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Watts Writers Workshop Book Collection

History of the Workshop

Budd Schulberg (center) conducts a Watts Writers Workshop session

Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times

The Watts Writers Workshop was founded by Budd Schulberg, a novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Uprising. After witnessing the violence perpetrated by the LAPD and National Guard on the residents of Watts, Schulberg wanted to see the destruction first-hand, "I got there and looked around; 103rd Street was mostly burning. But I learned that the burning was selective. Some buildings were afire and some not. But if it's selective, it's not a riot -- that's a white word. It was an uprising, a rebellion, a violent put-down by the National Guard." He spotted the old Westminster Association building on his drive and asked those inside if he could start a creative writing class. They obliged, and Schulberg posted a flyer promoting his creative writing class every Wednesday at 3 PM. After a slow start, the class took off in popularity.

The workshop garnered much media attention, partially due to Schulberg's notoriety. Schulbert used his reputation to his advantage and solicited donations from a number of notable associates including James Baldwin, Robert F. Kennedy, and John Steinbeck. Steinbeck proved particularly helpful and aided in securing $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts for the workshop; that amount was matched by private donations. The NEA grant allowed Schulberg to relocate his class to a permanent site in Watts named the Frederick Douglass House. Hundreds of mostly Black creatives flocked to Douglass House to write, create music, and debate social issues. The house also served as a boarding house for members of the workshop who were homeless at the time. The Watts Writers Workshop became a thriving scene for Black LA-based artists and provided a stage for several noteworthy writers, including Quincy Troupe, John Eric Priestley, and Wanda Coleman. 

The Watts Writers Workshop continued to produce hundreds of thousands of words by creative Black writers under director Harry Dolan. Tragedy struck in 1973 when an FBI informant, Darthard Perry (who had gained the trust of Dolan and other members), burned down the Douglass House and its new 350-seat theater. The workshop writers largely lost touch when Schulberg moved to Long Island, New York. Yet their legacy endured: Schulberg established a similar project in Harlem, New York by creating the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center which operated from 1971 to 2010.

A number of notable members of the Watts Writers Workshop are Quincy Troupe, Johnie Scott, Eric Priestley, Ojenke, Herbert Simmons, and Wanda Coleman  "the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles". 

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