The Strike at Imperial High School (1918)

In May 1918 my father, Charles Harris Garrigues, was expelled from high school because of a letter he had sent to the newspaper in his town.

He wasn’t allowed to graduate.

His school friends were furious. They went on strike.

This all happened in a dusty farming town in the middle of California’s Imperial Valley as a war raged in Europe to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Charles Harris Garrigues was my father, but he never told me or my brother or my sister about this seminal experience in his life. I found out about it years later, some twenty years after he had died, when I was able to read his old letters and the manuscript of a novel he had written about that event..

I looked up from the manuscript. Had this sort of life really existed? I found a map of California, unfolded it and stared at a dot labeled “Imperial,” in the middle of what had once been called the Mohave Desert. The next morning, I got up about five and drove the two hundred miles from Los Angeles.

He Usually Lived With

I parked in front of the low-lying, Imperial High School. There I met Gerardo G. Roman, the assistant principal, who showed me the vault that housed the school yearbooks of my father’s time. I sat down to examine them. I looked at the black-and-white images in the yearbooks of a Wilsonian age and saw ghosts.

My father was in the Iolian Literary Society, acted in a school play, was on the debate squad. In his junior year, fall 1916, he played football.

I left the school and drove past the ornate old library to the Pioneers’ Museum of Imperial Valley, a surprisingly imposing structure, quite modern, where the farmers of the Valley had placed their memories, and there in the bound volumes of the weekly newspaper, the Imperial Enterprise, I read about the political strife that had roiled the surface of this little agricultural community in 1918.

In that year a kindly old gent named Hockenberry quit his job at Imperial High. A new school board then appointed one J. J. Morgan to take his place.

Some of the town’s parents thought the school was run better under the old regime; they wanted Hockenberry back.

Nothing doing, retorted one correspondent in the letters column of the Enterprise: 

May 7, 1918. MR. EDITOR: Rumor is current that a sly move is to be made to reinstate Mr. Hockenberry in the schools of Imperial. It is to be hoped there is no foundation for the rumor.

Mr. Hockenberry served a sufficiently long term among us, and changes in the school board had to be made at election time by conservative citizens who had had enough of him who allowed the moral level of our high school to lower several notches from the condition in which he found it.. . . .

The writer saw him in action many times. One time in particular at a ball game, Mr. Hockenberry bawled out a command to the ball players, seven different times, and each time was very insolently disregarded. Many other incidents are known to his discredit. . . .

Respectfully, W. A. Edgar

When he read the letter, Charles Harris Garrigues, who was only fifteen at the time, was aghast. The next week the Imperial Enterprise letters column carried his retort:

May 15, 1918. MR. EDITOR: The Enterprise for May 7 contained an article by W. A. Edgar. It is almost unbelievable that an Imperial business man could be so ignorant or so let his prejudices blind him to facts as to be responsible for so base an attack upon one who by reason of his absence cannot meet the attack. . . .

Mr. Edgar states that Hockenberry left the moral standard of the school lower than when he came. If this statement had been true, it would have been no reflection on Mr. Hockenberry. When Mr. Hockenberry came, the town was dry; when he left, he left a wet town. Naturally it is harder to keep a high moral standard in a wet town than it is in a dry one. . . .

Mr. Edgar mentions several vague “incidents,” which he says are to Mr. Hockenberry’s discredit which can be proved. Mr. Edgar is at fault in not bringing them up. But the people of the district want some proofs. They are not willing to accept these statements upon Mr. Edgar’s or anyone else’s say-so.

Mr. Edgar has shown nothing to the discredit of Mr. Hockenberry. Why, then, is he so opposed to him? At any rate, the people of Imperial will do well to condemn no man with Mr. Hockenberry’s record without more proof than the vague statements made by Mr. Edgar.

Respectfully, C. H. Garrigues

Two days later the School Board met, and —

Imperial, California, May 15, 1918

A notice of the suspension of Mr. C. H. Garrigues and signed by the entire faculty was taken under consideration. The reasons given for the suspension of Mr. Garrigues were: Continued insubordination, culminating in certain improper criticisms made over his signature through the columns of the Imperial Evening Enterprise.

The faculty recommended the expulsion of Mr. Garrigues for the balance of the school year.

After a careful consideration of the facts presented, the following resolutions were adopted and a copy ordered handed to Principal J. J. Morgan:

“Whereas, C. H. Garrigues has been suspended by the Faculty of Imperial High School and

“Whereas, the matter of expulsion or re-instatement has come before the Board of Trustees for action, therefore, Be It Resolved: that, after said C. H. Garrigues has made a public apology to the faculty before the student body, he shall be re-instated, and be it

“Further Resolved: that said C. H. Garrigues shall be reprimanded by the Board of Trustees. . . .”

But Charles Harris Garrigues discovered that he had made some real friends at Imperial: 

May 21, 1918. WALK-OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS: The high school students, with the exception of some fifteen or twenty, walked out of the assembly room at l:30 this afternoon and paraded the streets to demonstrate their dissatisfaction at the refusal of the faculty to reinstate C. H. Garrigues of the senior class, who had been suspended after a communication from him on school matters, which appeared May 13.

The Board of Education at a meeting last night voted to request that Garrigues, after meeting certain conditions, be allowed to graduate, but it seems that Garrigues failed to meet the conditions. He was given an opportunity this morning to make apology before the assembly. The apology, however, was not satisfactory to the faculty and Garrigues was not reinstated.

The students sent a committee to one of the trustees, who advised them to return to school. Prof. J. J. Morgan, the principal, had also sent word by John Robinson, president of the student body, for the boys and girls to return at once. The advice and invitation was acted upon immediately, and the students were admitted to the assembly room for the afternoon period, no classes being called.

It was reported late this afternoon that a meeting would be held tonight between the Board of Education, the faculty and a committee of the students.

Imperial, California, May 21, 1918

Principal Morgan stated that, following the resolution placed in its hands by Mr. J. Roy Adams, clerk of the Board, he immediately went over to the High School and found that Mr. Garrigues, without waiting for any directions from the office and with only such members of the faculty present as happened to be in the Assembly Room at the opening of the morning session, had come before the student body and made a semi apology for his action, stating that he was sorry the faculty were unable to understand his intentions in writing the article.

Mr. Morgan stated that he further questioned the young man as to his attitude towards school matters, and received the emphatic reply that it was absolutely unchanged.

This being the case, the matter was referred to the Board with the suggestion that, if the Board desired to re-instate Mr. Garrigues without an apology, he would be taken back and given his diploma, provided he completed his work in a satisfactory manner.

. . . it was ordered that Mr. Garrigues be expelled from the High School. The motion carried unanimously.

But the editor of the Imperial Enterprise gave him a job, and he learned the newspaper business from the ground up.

The next fall, he reported to Imperial High to repeat his senior year (he wanted that diploma). The new principal, C. B. Collins, called young Harris in one day and said he didn’t really have to come back to classes because he had already passed his courses.

He could graduate the next year with the next group of kids, and that is just what he did.

Did my father learn anything from all this?

Yes, he learned that injustice enforced from above is still injustice.