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The Limits of Desegregation: A Story of Maple School

by Jesse La Tour

The following is from a work-in-progress (a book) about the history of Fullerton that I have been working on for nearly 10 years. To see my progress visit


Growing up in California in the 1980s and 1990s, I learned in school about the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s–about the landmark Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education (which declared that segregation was unconstitutional), about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, about heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.


An important part of the Civil Rights story that is often left out, I would learn much later in life, was the backlash against its hard-fought gains. I didn’t learn in school about how, in the 1970s and 1980s, many white parents across the country (including in the north and out west), protested successfully against actual implementation of school integration plans, which usually took the form of busing programs.


In their book Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education, Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton, directors of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, write, “Schoolchildren commemorate Brown [v. Board of Education]’s birthdays in ritualized celebrations of its central lesson about right’s triumph over wrong. Brown’s promise, the children are informed, was that government would protect minority students’ rights to equal opportunity in education. Meanwhile, slowly, quietly, and without the nation’s comprehension, political and legal forces have converged to dismantle one of our greatest constitutional victories.”


What I also didn’t learn about or realize growing up was that in the very city in which I lived (Fullerton, California), there existed a segregated school. Segregation, I was told, was something that occurred in the distant past, in the South, not in the more enlightened “north” or “west.” And certainly not today, in 2024.


That school is Maple Elementary School, and its story is instructive–with complex lessons about the limits of desegregation in America, and the still unrealized dream of Brown v. Board of Education. As it turns out, there are many schools like Maple across America, hidden in plain sight.

Housing and School Segregation are Inextricably Linked


Maple Elementary School was built in 1924 in the southside of Fullerton in a neighborhood that was historically Black and Latino. Contrary to popular belief, there was widespread housing discrimination/segregation in California that was enforced by racially restrictive housing covenants which prevented non-whites from renting or purchasing housing outside of carefully proscribed neighborhoods.


The book A Different Shade of Orange: Voices of Orange County, California Black Pioneers includes interviews with Black Fullerton residents who experienced this segregation.


Mary Owens described looking for housing in the 1950s. “At first, we had gone to look for apartments, and they would not rent to us. Leon [her husband] said, ‘You know, we’re going to have to buy a house here.’ That’s what happened. We bought a house, this house [on Truslow].”


The Truslow/Valencia neighborhood (around Maple) was Fullerton’s segregated neighborhood.


Warren Bussey, an African American man who moved to Fullerton during the early 1950s, told a similar story. “We were only living on two blocks [Truslow and Valencia]…Living in California at that time, it was more prejudiced than it was in Texas,” Bussey said.


Mary and Gil Perkins moved to Fullerton in 1960 with their two children.


“We looked for a house in a lot of places, but they [realtors] would only show us two tracts when we were looking for a house. One was here [on Truslow] and one was in Placentia,” Perkins said.


Housing segregation in Fullerton was also a legacy of the citrus industry which often housed its largely Mexican workforce in the south part of the city, away from the more affluent/white neighborhoods.


Two important civil rights cases in California in the 1940s found both housing and school segregation unconstitutional–these were Doss v. Bernal (which involved a Mexican family seeking to purchase a house in a deed-restricted neighborhood in Fullerton), and Mendez v. Westminster, which outlawed segregation of Mexican American children in Orange County.


However, while de jure (legal) segregation was made illegal, de facto (in practice) segregation remained. Neighborhoods were still separated by patterns of historic housing discrimination. In fact, in 1964, Californians voted to overturn their state’s newly-enacted fair housing law by approving Prop 14. This was later declared unconstitutional, but its passage by a majority of voters gives a sense of white resistance to desegregating neighborhoods.


The Fullerton “Boom” and White Flight


Interestingly, looking at class photos from Maple School in the early 1950s, one does not see a segregated student body. All races were represented, if not exactly equally. This is because, at that time, there were only a few elementary schools in Fullerton, and some “white” neighborhoods adjoined the Maple neighborhood. 

Class of '56

A big part of what made Maple almost 98% Latino and Black by the early 1960s was the post-World War II housing boom, which saw the city’s population increase dramatically from 10,442 in 1940 to 85,987 in 1970.


“By August 1955, twenty-seven homes were being added to the city’s residential neighborhoods each weekday,” according to the book Fullerton: The Boom Years. “From January 1951 to January 1961, three hundred new elementary school classrooms were added as the student population rose from 1,969 to 11,626…From 1949 to 1966, the Fullerton Elementary School District constructed about one school per year.”


