Originally published on Intersections South LA.
Whether walking in heels or hobbling with walkers, the guests made their way to the Watts Senior Citizen Center last Friday in style – the women in bright dresses, the men in dapper suits and all wearing white rose corsages with “Watts Senior Prom” printed on black ribbons.
Inside the “ballroom” they found a dozen tables draped in black cloths dotting the room among bunches of black and silver balloons. Smooth jazz played in soft tones. Servers in starched dress-shirts served glasses of pink lemonade along with soul food from the Watts Coffeehouse.
District 15 Councilman Joe Buscaino, who planned the event, said he wanted the longtime residents of Watts to feel gratitude and respect – and have fun, too. Looking at his parents, who sat at one of the front tables together, he said, “You can be a senior and still party, ma!”
Buscaino had planned to take his grandmother for a spin on the dance floor, but she had recently taken a fall and didn’t feel up to the festivities. When the councilman, wearing a black suit and silver tie, said his nona would turn 94 in August, the crowd broke out in cheers and applause.
Intersections South LA spoke with some guests about their long lives spent in the ever-changing neighborhoods of Watts and South Los Angeles.
Maudine Clark, chairperson of the Watts Neighborhood Council who worked in the L.A. Unified School District for many years and served on the Watts Gang Taskforce, said the public may always hold misconceptions about Watts.
“Before you make a decision, come and see. People are gonna say that they don’t want to see… but it’s necessary. Watts is a good place to live.”
Charles Cunningham grew up in Watts, and moved back here a few years ago after living in a different part of South Los Angeles.
“If you were from here and went away for a while, and came back, you really wouldn’t recognize it. It’s just changed so much. The freeways, the building, and all that…All in all, it’s a beautiful place.”
Cunningham later won the evening’s Prom King award.
In 1946,Norma Jean Smiley moved from Louisiana to Compton, where she lived for many years. She now lives in South L.A. near the 110 freeway, but goes back to Compton every week to care for an elderly friend. The city of Compton has changed drastically, she said, especially with the new shopping mall (including Target and Home Depot) and new bus terminal with a stop for the Metro Blue Line.
Lydia Friend, who provided the decorations and centerpieces for the prom, prompted councilman Joe Buscaino to tell the story of how they met. Buscaino recounted:
“Early in my campaign, I was having trouble connecting with people in Watts. I held an event at a local church, and two people showed up, and Lydia was one of the two. We prayed together, and asked for victory, and sure enough, those are the moments you treasure in a campaign, especially when you win.”
Lydia chimed in, “We just believed God.” Pointing to Buscaino, she added: “And he always remembered me!”
Virgil Citizen lives down the street from the center at Alice Manor, a residence for seniors.
“I’ve been there three years and seven months on the 4th of July. Three years and seven months I’ve been there. God give me them keys…I love God. He took my momma home, took my sisters and brothers, and gave me my son back. So I’m blessed. And he’s 32 and I’m fitting to get him married.”
Vernetta Petitt (right) came to Watts from Baltimore in 1967 – and has lived in the same house all that time.
“People would come around and say, ‘You have the same job, the same house – ain’t nothing changed but you.’ I know everyone on the block, even the dogs.”
She plans to stay in just the same place, because it’s familiar. For the past 15 years she’s volunteered at the senior citizen center, and has especially enjoyed leading group excursions, like the trip to the Canadian Rockies. Petitt later won the evening’s Prom Queen award.
Paul Williams (middle) grew up in Watts and attended Jordan High. He then studied at UCLA and USC before becoming a long-term substitute teaching African-American history for schools in the Cal State and Community College systems. He was featured in two books about the Watts Riots — “Watts the Aftermath” and “Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960s,” and, now that he’s retired, has a plan to embark on “door-to-door historical research” about Watts’ development. Recalling his involvement in the Black activism scene of the ‘60s, he says, “I’m lucky to be alive.”
Arvella Grigsby retired from working at the Watts Senior Citizen Center just last year. At age 89, she took home the night’s trophy for Oldest Senior. But Grigsby is no stranger to accolades – she has had both a park and a street in Watts named after her in tribute to her community advocacy that spans decades.