White Compton native recalls a different time
David Harris grew up in yesteryear Compton from the late fifties to the early seventies when White people still accounted for the majority of the City’s population. He reflected on Compton native Susan Firth’s original
David Harris grew up in yesteryear Compton from the late fifties to the early seventies when White people still accounted for the majority of the City’s population. He reflected on Compton native Susan Firth’s original “throwback” story, “Childhood charm in yesterday Compton.” Photo courtesy of David Harris
Remembrance: A native son recalls fond and harrowing experiences as a White youngster growing up in Compton from 1957 to 1972
By DAVID HARRIS
In response to the article by Suzan Firth (“Childhood charm in yesterday Compton,” Feb. 17, 2017), I too grew up in Compton, from 1957 until 1972. [Firth and I] have very similar memories of what I (a native son) consider to be a wonderful childhood.
I attended El Segundo Elementary and Willowbrook Junior High schools, while there. I was the only White student in both schools. I received a great education in those schools, especially in the fifth and sixth grades when African-American History was taught. This was a subject of high interest to me. As a child, I could not wrap my mind around why Black people were slaves in this country. Everyone was just like me; I could not understand it. There were some highly intelligent individuals in my classes. Somehow I never quite matched their abilities academically, but I had my own set of strengths at the time.
To be honest, most people I know today can’t fathom that I grew up in Compton, either. To them, I am a novelty. All the majority of people know about Compton is what they read, see, and hear (most of it not good). Their impressions come from rappers and the movie, Straight Outta Compton, which by the way I have never seen.
People this way [La Crosse, Wis.] get kind of confused that soul music, not rap music, was the big “thing” when I was growing up. I do not think rap music became mainstream until the late 1970’s, but I could be wrong. I remember well the Motown sound out of Detroit, Stax Records artists out of Memphis like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Isaac Hayes, and the Houston soul sound of Archie Bell and the Drells. The big soul music radio station at the time in Los Angeles (and of course, Compton) was KGFJ-AM.
I was aware that Compton is now majority Latino. What [surprises me] is the gentrification. That seems to be happening in a lot of places. The whole time I grew up in Compton, there were two Chinese-owned grocery stores close to my home: Star Market on the corner of 131st Street and Wilmington Avenue, and Bill’s Market on 133rd Street and Wilmington. During the Watts Riots of 1965 there was an attempt to set Bill’s Market ablaze, but the store just received minor fire damage. One of the stores we shopped for groceries, Shop-Rite (I believe located on the corner of 120th Street and Central Avenue) was destroyed during the riot. I also recall a large National Guard presence at Rosecrans Plaza (with a Thrifty Drug store on the Northeast corner of the lot, and Von’s Grocery Store on the southwest corner), not far from Gonzalez Park.
Around 1970 is when life started changing for me, and everyone else, in Compton. I recall that as the beginning of street gangs in the city. The first time I heard the name “Crips” was either in late 1970 or 1971. I saw individuals on my street whom I had never seen before wearing wide brimmed hats, black leather jackets, starched blue jeans with folded cuffs and, “Biscuits” [popular shoe fashion]. I was terrified, feeling life was not changing for the better.
After my father passed away in late 1971, my mother and I returned to her home state of Wisconsin in February 1972 (around the same time President Nixon visited China and met Premier Zhou En Lai and Chairman Mao), where I have lived for most of my adult life. Life in Compton at that time was starting to get scary. Years later I read that all hell broke loose in Compton in the summer of 1972, while I [was living] in a peaceful rural setting where I did not have to worry if I was going to be killed on my way to school, in school, or leaving school, which was the most dangerous time of the day with after school fights, daily. Fortunately, I avoided those, never going home from the same gate two days in a row.
Had I continued living in Compton, I would have attended Centennial High School, which also happened to be in Bloods street gang territory. I believe had I remained in Compton, there was a 50/50 chance I would not be alive today. I always tried to just blend in, minding my own business, and hanging out with my friends. But, being White, I would have “stuck out” in school, something I did not especially like. Life was beginning to get dangerous at the time I left — not only for me, but for everyone. I think at some point I would have just quit going to school and dropped out at 16, even though my goal to finish high school.
I have returned to Compton twice since leaving — once in late 1977 before I joined the Army, and in early 1984, my last semester in college. It was during my last visit that I was told it was no longer safe for me to visit my home on 131st Street, because most of the people I grew up with were no longer there, and no one would know me.
Suzan Firth graduated from Dominguez High School at the time Compton was changing for the worse. I recall, Dominguez and Whaley Junior High School [in East Compton] did not yet have the violence that was creeping into my neighborhood at the time, but I could be wrong.
Firth’s story about growing up in Compton mirrors my own. It was a pleasure reading her article. Thanks to the Compton Herald and Facebook, I was able to reestablish connections with quite a few of the individuals I grew up with in Compton.
I have hardly scratched the surface about my life growing up in Compton. Someday I hope to write a book about my experiences. My life is coming full circle: as of Feb. 5, I have a granddaughter, my first, who is of African-American heritage.
Needless to say, she is beautiful!
David Harris lives in La Crosse, Wis. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org