About the NEA

Writing Out of the Ashes: The Watts Writers' Workshop

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A man sits at one end of a narrow rectangular room and speaks to the assembled group that sits on chairs arranged against the walls.

Budd Schulberg (center) conducts a session of the NEA-supported Watts Writers' Workshop. Schulberg created the workshop in response to the 1965 Watts riots. Photo credit Los Angeles Times

1966In September 1965 screenwriter Budd Schulberg started the Watts Writers' Workshop in response to the devastation of the infamous riots, which had taken place in the primarily African American South Los Angeles neighborhood a month earlier.

"In a small way, I wanted to help," says the Academy Award-winner. "The only thing I knew was writing, so I decided to start a writers' workshop."

The workshop's early participants included poets Quincy Troupe and John Eric Priestley. Another of the first participants was Johnie Scott, now director of the Pan-African Studies Writing program at California State University, Northridge.

"Writing saved my life," says Scott. "The two-way exchange of opinions at the workshop was vital to me, just having the opportunity to hear other voices and to know I wasn't alone, that I was part of a serious dialogue taking place that would have impact nationwide."

On the recommendation of National Council on the Arts member John Steinbeck, the Watts Writers' Workshop applied for a grant from the fledgling National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA awarded the Workshop $25,000, which enabled the group to establish Douglass House. The Workshop's new home served as a meeting space for its writing programs as well as housing for some of the Workshop's members, many of whom were homeless.

"The NEA provided tremendous assistance, no question about it," says Schulberg. "It was like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval, and it helped us gain additional private support and also obtain help from the film industry."

A year later the Arts Endowment awarded the organization a second grant of $25,000 in support of expanding the Workshop's programs.

The Watts Writers' Workshop quickly attracted national and international media attention; in 1966 it was the subject of an hour-long NBC TV documentary. Writing from the Workshop was also collected in the 1967 anthology From the Ashes: Voices of Watts.

"The Watts Writers' Workshop allowed us to voice what urban, black America was thinking, feeling, and seeing and to get that out to he rest of the country," observes Scott. "Before that, we had no voice; no one was listening."

Though the Watts Writers' Workshop lasted less than a decade, its legacy endures. In 1971, Schulberg and Fred Hudson, a former Paramount Pictures screenwriter, founded the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in Harlem, New York. The center's programs include writing classes in several genres as well as an after school program in creative writing and computer literacy for elementary and middle school students. The Center also produces the annual Black Roots Festival of Poetry, Prose, Drama, and Music, which has showcased leading African American writers and artists such as Lucille Clifton, Gordon Parks, Toni Morrison, and Ishmael Reed.