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Minding the Gap: The Racial Legacy of CalState University Dominguez Hills

CSUDH Toro Pep Club 1970s I Photo Courtesy of CSUDH Archives

Less than five miles from where the 1965 Watts Rebellion erupted fifty years ago, California State University Dominguez Hills sits on 346 acres in the city of Carson, where the park-like campus's panoramic views of downtown Los Angeles are hazy but still visible. On the southern perimeter of the campus you'll face a much more industrial setting, with the ghostly outlines of monolithic oil derricks appearing in the distance. South L.A. County sprawls so far out in all four directions that you would hardly know the Pacific Ocean lies just eight miles away from here.

Yet however unassuming the surrounding area is, the placement of CSU Dominguez Hills was actually a highly strategic response to the 1965 Watts Rebellion by then Governor Pat Brown, who up until the time of his death regarded the Dominguez Hills campus as his "special creation."

Gov. Pat Brown Signing CSUDH Bill 1966 I Photo Courtesy of CSUDH Archives
Gov. Pat Brown Signing CSUDH Bill 1966 I Photo Courtesy of CSUDH Archives

Situated east of the 110 and north of the 405 freeways, CSU Dominguez Hills pioneered in its promise of equal access to higher education for the underserved minority populations of South L.A., specifically the African American communities of nearby Watts and Compton that were most impacted by the riots in 1965.

However, addressing the social and educational inequities of L.A.'s African American communities was not the initial goal of state legislators, who proposed the university in the midst of the post-war baby boom. Founded in 1960, five years before the Watts Rebellion, CSU Dominguez Hills was originally named South Bay State College in the legislation that created it, which sought to establish a college somewhere near the Los Angeles Airport. At the time, California legislators were responding to the city's massive increase in population throughout the 1940s and 50s, when thousands of people, including whites and blacks from the South and Midwest, migrated west in search of jobs in L.A.'s defense and aerospace industries. In addition, the new network of L.A. freeways launched after World War II allowed the city to continue to grow, particularly in the South Bay region of Torrance, Palos Verdes, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, El Segundo, and San Pedro.

In its early stages, the school aimed to serve the South Bay's more privileged communities. After surveying over twenty locations in several competing South Bay locales, campus architect A. Quincy Jones finally recommended a site on the Palos Verdes peninsula. In July 1963, the yet-to-be built school's name was officially changed from South Bay State to California State College Palos Verdes. Palos Verdes today is still very similar to what it was then: a group of affluent coastal cities with one of the greatest concentrations of wealth in the country and a majority white population. As the value of land in Palos Verdes escalated exponentially from 1963 on, negotiations to purchase the college site continued to move painfully slow.

Proposed Palos Verdes Campus site 1964 I Photo Courtesy of CSUDH Archives
Proposed Palos Verdes Campus site 1964 I Photo Courtesy of CSUDH Archives

Meanwhile, while Palos Verdes real estate was growing in value and desirability, African Americans were being excluded from 95% of L.A. housing through restrictive covenants that discriminated against minorities. In fact, Palos Verdes real estate included covenants that forbid African Americans from entering white-owned private property unless they were employed domestic workers or manual laborers. The practice had become so widespread in L.A. that in 1963 Governor Brown signed the Rumford Fair Housing Act making these racist covenants illegal. But in 1964 the Fair Housing Act was nullified by California Proposition 14, again allowing landlords to deny housing to anyone they wished. As a result, African Americans were segregated in the denser neighborhoods of east and south L.A., where opportunities were severely limited, while white Angelenos fled to wealthier and more upwardly-mobile communities on the westside. The McCone Commission would later point to the passage of CA Prop 14 as a major inciter of the 1965 Watts Rebellion.

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And yet, despite ongoing negotiations for the Palos Verdes site, news of Prop.14 seemed to shift the sensibilities of Governor Brown's staff in favor of a campus more accessible to communities in south L.A. Hale Champion, Governor Brown's finance director, began urging Brown and the college board to move the campus from the hills of Palos Verdes to one of the flatland communities of south L.A. Champion, a former political reporter who first entered public service as Brown's press secretary in 1958, played a key role in shaping many of Brown's policies. This included the California Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960, which reaffirmed the state's commitment to universal access and tuition-free education for all California residents. The plan also defined specific functions of the California State University system, which historically has educated students from moderate to low income families. Concerning the future Palos Verdes campus, Champion argued that land further inland was more heavily populated by minority groups -- especially African American high school students -- who stood to benefit most from the new college. It was also significantly cheaper.