Thus began a “white flight” away from Maple, as white parents purchased homes in these new neighborhoods and sent their children to these new schools. Looking at class photos from Maple in the early 1960s, one can watch as the school becomes almost entirely Latino and Black.


Class of '66

Busing and Desegregation

While Brown v. Board of Education may have established the legal mandate that “separate but equal” schools are unconstitutional, actual implementation of integrating schools took much longer and in many places never really happened.


Two important court cases in California in 1963, Crawford v. Los Angeles School Board and Jackson v. Pasadena City School District prompted the State Board of Education to adopt an advisory policy “declaring that any school whose enrollment of minority students differed by more than 15% from the percentage of students in the district as a whole would be considered racially imbalanced and would require the school district to take corrective action.”


As a result of these cases and State orders, Fullerton (sort of) began the process of desegregating Maple School.


The integration plan many districts across the country facing similar situations came up with was to bus students to schools outside their segregated neighborhoods.


The enormous white backlash against busing programs in cities across America in the 1960s and 1970s is chronicled in historian Matthew Delmont’s book Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation.


While many in the north were ideologically opposed to segregated schools, many white parents were also opposed to having their kids bused from their neighborhood schools to schools in Black and Latino neighborhoods.


Thus it was often the case that, in order to comply with desegregation orders, districts would adopt one-way busing, in which they would bus Black and Latino kids to majority white schools, but not bus white kids to majority Black and Latino schools.


A fairer, but often dismissed, proposal was two-way busing, in which the busing would be reciprocal—with some white kids going to majority Black and Latino Schools, and some Black and Latino kids going to majority white schools.


Fullerton’s first attempt to de-segregate Maple involved one-way busing of 5th and 6th graders to schools outside their neighborhood.


Fullerton resident Roberto “Bobby” Melendez was among the first students to be bused from Maple to one of eight other schools to begin the desegregation process during the 1966-67 school year. Bobby was going into sixth grade. He, along with a number of friends from Maple, was bused to Acacia school.

Bobby Melendez, 1966

“I think we were more of a curiosity to the kids that were there because they were like social distancing from us,” Melendez said in an interview. “They were kind of looking at us with some surprise.”


Fortunately, he knew some boys from Acacia from playing East Fullerton Little League, like his friend Kevin Barlow.


“So we went up to Kevin and his friends during recess and said, ‘Lets play some football.’ So we all played that day…It was the browns against the whites,” Melendez said.


When the bell rang, Kevin walked up to Bobby and said, “Tomorrow I’ll be on your team.”


Thus began the integration of Acacia school—not with federal troops, but with a game of schoolyard football.


Fullerton resident Mary Perkins, who is African American, said that her son and daughter were also among the first students to be bused from Maple for integration. They too were bused to Acacia.


“When my son was at Acacia, he was the only black student in the whole student body,” Mary said in an interview. “My daughter [one grade behind her brother] did have one other girl there [who was] African American. They were not kind to them, you know. They told them, ‘My mother says I have to be nice to you because you’re poor.’ That kind of stuff.”


As 1970 rolled around, all 12 Orange County school districts were ordered by the State to rectify their racially imbalanced enrollments. Although the Fullerton School District had begun busing 5th and 6th graders out of the Maple neighborhood for the past few years, the State ordered that Maple could not have more than a 30% minority enrollment.


Maple at the time had a 98% Latino and Black enrollment.


The LA Times wrote, “Although Maple School is the only one in Fullerton identified as imbalanced, it has perhaps the most seriously lopsided classrooms in all of Orange County.”


‘The burden of busing was put on just one segment of the community’


A Human Relations Advisory Committee was formed in 1971 to develop integration plans for Maple.


Judith Kaluzny was part of this committee, which developed three integration plans, all of which called for voluntary two-way busing of students between Maple and other schools, and keeping Maple open. Unfortunately, according to Kaluzny, the administration was determined to close Maple school.


“Our plans were summarily dismissed,” Kaluzny remembers. “We were supposed to have eliminated segregation in our elementary schools by eliminating the segregated school.”


After basically discarding the plans created by the Human Relations Committee, the FSD administration then created its own desegregation plans, which involved closing down Maple entirely. All involved one-way busing of kids out of the Maple neighborhood.


