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Manual Arts High School in South LA: A Brief History of the Toiler Spirit

Just blocks from Exposition Park along the busy Vermont Avenue corridor in South LA, sits the massive white and purple halls of Manual Arts High School. The Arts has an incredible history as the third oldest high school in Los Angeles, spanning more than a century. Throughout its time, however, the campus has been razed, revitalized, and reimagined. It was the site of both community and disagreement, success and failure, and, most of all, honor. 

The purple hue of the Manual Arts Toilers has withstood the test of time and is essential to Los Angeles public education history.

But what’s the story behind this South LA school, its streamline moderne architecture, and the relentless toiler pride? It all starts with the growing pains of Los Angeles as it began to tackle mass public education.

Establishing Manual Arts High School

According to the book “Spirit of the Toilers: An Intimate History of Manual Arts High School,” the Los Angeles Board of Education, in 1909, implemented emergency provisions to address the overcrowding at Los Angeles’ two post-elementary schools: Los Angeles and Polytechnic high schools, which were both at capacity for student enrollment. As more eligible high school students arrived in Los Angeles and enrolled into public school, they were sent to a temporary overflow school, housed in the Olive Street school, an abandoned grammar school and Los Angeles school storage supply facility in the heart of the city on Olive Street near Fourth and Fifth streets. 

The Olive Street School. “Spirit of the Toilers: An Intimate History of Manual Arts High School”

Within one academic year, the overflow school had an enrollment of over 500 students and 16 faculty members, but the temporary quarters could not keep pace with Los Angeles’ rapidly expanding population.

In January of 1910, the Los Angeles Board of Education began accepting bids to construct Manual Arts High School, which would be built on 10 acres of land near the intersection of Vermont Avenue and Forty-Second Street. The campus site, at the time, was the southern edge of Los Angeles city, and the school site was a grain field and a violet garden surrounded by dirt roads. In response to the massive overflow of students housed at the Olive School, the Los Angeles Board of Education planned for Manual Arts to accommodate more than twice as many students as the Olive Street School and more than four times as many instructors, building upon its pre-existing staff

Architect firm Parkinson & Bergstrom designed Manual Arts High School as a mission-style campus, complete with  thick arches along its open-air hallways, and a secluded courtyard nestled in the heart of the campus. Despite its subjective beauty, the Los Angeles Board of Education rushed builders to construct the school as soon as possible, requiring three 8-hour shifts daily–a constant 24-hour work day–to ensure the campus would be completed before the fall semester commenced and handle an increased overflow of students. The Arts opened for the fall semester of 1910, but only partially completed. The main administration building wasn’t finished, despite the rushed construction, but the domestic arts, science building, and mechanical arts buildings were ready for classroom usage. The administration building would open sometime after 1912.

The original mission-style Manual Arts High School Campus. “Spirit of the Toilers: An Intimate History of Manual Arts High School”

Building Toiler Pride

From the beginning of the new school, Manual Arts had an array of sports programming, including a competitive rugby team, basketball team, football, tennis, baseball, wrestling—among many other competitive activities. In fact, the school spirit was so strong and contagious at these games, the school became known for its yell leaders and unique chants during competitive high school sporting events.
While The Arts sports team has historically been known as the Toilers, the school athletic teams were initially known as the “Artisans” in their formative years. The school adopted “Toilers” for its major sports team and later the school identity around 1915. Among all of the Toiler athletes, the school’s track and field team was the most decorated in awards and titles, sweeping wins from schools across Los Angeles County. In fact, the Manual Arts track team won state championships twice in 1915 and again in 1953.

Beyond sports, Manual Arts lived up to its name for its selection of trade and creative skills students could explore during their high school career. Many students participated in arts and crafts courses (arts),such as basket weaving, and students explored practical skills, such as bookkeeping, typing, home economics, and billing.