Cows grazing on Dominguez Hills site 1968 I Photo Courtesy of CSUDH Archives
Cows grazing on Dominguez Hills site 1968 I Photo Courtesy of CSUDH Archives

Eventually, plans for the Palos Verdes site were abandoned because of the rising cost, and in March 1965, Dominguez Hills was identified as another possible location (along with sites in Torrance and San Pedro). John Muns, president of the Dominguez Hills Homeowners Association in 1965, recognized that for a community to be selected as the site for a state college was a mark of status and prestige. He quickly headed up the campaign in support of Dominguez Hills, which at the time was still unincorporated ranch and farming land in the soon-to-be city of Carson. Like Champion, Muns cited the potential for a multiracial college community should the campus come to his town. He noted the nearby intersection of freeways which would allow easy access to students commuting from both the eastside and westside of south L.A.. In addition, in a letter to Governor Brown, Muns also wrote:

Though desegregation was not explicitly listed as a benefit of the Dominguez Hills site, throughout the spring and early summer months of 1965 the college board further outlined the site's advantages and disadvantages. State assemblyman Vincent Thomas of San Pedro was the most adamantly opposed to Dominguez Hills and charged that the location would actually result in more de facto segregation. After the Watts Rebellion broke out in August of that same year, many of Thomas's white constituents expressed similar complaints. One South Bay newspaper predicted, "Given a choice, students from this area will not attend a college in a predominantly Negro area, particularly in view of the Watts riots...which occurred mighty close to the college location" (from Rolling Hills Herald - October 31, 1965). Regardless, less than two months after the uprising in Watts had ceased and in anticipation of what the McCone Commission would ultimately recommend, Governor Brown jumped at the opportunity to alter L.A.'s history of racial inequality. In October 1965, he announced his final decision: California State College Palos Verdes would become California State College Dominguez Hills.

Dominguez Hills Campus Groundbreaking Ceremony 1967 I Photo Courtesy of CSUDH Archives
Dominguez Hills Campus Groundbreaking Ceremony 1967 I Photo Courtesy of CSUDH Archives

However, in the aftermath of the riots, the challenges faced by African American communities in L.A. sharpened into focus, revealing a stark reality and daunting set of challenges. In December 1965, the McCone Commission recognized "a crisis in our country," one where "equality of opportunity...proved more of an illusion than a fact." The Commission, ordered by Brown to examine the causes of the Watts Rebellion, found police brutality, unemployment, substandard schools, lack of quality housing, and the growing economic gap between white business owners and black consumers to be among the many problems contributing to the riots. It further implored that African Americans could no longer exist this way and that any future hope would stem from education.

Fifty years later, CSU Dominguez Hills has developed into a racially well-integrated institution, with roughly 85% of its student body identifying as African American, Latino, or Asian as of Fall 2014. This is due in part to the location of the university, which boasts over 90,000 alumni originating from the immediately surrounding communities of south L.A. It has also been a result of progressive policies adapted by the California State University system, such us affirmative action and tuition-free education. And though these policies have historically helped disadvantaged students achieve access to higher education, they have since been abolished. Over the years, it appears as if the state's earlier impetus to address racial inequalities has all but evaporated.

Student Fall Registration 1968 I Photo Courtesy of CSUDH Archives
Student Fall Registration 1968 I Photo Courtesy of CSUDH Archives

Today, despite arguably higher college attendance rates in communities of color, racial and economic inequalities remain disturbingly steadfast. Regardless of the fact that whites represent less than two-thirds (62%) of the student population, they still receive more than three-quarters (76%) of all merit-based scholarships and grant funding. White students are also 40% more likely than minority students to win private scholarships. And according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2011, college-educated African Americans are still twice as likely as their white peers to be unemployed. In the face of such changes (or lack thereof), what future do students of color face in Southern California?

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