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A 1960 racial persecution incident didn’t embitter Etheldra Watts, but it angered and inspired white La Verne College students who witnessed it.
When she returned to La Verne College, Etheldra Watts didn’t want to talk about what had happened in Oklahoma and Texas.
She’d cried and she didn’t do that often. Her friends had tried to comfort her but didn’t know quite what to say. They just couldn’t understand.
It was November 1960 and Watts was the only black person in a group of La Verne College students on their way home from a Brethren Student Christian Movement conference in Ashland, Ohio.
Their VW microbus broke down on the Oklahoma Turnpike, stranding them in a small town called Vinita.
When the group tried to find a place to stay and eat together, they were turned away. Watts would have to eat in the kitchen and stay at the Negro hotel down the block, a hotel clerk told them.
The details about that day in Oklahoma are fuzzy for Watts, a retired teacher who lives in Rancho Cucamonga with her family. After all, this happened nearly five decades ago and a similar incident occurred a few days later in Amarillo, Texas. But she’ll never forget the pain.
“I felt bad because I felt it happened because I was there,” said Watts, whose name at the time was Etheldra “Thel” Claxton. “They were discriminating against the whole group. They made me feel bad as a black person but they also made me feel bad because they made my friends feel bad. I didn’t feel guilty but I just remember feeling really really bad.”
Witnessing or being victim to such overt racism had a profound effect on the college students. Although Watts never attended marches or became an activist in the civil rights movement, she worked for parity in her own way. During her 27 years as a teacher, she was determined to create a welcoming environment in her classrooms, treating all of her students equally.
“Once something like that has happened to you, you want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” she said.
For David Hollinger, what he saw on that trip was the beginning of his interest in the color line and influenced his work as a UC Berkeley historian. The color line would become an important theme in two of his books.
Richard Stern transferred to Howard University, a predominantly black university in Washington, D.C.; what he’d experienced was one of several reasons for the move. Sandra Groves, then Sandra Kelso, would advocate for minorities in her professional life in parks and recreation and higher education and in her community service.
The former students say they did not realize how naïve they were. Certainly, they paid attention to the civil rights struggle and the oppression of black Americans, but the struggle always seemed abstract, far away from La Verne. The events caught all of them – even Watts – off-guard.
“That such a minor incident could be so shocking to me and the other white students at the age of 19 is no doubt a sign of how sheltered most of us had been from the depth and severity of anti-black racism in our own society,” Hollinger said. “I knew about it in a general way, and had of course followed press accounts of the Little Rock integration crisis of 1957 and a few other widely publicized examples of conflict over Jim Crow. But seeing it first hand, and seeing it victimize a friend made a big difference.”
Stern, who teaches English to university students in Italy, recalls the group being united around Watts in “indignation and moral outrage.” Looking back on the incident almost half a century later, Stern said it takes on a symbolic meaning he only acknowledged recently. A conscientious objector ready to commit civil disobedience for nuclear disarmament, Stern said the experience was one of the reasons he decided to leave La Verne to do service with the Brethren Volunteer Services, hoping to test his principles in the “real world.”
“Two years as a volunteer brought me nearer to the reality of racial injustice, and my grandiose ambition became a plan to unite the vibrant movement for nuclear disarmament with the movement for Afro-American integration and non-discrimination,” he said.
Watts said she didn’t remember anyone in the group talking about the possibility that something could happen because of her race. “It wasn’t like we were going to Mississippi,” she said.
One of the only black students at La Verne at the time, Watts said she was always acutely aware that she was different despite an environment that, for the most part, was welcoming and comfortable.
She was outgoing and popular. She participated in student government and was named a freshman princess. But she recalls with a twinge of sadness being the only one left out when the parents of a classmate organized large birthday celebrations for their son.
“I can’t remember anybody ever saying or asking me how I felt because I wasn’t invited,” she said.
Raised in Louisiana, Watts and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was young. She attended Centennial High School, where the principal and a counselor suggested she attend La Verne College. She never thought about the fact that she would be the only black student in the freshman class, she said.
