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Wed, 12.11.1929

Douglass High School (Southern California) is Founded

Douglass High School

Douglass High School in Imperial County, CA, was founded on this date in 1929.

On this date, the Central Union High School District approved a $15,334.69 expenditure for the architectural plans, construction, and outfitting of a high school building for Black secondary students.  California's Black population had increased in the first decades of the twentieth century. Located in the segregated Eastside neighborhood, the new school was called Eastside High School.  This was one of the first Black High Schools in that Southern California.  Douglass High School is located in El Centro, CA, east of San Diego, about halfway to Yuma, AZ, in Imperial County.

Discrimination was especially intense where public accommodations, employment, education, and housing were concerned. A pattern of Jim Crow racism emerged with the introduction of non-white laborers recruited into the valley from the southern United States and Mexico to build the embryonic cotton industry.  The El Centro Elementary School District instituted formal school segregation in the 1913-1914 school year when Black parents first applied for admission of their children to the school district.

The superintendent created a separate school because of overcrowding at the existing sites. Black parents registered early the following year to have their children again assigned to separate schools.  Black parents organized the El Centro Parents Association and retained a Los Angeles attorney to represent them.  Segregation, however, became institutionalized and continued for nearly a half-century.  In 1923, for example, Professor William Payne, principal of the all-Black Dunbar Elementary School, went to El Centro High School to register his eldest daughter, Octavia. Admission was denied.

High school education was simply unavailable to Blacks in this valley town. Ultimately, on August 20, 1925, the High School District voted to pay the El Centro City School District $1,831.16 to use buildings and grounds on the Eastside Elementary School site. The lease was to run for 20 years, beginning March 1, 1926. The arrangement allowed Professor Payne, the school's principal, who held high school and junior college teaching credentials, to extend instruction through the twelfth grade. This policy lasted one year. In 1927, the Central Union High School District Board voted to organize a separate secondary school.

After its founding a few years later, Eastside residents successfully petitioned the Board of Trustees to rename the school Douglass High School. Fifteen years elapsed before authorization was finally given to change the inscription on the building. Under Professor William Payne's leadership, Douglass High School offered both high school and junior college curricula. However, the school could not officially grant either degree.  Central Union High School issued high school diplomas, and Imperial Valley Junior College conveyed the Associate of Arts degrees.

Instructors at both elementary and high schools were remembered as extraordinary teachers. Many talented young Black teachers applied to the district since it was one of the few systems where a Black teacher could secure a regular teaching appointment. A common practice among districts throughout the state was to require Black teachers to have at least one year of experience as regular teachers in a California district before a permanent appointment could be considered.

This requisite experience could be gained in a few places outside the Imperial Valley.  El Centro's segregated district ironically aided a few teachers who penetrated the color barrier after teaching for one year or more at either Dunbar or Douglass school. Douglass High School was closed in 1954 following the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision. After the school's closing, the trustees sold the building to the El Centro School District.

Soon, the El Centro School District voted to sell the structure and have it removed by August 1, 1958. The Mason's Eureka Lodge #28, El Centro, bid $1,000 to purchase the Douglass Auditorium. The Masons placed the highest bid and subsequently received title to the building in 1959. It has recently been restored and serves as the Masonic Hall in El Centro.

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