Located on the corner of San Pedro and 76th Street, John C. Fremont High School is hard to miss. Many people might know this school as a present day minority serving institution, but there’s a lot more to the story than this. Special thanks to two viewers who inspired this: Juan Sanchez, who started this conversation; and Gerson Argueta.
John C. Fremont
So who’s John C. Fremont anyway? Born on January 21, 1813, Fremont was an American explorer, military officer, and politician. He has a long and conflicting history, but he’s remembered for his staunch stance against slavery, and running as the first-ever republican presidential nominee. His work paved the way for Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president for the United States.
But what did this United States icon have to do with the black and brown students who attend Fremont High School now? Nothing, actually. With a quick look at Fremont high school history, you’ll find that this public school was designed as a whites-only school.
On December 4, 1922, The Los Angeles Times reported three new school buildings planned for the expanding Los Angeles area: Belmont High School, Beverly Hills High School, and John C. Fremont High School. The city specifically built John C. Fremont to reduce enrollment sizes at the nearby Manual Arts High School, which is a few miles north of this site.
Before this school was built, there seems to have been few homes, as the land was not subdivided yet. The biggest development was the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, which employed nearly 3,000 people. The school was the final ingredient to catalyze growth in a new real estate development. The banks (namely Bank of Italy–later merged into Bank of America) sold tracts in this brand new neighborhood called Goodyear Park. Investors gave life to new single-family homes around the neighborhood, which would then be sold to working class families. And families who had at least one member employed at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company were attracted to the short commute, new homes, and proximity to a new school for their child. This cycle is easily depicted by the ballooning local ads to both investors and working class families in the local paper.
This, of course, served as a bright opportunity for white, working class families. Not so much for people of color. For two reasons, really. First, the home and neighborhoods had race restrictions. In this case, non-white people were not allowed to buy homes here. The second is, people of color, specifically Black people in this instance, had fewer opportunities to get secure loans from banks. While working class white people were able to buy these homes with an Federal Housing Administration secured loans, non-white people were not until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 changed the de facto ruling.
So non-white people couldn’t take advantage of these new home sites, or this $5,000 home being given away for free. Considering inflation, this giveaway home would be valued at $77,000 in 2021 dollars. Real estate is crazy.
A New School
Designed as a large school, the school district anticipated 1500 enrolled students, which was the most any new school had seen in Los Angeles to that date. The school offered a much different curriculum than modern standard: Young men had the opportunity to learn carpentry, mechanics, printing, auto electric, and the young women…well they learned dressmaking and home economics..
New homes were erected each day and attendance swelled, and by November of 1924, the John C. Fremont had to construct two new bungalows to keep up. And by 1925, the school opened a new science building and had plans for a gymnasium.
The school’s first graduating class was in 1928. If anyone from the first graduating class is still alive, they’d be around 111 today.
And during World War II, the school also operated a night adult school to help fill wartime needs, including blueprint reading, mathematics, civilian defense, typing, and bookkeeping–all tuition free.
Other fun facts at John C. Fremont High School include: A free national program to feed underweight young women in attendance; and an identical set of twins who married an identical set of twins, who all met while attending Fremont.
If you stuck around this long, I’m sure you’re curious about when John C. Fremont High School became less white.
Back in 1926, I found an op-ed published in the California Eagle, a former black newspaper in Los Angeles that rebutted against comments from the Fremont Improvement Association. Essentially, the association wanted to keep their neighborhoods free of black residents to “preserve the schools and district of our own race.”
Anyway, through some odd chance in history, Black people managed to find a way in. In 1941, 6 black people attended John C. Fremont High School, and some students did not like that. On the backside of the high school on Avalon Boulevard, a gang of white students performed an lynching in effigy–lynching using a makeshift, fake body–that depicted the 6 African American students. The only paper reported on this was the California Eagle, the prime black newspaper at the time. Led by the owner, Charlotta Bass, the news team tracked this story for weeks. And in the end, the principal nor board of education had any repercussions for the “offending” students.
There were also a few recorded incidents of students distributing racist handbills and even attacking a group of young black women who also attended the school.
By 1948, the United States Supreme Court ruled racial housing covenants illegal in the United States, making it slightly easier for Black people to move into neighborhoods like Goodyear Park.
In 1953, Fremont High School named its first black senior class president Frederick Walls–nearly 20 years after the school was built. In 1954, Walls also became the first black Valedictorian at Fremont. In 1955, the students selected their first female senior class president, May Aubry, a New Orleans native.
Photos of white students in the 50s became more scarce in the newspapers I researched. And by 1969, the Los Angeles Times reported on Fremont High School as a “predominantly negro” school. And of course, demographics in South Los Angeles shifted in the 80s and 90s, and the school now serves students of Latinx descent.
The School Today
Today, John C. Fremont High Schools stands as an iconic landmark in the Florence neighborhood as a minority-serving public institution. You’ll find it surrounded by rows of single family houses that were once new homes for working class white Americans.
Fremont has an enrollment of 1,980 students pre-covid, with Latino students making up roughly 82 percent of the population. According to Great Schools, the 4-year high school graduation rate is 74 percent, and less than 50 percent of students leave with the coursework necessary to attend a Cal State or a UC school.
The school is effectively split into four sub-schools, including: School of Global Media Arts; Medical Science Academy; The Law & Social Justice School; and STEAM magnet. Before COVID, it also has a healthy selection of sports, including Basketball, Football, and Track & Field.
Alumni include: A long list of Major League Baseball players, American rapper Dr. Dre, Raymond Washington, a cofounder of the Crips Gang; and Legendary City Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.
That’s it for this episode. I hope you enjoyed this flash from the past and learned something new. Let me know what you all would like to see next. And I’ll see you around on the Recap.