The Watts Writers Workshop, 50 Years Later




I VISITED WATTS in the fall of 1965, four months after the neighborhood burned. The impoverished ghetto had had one too many feuds with the LAPD and all hell broke loose that summer. A routine traffic stop ignited a race riot. Pawnshops were looted, drugstores and corner liquor stores burned to the ground, fires roared, and gunshots rang through the night. Young black men ran through the streets shouting the battle cry “burn, baby, burn,” lyrics to a song popularized by a local DJ.

My family lived in Baldwin Hills, a predominantly white enclave when we settled there after moving from the San Joaquin Valley in the late 1950s. Postwar Los Angeles was booming, and it was easy for young families to find comfortable apartments to rent, even the working poor like us. I attended Dorsey High School in the early 1960s, when racial tension was constant. An unwritten code kept each racial group in its own territory.

In August 1965, we were at home watching a live telecast of civil unrest. Flames leapt into the sky, visible as far as 20 miles north. Everyone in Los Angeles sat glued to their TV screens, while angry black men surged through the burning streets and the hated LAPD tried to contain the revolt in the southeast and South Central areas. A curfew was set for the entire city. Frightened whites locked their doors and windows during the hot summer nights and only ventured outside when California National Guard troops armed with rifles rolled into the neighborhood. Following six days of rage, white flight became the operating term for people in the areas bordering South Los Angeles, including my family.

I was intrigued by a story in the Los Angeles Times about a group of writers that met every Wednesday afternoon in a run-down building in Watts. What really caught my attention was the name of the writing teacher — Budd Schulberg, the famous Hollywood screenwriter and novelist. Budd grew up in Los Angeles, the son of movie producer B. P. Schulberg. As a young man, he listened to jazz in Central Avenue nightclubs that were frequented by whites from across town. In the 1950s, he won an Oscar for his screenplay for On the Waterfront and created the character Sammy Glick for his celebrated book, What Makes Sammy Run?

Budd had watched the torching of Watts on television from his elegant living room in Coldwater Canyon. When the carnage stopped, the National Guard was withdrawn and the LAPD was left in charge, taunting the young men who stepped off the curbs or lingered a moment after curfew. Budd wanted to see for himself the horrors of those days and nights, so he drove down to 103rd Street — known as Charcoal Alley, the heart of Watts — and stopped at the only building left standing in the middle of the block, a social service agency that offered some counseling, dance classes, and not much else.

He tacked up a notice, “Creative Writing Class — All interested sign below.”

Budd sat by himself for weeks. Eventually the locals started dropping by to talk and read their poetry, short stories, and anything else they had jotted down. The Watts Writers Workshop rose from the ashes.

I wrote Budd a fan letter, offering to edit and type manuscripts produced by workshop members. That was the beginning of a wonderful friendship with Budd Schulberg, his lovely wife, actress Geraldine Brooks, and a group of talented writers, young and old, that formed the Frederick Douglass House — Watts Writers Workshop. I edited and typed their work for six years.

The Workshop was one of the first cultural centers established in an urban ghetto. Budd galvanized his friends — John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, and other well-known writers — into sending money and accompanying him to Wednesday night classes when they were in town. Budd juggled the demands of the growing workshop while plugging away at his new novel. His wife Geraldine acted as a buffer from the daily intrusion of aspiring writers seeking Budd’s counsel about their poetry, their stories, and their ongoing conflicts with the LAPD.

The experience working with Budd made a powerful impression on me. Not only did I have a window into the creative world of the man who wrote What Makes Sammy Run?, On the Waterfront, and The Harder They Fall, but I also learned to listen to struggling street-corner poets, kids from rural Louisiana, high school dropouts, and others equally diverse with stories to tell.

I witnessed events from my desk in the small guesthouse next to the Schulbergs’ home. Every morning, Budd climbed the outside stairs to his converted attic office and secluded himself from intrusions. At 1:30 each afternoon, he wandered into the house where lunch awaited him. I often joined him at the beautiful oak country table. My fondest food memory is of a strawberry-rhubarb compote, a dish I learned to prepare for my own family.

“Jimmy and Gadge are coming for drinks,” Budd once told Geraldine in his stammering way. (He had a stutter, and under stress, the words were strung out syllable by syllable.) The door opened at five p.m., and there stood James Baldwin and Elia Kazan. I was too awestruck to utter a word and quickly fled to my desk in the guesthouse. Kazan, along with Budd, had given up names to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the witch-hunt days of Joseph McCarthy. As a result, neither one suffered during the blacklist. People sometimes ask me if Budd’s workshop was his penance for not refusing to testify. I never asked him that question.

Budd and Geraldine hosted elegant dinners at their home to attract powerful Hollywood leaders as donors. The glitz and glamour crowd weren’t easily persuaded to lend their support to a Watts writing program, as people moved farther away from Mid-City and huddled in gated neighborhoods on the Westside. But many did contribute. As former Los Angeles Times writer Robert Epstein reminisced in 1992, the Watts Workshop “was the Hollywood cause of its time, years before whales, ecology, oceans or animal rights became the crusades of the day.”

It was a unique creative program on 102nd Street. By 1967, more than 300,000 words had been written, and New American Library published an anthology I helped to organize, From the Ashes: Voices of Watts, with 18 stories by many of the writers. The soft-spoken James Thomas Jackson handed me chapters to type detailing his military career; there was flaming poetry from young Johnie Scott, who migrated from Jordan High School to Harvard and Stanford; and my favorite writer, Birdell Chew, wrote a powerful short prayer, “A Black Mother’s Plea,” sadly appropriate for the carnage in the United States’ black communities then and now.

Budd’s brother, Stuart Schulberg, produced two national television shows in 1966–67 from material generated at the workshop: The Angry Voices of Watts and Losers Weepers, authored by erstwhile janitor Harry Dolan. The workshop rose in prominence, and new writers came to the Wednesday night classes. I devoted endless hours to editing and typing Daddy Was A Number Runner by Louise Meriwether and prose poems by Quincy Troupe.

The workshop moved to New York in 1975 when the Schulbergs took up residence on Long Island. I regret to say that the close-knit group of writers dissipated after Budd moved east. He transplanted the idea to Harlem, launching the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, which trained hundreds of burgeoning writers from 1971 to 2010. Budd and I continued to exchange letters, and we last spoke shortly before he died in 2009.

Sadly, many of the Watts Workshop writers are dead as well. My time at the workshop ended when financial sustainability became impossible. But I carried Budd’s mission throughout my career as an educator and community activist. In 1988, I launched a nonprofit newspaper written by urban teens. Once again, compelling stories emerged from underrepresented young writers in South Los Angeles and other neighborhoods. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Budd and the Watts Workshop writers for the opportunity to be a part of such a special organization.

¤

Donna C. Myrow is founder and publisher of the newspaper L.A. Youth, and has contributed to Nieman Reports, the Los Angeles Times, health journals, and other publications.


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