PICO BLVD — Nearly 30 people gathered at the Thelma Terry building in Virginia Avenue Park Saturday to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Garfield Elementary School, a pioneering institution that educated Santa Monica’s minority students and was home to its first African-American teacher, Dr. Alfred Quinn.
The dread inspired by high school reunions is the stuff of satire and B-movies as people either peacock their accomplishments or try to fade into the wallpaper. Those emotions were notably absent at the Garfield reunion.
“That’s me!” crowed Betty Taylor when a class photograph from 1953 popped up on the projecting screen.
It’s been many years since Taylor last set foot in Garfield School, a institution of learning that was once where the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s main office now stands, but the memories of dancing the cha cha cha in her sixth grade class or borrowing a puzzle or ball from the toy loan at recess remain fresh.
So did the prevailing sense that Garfield’s small population of African, Mexican, Russian, Italian and Japanese Americans were effectively family in a time where African-Americans couldn’t get hired at Sears and enjoyed only a portion of the Santa Monica beach called the Inkwell.
“It was a close knit community, and that’s what made it so special,” said Carolyne Edwards, Quinn’s niece and the co-founder of the Quinn Research Center, an organization dedicated to preserving the history of Santa Monica’s African-American population and honoring Quinn’s memory.
Quinn taught sixth grade at Garfield, and, along with Thelma Terry, the namesake of the building in which Saturday’s brunch was held, ran the summer programs held at the school’s youth activities center.
The school founded a number of programs meant specifically to respond to the needs of the community it served, which was largely working-class African-Americans that flocked to Santa Monica during the Second World War for the jobs offered at the Douglas Aircraft Company.
The African-American population in Santa Monica boomed during the war years, growing by over 200 percent, Edwards told her audience, but the impact of segregation meant that many lived in makeshift houses or converted garages.
As a result, children didn’t have access to basic sanitation, which Garfield Elementary tried to solve through a short-lived and controversial shower program.
It also implemented meals at the school for hungry students and created the first kindergarten in Santa Monica when it became clear that students were missing class to care for their younger siblings, Edwards said.
On Fridays, representatives from Bank of America would come to collect small deposits of 25 and 50 cents for students’ bank accounts to promote saving.
Gloria McPherson, one of a handful of Garfield alumni at the event, remembers that program well, and still has the little book she used to track her deposits.
“It encouraged us to save,” she said. “Friday was banking day.”
Stories like McPherson’s were repeated before an appreciative audience, punctuated by knowing laughs and cheers.
It’s those snapshots that create the tableau of African-American life in Santa Monica that the Edwardses and their archivist, Diane Correa de Rempel, are trying to preserve through their work at the Quinn Research Center.
Correa de Rempel first came on with the Quinn Research Center to catalogue the belongings of Alfred and Dottie Quinn. The project expanded rapidly to become an active effort to capture the oral history of African-Americans who had lived and worked in Santa Monica.
Very little of Santa Monica’s minority history is recorded outside of the original Spanish land grant, something the research center is working to fix, Correa de Rempel said.
“I tell people that and they say, ‘I didn’t even know there were blacks in Santa Monica,’” she said.
Saturday’s event was both social and a continuation of the center’s efforts to preserve names and identities in order to reconstruct the fabric of a community long since dispersed by time.
At Edwards’ behest, people gathered at tables to write in the names of those not present on photocopies of the group shots and told stories of their days at Garfield while a camera recorded the recitations for posterity.
With their help and that of others in the community, the center will be able to tell the story of the positive mark that Santa Monica’s African-American community left on the city, Correa de Rempel said.