The school had a theater program (acting students), while students interested in the design of sets built the stages for the acts. Manual arts at the school also included automotive and sheet metal courses. Agricultural students demonstrated tractor usage during schools, while other students practiced gardening and botany

The evening school, which was free to the local community, offered several courses for adults, including aeronautics, auto electrics, dress making, piano, and voice classes

As Los Angeles continued to sprawl, and Manual Arts paved more opportunity for students, the campus enrollment swelled. Manual Arts anticipated 1,000 students to enroll in the new campus in 1910. Within a decade, the campus population had more than doubled to 2,500 students. And in the 1924 academic year, more than 3,100 students registered for the school, requiring Manual Arts to set up outdoor tents to keep up with student population expansion. 

Long Beach Earthquake of 1933

On March 10, 1933, the Long Beach Earthquake struck Los Angeles County, damaging over 155 schools across the region, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington high schools, while the Manual Arts high school mission-style campus, particularly its English, science, and physical education buildings, were also deemed unsafe after the quake. The Los Angeles Board of Education ordered much of the original campus to be razed in July of that year. For the next two years, the students would have classrooms in makeshift bungalows as classrooms on the campus site.

The campus, however, would not begin the rebuilding process until August of 1934. The board elected to rebuild the administration building, science building, and girls gymnasium, financed by Public Works Administration funding under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Los Angeles Board of Education planned for three new school buildings on Vermont Avenue to be ready for the 3,500 students who would all be attending Manual Arts in the fall of 1935. Architects John and Donald Parkinson—who were affiliated with the firm that built the original Manual Arts campus— redesigned the new Manual Arts main campus buildings in a streamline moderne style. This new design allowed for more natural light exposure in classrooms, while also embellishing the buildings with attractive curves that hug the facade of each structure.

The present day streamline-modern Manual Arts High School campus. “Spirit of the Toilers: An Intimate History of Manual Arts High School.

Community vs. Principal

Throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Manual Arts saw a massive change in its campus and student population. In response to growing class sizes, the Los Angeles School Board elected to build additional classroom capacity for students. In the 1960s, there were roughly 3,600 students enrolled in Manual Arts, with a diverse student population, though predominantly Black. This change in demographics, however, sparked racial tensions on and around the Manual Arts campus.

During the fall semester of 1967, the Black Congress, NAACP, and two presiding politicians sponsored demonstrations in front of Manual Arts High School, imploring the removal of the school’s principal, Robert Denahy. The picketers asserted that the principal had denied students access to bathrooms, and the school imposed disciplinary action on students without notifying parents, and refused to let a Black senior, Angela Bates, graduate when she did not meet the school’s course requirements. Denahy denied the accusations, and said he closed restrooms to control liquor and drug trafficking at the school.

After much back and forth between the external groups and Manual Arts, Denahy elected to transfer out of Manual Arts, but his application was denied by the Los Angeles Board of Education.

The picketing groups implored the Los Angeles School Board to investigate the claims at Manual Arts High School in September of 1967. In defense of the principal, one teacher wrote an opinion piece that denounced the claims of the picketing groups and defended the principal. “Denahy did what teachers always expect of a principal, he upheld the judgment of the teacher who failed Angela,” the teacher said in relation to Denahy refusing to let the student graduate after failing a required course. In a petition cited in the opinion, more than 97% of Manual Arts teachers agreed with Denahy.

The protests stretched over six weeks, but toward the end of the protests, the peaceful assemblies in front of Manual Arts turned violent. The Los Angeles Times reported that on Thursday, October 19, 1967, nine people were injured and at least 30 people were arrested during a disturbance that ensued from the protests, and an estimated 400 people—none Manual Arts students—took part in the protest along a 20-block stretch of Vermont Avenue near the school. 

