children all went to school together -- their skins and hair and voices the mélange of the future before the rest of America had figured it out.

The burned hulk of Lowell school was eventually cleared, and I remember seeing a ghostly forest on Victoria, towering eucalyptus with gleaming bone-white trunks near a lone building. That wood-frame building, with a bell tower at the front, was the kindergarten classroom.

Jesse Wall | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

A cross eventually crowned that bell tower. The land was bought by St. James Church of God in Christ, which had worshipped in a small building since 1931. Pastor James E. Wall led the church, but it was his son Jesse who pressed him to buy the forest at Victoria and Cridge. Jesse Wall was born in Mississippi in 1933. "I was three years old when I left there, thanks be to God, and we went to San Antonio, Texas until 1941. I came to Riverside to see my grandmother, on 11th Street. When it came time for me to go back, my mother wrote to my father, who was still in Texas: 'We're never coming back -- Jesse will get his education here.'"

Jesse Wall attended Longfellow, Riverside Poly, and got his degree at Cal State Los Angeles; he returned to Riverside to become the city's first black teacher, at Ramona High, in 1959. By 1966, he was a school administrator, and when Lowell burned, he said, "It was an act of violence. Destruction of a school building. And I heard the board say, We need to do something about this eyesore." He went to his father with a plan to buy the 5.2 acres for a new church and a senior citizen housing complex.

Dell Roberts told me in March, "Reverend James Wall, his father, was working with me at Butcher Boy back then. You could hear him whistling at night, saying he was praying on it." Jesse Wall added, "My father said, 'It's too much. My mother got out of her bed and said, James, Jesse has a job, and white people listen to him. You should listen to your son.'" His voice rose as if he were still convincing his father, fifty years later. In 1967, historic cooperation for Riverside continued, with Truman Johnson, a white man, President of Sterling Savings, telling Jesse, "I will help you get this land -- I will hold the paper." The school board accepted the offer -- $36,000 -- and the church paid off the mortgage in 1982.

Some of the century-old eucalyptus trees still stand among the two-story buildings, where the landscaping is eternally pristine and the apartments always renovated. Jesse Wall gestured around the paths where senior residents walked. "I was born to do this," he said. Where once rang the voices of children playing, the choir and the words of Jesse Wall can be heard through the trees.

Art Littleworth recently wrote a memoir of his life -- he turned 90 on May 2, and still harvested oranges on his property this winter. Emmett "Ray" Berry died January 30, at 94; Berry had gone on to mentor Horace Jackson, RUSD's first black principal in 1968 -- he was our principal at North High, and it meant the world for the Eastside community to see him in that office. Jackson died on January 28, at 77. Berry also mentored Robert Flores, a Casa Blanca native who was the district's first Latino high school principal in 1972. Flores died on February 4, at 80.

Dell Roberts was a football coach and campus supervisor at Poly High from 1965-1990, and then worked for the school district, finally retiring after 38 years. Butcher Boy Foods, begun by Harry Roberts in 1950, became Windsor Foods, which made foods like Jose Ole frozen burritos for decades, but closed in January. Dell Roberts is on the board of the Mission Inn Foundation; the hotel is now owned by Harry Robert's son Duane.

The heroic hours are often those spent awake every night in the dark, wondering if your family is safe while you sleep away from home and think about the children of strangers riding a bus toward a school; with no drum or trumpet, men haul another box of beef long after midnight, then spend the afternoon showing a kid how to tackle, and finally sit beside a friend, facing a crowd of people who don't want their children to go to school with your own. Those heroic moments are about bravery, shoulder beside shoulder.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.
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