During the Thanksgiving break in 1960, Watts decided to attend the conference in Ohio, despite the fact that she wasn’t Brethren. Dan Long, a La Verne professor of philosophy, accompanied the students.
Their bus began making a strange noise as the group turned onto the Oklahoma Turnpike. A broken valve had gone through a piston. The bus had to be towed 17 miles into Vinita.
At a hotel, the clerk told them they couldn’t stay together and they wouldn’t be served anywhere in town.
“Returning to the garage, we discovered that it was a 24-hour garage and that we could stay all night in our Microbus,” Long wrote in the March 12, 1961 edition of Horizons, the Church of the Brethren’s youth and young adult magazine. “We bought groceries and prepared to be ‘an island of integration’ at the garage in Oklahoma.”
The circumstances had begun to weigh on Watts, who quietly let out deep sobs, Long wrote. She said she felt sorry for people who were prejudiced.
Hollinger remembers Watts standing in front of a stack of tires, weeping disconsolately. “I am glad I do not remember what I said to Thel at that moment because for all of my good intentions, I cannot imagine what I said was remotely up to the occasion,” he said.
One member of the group remembered that a new Brethren church had been formed 50 miles away in Bartlesville. The pastor arranged for two cars to be sent to Vinita to collect the group and take them to private homes. They stayed until the mechanic could fix their bus.
Several days after the incident in Oklahoma, the group stopped for breakfast at a pancake house in Amarillo, Texas. A hostess showed them to a table. While they were waiting for their orders to be taken, the girls in the group decided to hang up their coats, Long wrote.
“As they went to hang them up, the hostess approached me and said, ‘the colored girl will have to eat in the kitchen,’” Long wrote. “I replied that we had been a group too long to break up now, to which she replied, ‘I’m sorry, that is the rule of the house.’ ”
Groves remembers being shocked.
“We all looked at each other,” she recalled. “We just decided, ‘We’re out of there.’ We got up and left.”
“I would say that my naiveté was changed. I mean this was the time when the civil rights movement was beginning to have more of an impact, when Martin Luther King Jr. and others were beginning to be involved in non-violent demonstrations,” said Groves, who grew up in the state of Washington. “When I went to La Verne, it was an urban setting but still we weren’t exposed to some of the issues going on in the rest of the country. We just weren’t aware of it.”
“I was disappointed that this was still what was happening in our country,” she said.
Back in the bus, one of the students said, “Well, we have the problem again,” Long wrote. “Another of our group replied immediately, ‘No, we don’t have a problem. They do.’ ”
Groves said what happened to Watts during the trip was one of several experiences that helped shape her work. She was in Chicago when King led the march in Cicero against racial discrimination in housing. She remembers the looting and burning in Chicago after he was assassinated in 1968.
“There were just a whole bunch of things that happened over a period of time that really did have an impact in terms of trying to seek justice for folks that didn’t always have access to resources,” she said.
Watts, who once met King, hasn’t dwelled on what happened. Other painful things have shaded her life, including her sister’s murder. But, she said, something useful has come from what she faced in 1960.
“It’s something you can use as a strength in your life for something else that might come along,” she said.
For Stern, what happened so long ago has, in a way, come full circle, he said. His son, who grew up in Seattle, married a black woman from Texas and the couple settled in central Los Angeles, not far from where Watts lives.
“I hope to give Thel Claxton a hug and some thanks before 50 years from that event have passed,” he said.
Hollinger said he also owes gratitude to Watts. He said he sensed that she initially was embarrassed by what happened on the way home from Ohio. He’s always been grateful that Watts could forgive him and the other students for their awkwardness, he said.
Forty-three years after graduation, he saw Watts again. They caught up and talked freely about what she had endured on that trip.
“I now realize that as a student at La Verne for four years, Thel showed enormous strength of character in putting up with a bunch of white people like me who had no idea what it meant to be black in America,” Hollinger said. “I know I still have a lot to learn but much of what I have learned began with getting to know Thel, and seeing what people of my color could do to her.”