Some individuals not associated with the school climbed the fences of Manual Arts and began vandalizing the campus. I spoke with Michael Shon, who was a Manual Arts student and junior varsity football player during the disturbance. ‘“But that day in front of Manual, the football coach, he ordered the football team to stand in front of the auditorium that was facing Vermont Avenue. And it caught on on the football team. And I was a junior varsity to go out there, you know, and protect the school. Brother, you know, the football team, it’s the student body. Right. And, and the brothers weren’t feeling that, you know. I mean, we stood on the [steps of the] auditorium. And I walked off,” he said.

City police helped disperse the unruly crowd several hours later. Teachers of Manual Arts stormed the board meeting, asking the Los Angeles Board of Education to close the campus until the agitators could be stopped, but the board voted against closing the school, promising to increase security around the campus. The teachers believed only a small minority of the on-campus students were taking part in the disturbances, and emphasized the threat remained outside of the campus, not inside.

The next day, a second disturbance followed, and the arrested toll around Manual Arts High School climbed to a total of 34 people, however, activity was quelled much more quickly as the police preempted a tactical alert. School attendance, however, took a hit. Roughly 50 percent of the student body and 16 percent of the teaching staff were absent during the school days following the upset.

By the second day of demonstration with Los Angeles police on tactical alert, the Los Angeles Board of Education later promised additional protection to maintain order of Manual Arts campus, and offered to accept a transfer application from Denahy if he elected to resubmit one.

No major newspaper reported on the disturbance after the Board of Education offered to step in to increase security and maintain order at Manual Arts. Denahy immediately went on sick leave after the event, and when he returned in January of 1968, the Los Angeles city school system offered him an administrative post in teacher recruitment at the Board of Education Headquarters.

Tackling High Enrollment

Throughout the rest of the 20th century, Manual Arts struggled with enrollment as South Los Angeles became more densely populated.
In late 1967, Crenshaw High School was built and relieved the 3,700-student Manual Arts High School from students who resided between Western and Van Ness Avenues. Within a year, the school’s population shrunk to 2,800 students.

In the early 2000s, Manual Arts High School was once again impacted by enrollment. Throughout most of the early 2000s, Manual Arts instituted a year-round schedule—as opposed to September to June calendar, to ensure its 3,200 students could be taught. LA’s Promise, formerly MLA Partner Schools, built West Adams Preparatory High School in the Pico-union neighborhood of Los Angeles to relieve Manual Arts of its impacted enrollment. LA’s Promise was one of the first non-charter nonprofits to manage schools under the oversight of LAUSD. The Los Angeles School Board also took additional action in the mid-2010s to reduce overcrowding at Manual Arts by building Dr. Maya Angelou Community High School in the South Park neighborhood of South LA in 2011 and Augustus Hawkins High School in the Vermont-Slauson neighborhood in 2012.

As the school struggled with enrollment, academic achievement and access to resources became a salient topic for the campus. In 2009, Manual Arts High School teaching staff voted to leave its local district and, in turn, be managed by the education reform nonprofit LA Promise, which took over John Muir Middle School and opened West Adams Preparatory High School two years earlier. LA Promise operated Manual Arts for 10 years until the organization ceased operation of the school. In 2019, Manual Arts returned to being managed by LAUSD.

Manual Arts Today

Manual Arts High School. The South LA Recap

Today, Manual Arts High School is one of the oldest high schools in Los Angeles that still stands on  its original location. While the school has been destroyed and rebuilt, the Toiler tenacity has never fallen.

Over enrollment is also no longer an issue at the South Los Angeles high school. The California Dashboard lists Manual Arts enrollment at 1,038 students in 2022, which is less than a third of its enrollment in the early 2000s. 
The school is deeply committed to raising its academic capacity and scores for all students. Manual Arts is divided into four learning communities: The Freshman Preparatory Academy; School of Business, Entrepreneurship, Service, and Technology; School of Medical Sciences, Arts, Research, and Technology; and the college preparatory magnet. The school also has a wide range of activities, including culinary arts program, music, and a vast selection of sports.

While much has changed on the white and purple campus, Manual Arts will forever rest as a dynamic public education institution that helped spur the development of mass public education in a budding Los Angeles city.

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