Dr. Richard Ramirez, who grew up in the Maple neighborhood, was a sociology professor at Fullerton College in 1972. He got involved with the Maple Community group because he felt that the families in the neighborhood were not being treated fairly by the school administration and the community at large.


“The burden of busing was put on just one segment of the community—those that had the least collective voice,” Ramirez said. “The Board did not reflect that segment of the community.”


Part of Ramirez’s role was to meet with parents in north Fullerton to better understand their concerns.


“I’d say we had 10 to 15 different small family group meetings with them,” Ramirez said. “The common theme that came out of our discussions with them was they were fearful for their kids because they would be going into the ‘barrio,’ the ‘ghetto.’”


At a crowded school board meeting in January 1972, Ramirez and the Maple community presented their plan for desegregation.


Among the numerous speakers at that meeting was Florine Yoder who said she represented the residents of north Fullerton. According to the Fullerton News Tribune, “Yoder told the board that if minorities wanted to attend a desegregated school, they must accept the responsibilities of desegregation, including busing and attending a school out of their neighborhood.”


Evidently, the responsibility of desegregation did not extend to those predominantly white families in north Fullerton.


“We do not want our children bused and we want to retain schools in our own neighborhoods,” Yoder told the board.


Reflecting on those meetings, Ramirez said, “It was really a question of fairness. If indeed we have to follow this federal law, then every family, every child should be able to give the same level of responsibility.”


In February 1972, over 500 people packed into Wilshire Auditorium to voice their opinions on the question of Maple School. At the meeting, police in riot gear were on hand to ensure an orderly proceeding.


After lively public debate, the School Board voted 3-2 to adopt a desegregation plan that closed Maple School and called for the busing of all children from the Maple neighborhood to eight other schools.


Board President Robert F. Rube said, “You can’t tell me it’s right to close Maple and not close other schools.”


Lopez v. Trustees of the Fullerton Elementary School District


Following the February 1972 decision to close Maple, families from the neighborhood filed a lawsuit against the District, alleging that the desegregation plan violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution as well as State desegregation laws.


The lawsuit called the closing of Maple School and the one-way busing plan “invidious discrimination” that “imposes the entire burden of desegregation on minority students.”


The lawsuit had the support of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the Orange County Legal Aid Society, the Western Center of Law and Poverty, and the federal office of Economic Opportunity.


Lopez v. Trustees of the Fullerton Elementary School District was filed on behalf of “all Spanish surnamed and Negro students attending Maple School.”


During the trial, which took place in late June and early July 1972, Orange County Superior Court Judge William C. Speirs asked, “Is one-way busing the best way to comply with the law? Or is it just a means of avoiding two-way busing?”


Ultimately, Judge Speirs upheld the Fullerton School District’s plan to close Maple School and bus all the children from the neighborhood to other schools in the district.


The LA Times reported, “Judge Speirs ruled that busing students from Maple School, with 85% Mexican American and 10% Black enrollment, without busing students from predominantly Anglo schools is ‘not racially discriminatory.”


Thus, beginning in September 1972, Maple School was closed as an elementary school and all its students were bused to other schools in the district.


Reflecting on the impact of closing Maple School, long time Fullerton resident Vivien Jaramillo said in an interview, “It splits you up so much out of your element that you don’t have any tight bonds with anybody in the neighborhood because they’re all going different places. That part was kind of a bummer, and it was still affecting my kids when they were growing up.”


Richard Ramirez said, “It’s best categorized as institutional racism.”


Racial Propositions and Court Decisions


The Lopez court decision decision reflects many other court decisions made between the 1970s and 1990s, in which the actual implementation of Brown v. Board’s mandate was slowly abandoned. In Dismantling Desegregation, Orfield and Eaton explain how court decisions like Board of Education of Oklahoma v. Dowell (1991), Freeman v. Pitts (1992), and Missouri v. Jenkins (1995) had the effect of rolling back hard-fought school integration programs.


A 1977 LA Times article entitled “Integration in County: Nobody’s Complaining” gives a bleak assessment of Orange County School desegregation efforts at that time.


“Neither the State nor the federal government has staff enough to monitor the status of school integration very closely,” the LA Times states. “At the State Department of Education, the task of counseling school districts on desegregation has been relegated to one man—Ted Neff of the State Bureau of Intergroup Relations.”


In 1979, California voters passed Proposition 1, which banned busing as a means to integrate schools.


Matthew Delmont discusses how the busing debate was often framed in ways that downplayed the civil rights/constitutionality of the issue.


