On the corner of Farmdale Avenue and Barack Obama Boulevard in the Crenshaw area of South LA, you’ll find Susan Miller Dorsey High School, a wide-stretching campus built in 1937 that’s surrounded by lush landscaping.
Though, when you take a deeper look at the school’s historical roots, you’ll find this once-predominantly Black school at the crux of segregation in a White neighborhood.
Who Was Susan Dorsey?
Who was Susan Miller Dorsey, anyway? Dorsey was a trailblazer in education who had spent decades teaching and leading. She became the first woman to serve as superintendent of Los Angeles City Schools, now a part of LAUSD, in 1920 and served in that role for nearly a decade.
In 1936, the Los Angeles Board of Education announced a series of new school buildings to accommodate the growing school-age population across the city.
Before the neighborhood surrounding Dorsey High School developed, it was primarily private ranch land owned by Elisas “Lucky” Baldwin, a wealthy landowner in the late 19th and early 20th century who held more than 40,000 acres of land across Los Angeles. Baldwin sold a portion of his ranchland to Walter G. McCarthy, a real estate developer who owned one-fourth of land in Beverly Hills. McCarthy subdivided 225 acres of this land, naming the area where the school sits “Buckingham Square.”
Along with the rising bricks of Dorsey High School, contractors built homes by the dozen, and McCarthy’s real estate company advertised the Buckingham Square homes in proximity to the brand-new Dorsey High School and the Rancho Cienega Park Notably, the homes in Buckingham Square were FHA-approved and, since this was before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it meant the home was barred from minority homeowners.
In September of 1937, Susan Miller Dorsey High School opened for instruction and partnered with the Rancho Cienega Recreation Center to use its 6000-seat stadium for high school sporting events. And in 1938, Dorsey graduated its first class of 52 high school students.
As the neighborhood and school community developed, Dorsey High School was recognized for its sports program. With the Dons as its mascot, Dorsey High School became the home of championship-winning baseball and football teams as early as 1939. And the vigor behind the sports was actively reported on by the Los Angeles Times on a weekly basis.
A One-Horse Race
Academic opportunity was abundant at Dorsey High School. Within a matter of years, the school developed an acclaimed glee club; access to career training; Extracurricular activities; A strong arts and music department; an award-winning science department; and a school-operated newspaper publication that sent several of its student-serving editors to the Los Angeles Times.
But, many of these opportunities weren’t afforded to students of color—primarily black students in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.
This didn’t mean that students were prevented from attending—or even graduating from Dorsey. The California Eagle, the enterprising publication that reported on Black Los Angeles, occasionally showed highlights of Black students who attended Dorsey High School—and went on to attend college. Despite these instances of success, the school and community found ways to reduce the black population attending Dorsey High School.
In 1942, black residents protested against the Los Angeles Board of Education, claiming the school district manipulated boundary lines to enroll fewer black students. This rezoning practice forced students from black neighborhoods to attend the Polytechnic High School, which was miles away from Dorsey. As pressure around this increased, the Board of Education promised an investigation of the zoning practices.
Practices like these were common and rarely changed until 1954, when the United States Supreme Court ruled against the segregation of schools in the Brown vs. Board of Education case.
Even after Brown vs. Board of Education, covert segregation continued to run rampant at Dorsey. On December 3, 1959. The California Eagle reported on both white and black parents protesting against the Los Angeles Board of Education for not addressing segregation at their schools. In one recorded incident, students were expelled after a racial slur quickly led to physical altercation.
Nearly a week later, both white and black students had an open discussion about the silent segregation at Dorsey High School. Then-prominent KABC newscaster Lew Irwin reported this conversation through a televised event where the student council at Dorsey openly discussed instances of segregation. Some students believed it was voluntary. Other noted that during lunch, theBlack students would sit in enclaves away from white students. After the event, Dorsey High School administration staff promised it would do a better job of de-segregating students.
In 1960, the Dorsey High School principal published an op-ed in the California Eagle, asking for cooperation from both white and black parents. In 1961, the Visitation Committee of the California Association of Secondary School Administrators, praised the school for its “cosmopolitan nature,” with the vast majority of students pleased with the racial composition.
By this time, however, it was nearly too late to cooperate. With increased gang violence and threatened property values, white flight was gearing to change the racial makeup of the school and the neighborhood. By the 70s, photos of students attending Dorsey were of predominantly Black Students. By the 80s, it was considered a predominantly Black school.
Today, the once predominantly white school is now nearly split: 53 percent of students identify as Black, which is among the highest of all LAUSD schools, and 45 percent of the student population is Latino. Dorsey has a 74 percent graduation rate, which is currently under the California average of 84 percent. And only half of those who do graduate leave with the coursework necessary to attend a UC or CSU school. The school population is somewhere around 1,000 students.
Dorsey High School has a series of academic schools, including its Sports Medicine and Law Magnet; Science, Technology and Math Magnet, and Firefighter and EMS magnet. It also has a strong selection of sports, offering basketball, football, volleyball, softball, and soccer.
That wraps up this episode of the South LA Recap. I hope you learned something in the brief dive of Dorsey High School. This video cannot do justice to the school’s complete history, which is closed away in school yearbooks and newspaper articles. If you’ve learned something new, or have something to share about Dorsey High School history, leave a comment down below.