“White parents and politicians framed their resistance to school desegregation in terms of ‘busing’ and ‘neighborhood schools.’ This rhetorical shift allowed them to support white schools and white neighborhoods without using explicitly racist language,” Delmont writes.


“[Prop 1] was a death knell for mandatory desegregation programs throughout the state,” Daniel Martinez Hosang writes in his book Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California. “The end of mandatory desegregation meant that the burden of busing had fallen almost exclusively on students of color.”


For example, “by 1980, Black students in California would be more likely to attend a segregated school than in any state in the South except Mississippi,” Hosang writes.


Maple Re-Opens


In 1989, facing demographic changes and increased enrollment, the Fullerton School District began to consider reopening Maple as an elementary school.


School Board Trustee Fred Mason and others, while not opposed to reopening Maple, expressed concern that doing so could re-create a segregated school, due to neighborhood demographics.


Maple resident Gil Perkins also argued that reopening Maple would recreate a segregated school.


“We’ll be segregated again; we haven’t learned anything in 20 years,” he said.


FSD Trustees finally voted in March 1996 to re-open Maple with kindergarten classes, and then add one grade a year until it was fully opened as a K-6 school.


Although re-opening Maple did have the effect of re-creating a segregated school (its demographics were virtually unchanged since the late 1960s–96% Latino), many members of the Maple community supported the re-opening. They were tired of having their kids bused out of the area, and wanted their neighborhood school back.


The Fullerton Observer reported, “It was the overwhelming choice of Maple area mothers polled by Maple School administration that their children attend kindergarten at Maple, and the heartfelt testimony of a handful of young Maple area mothers” that ultimately convinced the Trustees.


In the years since that decision, the division between the schools of north and south Fullerton has been an occasional topic of discussion among educational leaders, but the words “segregation” or “integration” are rarely mentioned.


Most discussions today revolve around how to improve the quality of education at Fullerton’s de facto segregated schools, also known as Title 1 schools, which now include other schools in the southern part of the city, like Richman and Woodcrest. These discussions often sound disturbingly like the rationale for the “separate but equal” concept of Plessy v. Ferguson, which was supposedly undone by Brown v. Board of Education.


This trend can be seen in schools across the United States, sometimes in ways that are painfully ironic.


“If you want to see a really segregated school in the United States today, start by looking for a school that’s named for Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks,” Jonathan Kozol writes in The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. “In San Diego, there is a school that bears the name of Rosa Parks in which 86 percent of the students are Black and Hispanic and less than 2 percent are white. In Los Angeles, there is a school that bears the name of Dr. King, 99 percent Black and Hispanic.”


Closer to home, Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School in Boyle Heights, named for the plaintiffs in the 1947 Mendez v. Westminster desegregation case right here in Orange County, is 98% Latino, a de facto segregated school.




For many, the re-opening of Maple was seen as a victory. But still, the numbers are disturbing. Maple’s demographics haven’t changed since the 1960s. What has changed is (seemingly) everyone’s willingness to accept this fact, despite what Brown v. Board of Education has to say: “In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”


Today, there seems to be little to no groundswell of local or national support for integrating schools like Maple, which are de facto segregated.


Among the various solutions proposed by Orfield is dealing with the underlying problem of de facto housing segregation: “Working on the housing issues in combination with school desegregation opens the possibilities of much more powerful remedies,” he writes.


This would involve much more community support for building low income housing in higher-income suburbs. But this, too, is often an uphill battle. From 2016 to 2022, I covered city council meetings and local politics for the Fullerton Observer newspaper. There I often witnessed firsthand neighborhood opposition to low-income or subsidized housing.


Perhaps the first step toward a more integrated future is recognizing the facts on the ground, uncomfortable as they are.


“No matter how complex the reasons that have brought us to the point at which we now stand,” Jonathan Kozol writes, “we have, it seems, been traveling a long way to a place of ultimate surrender that does not look very different from the place where some of us began.”



Jesse La Tour teaches English and journalism at Fullerton College. He formerly served as the editor of the Fullerton Observer newspaper. Prior to that, he was co-founder of Hibbleton Gallery and The Magoski Arts Colony. La Tour enjoys writing about Southern California and is currently working on two main projects: a book about the history of Fullerton, and a zine about the Anza-Borrego Desert for the Landmarks of Art Aesthetic Research Station. To follow his local history research visit

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