Scores of University of California officials, alumni, and friends and admirers of Berkeley alumnus and pioneering African-American educator Ida Louise Jackson packed the sun-filled courtyard of a recently built university apartment building mid-day on Monday, Aug. 30, to celebrate its naming in honor of Jackson.
“This will be the first building on campus dedicated to an African-American woman,” Professor Mary Ann Mason, dean of the Graduate Division, told the gathering. “She wanted women to climb high. Her name will be remembered here as long as this university goes on.”
The dedication of the Ida Louise Jackson Graduate House continued a decades-old Berkeley campus tradition of naming student housing for members of the university family who worked to improve student life and whose own lives served as an inspiration to students.
“We finally have at least the beginning of housing for (single) graduate students,” Mason said. The apartment building was completed a few years ago at the southeast corner of College Avenue and Durant Avenue.
Dr. Barbara K. Phillips, a friend of Jackson and, like her, a past president of the national Alpha Kappa Alpha organization, called Jackson “a star in the fabric of existence” in her remarks at the ceremony.
Phillip s said that Jackson, who died in 1996 at the age of 93, once told her, “I have few friends.” Phillips remonstrated, “You have many friends!” Many of them, along with admirers who did not personally know Jackson, were in the audience on Tuesday.
“I’m sur e we’re all here to say, ‘Well done, Dr. Ida Louise Jackson,” Phillips concluded. “She was an erudite lady, precocious, different…she chose her own way.”
Speaker Inez Dones, a trustee of the university’s Ida Louise Jackson Fellowship, recalled Jackson’s financial gift to the university in 1972 to establish a fund to help African-American women pursue graduate studies at Cal.
The purpose of Jackson’s gift, Dones read, was “that educated and professional black people should take the initiative in helpin g less fortunates of the race.”
Dones noted the support of Graduate Division officers and staff for the Fellowship program and added, “on behalf of Ida whose spirit is here today, I’m thanking you for all of these wonderful things…thank you for the wonderful tribute of naming this beautiful residence.”
At the end of the ceremony alumnae of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority joined hands around the courtyard, surrounded by the other attendees, and movingly sang their sisterhood’s hymn in Jackson’s memory.
“This is the best ceremony I’ve been to on this campus,” Mason told an attendee.
The crowd briefly reassembled along College Avenue where Mason and Dones pulled a cloth from the façade of the building, revealing the new name in metal letters.
Ida Louis e Jackson grew up financially impoverished in a large Mississippi family. Driven by her parents’ strong belief in education and her own resolve, Jackson completed her first years of college in New Orleans and settled on teaching as a career.
Before her b irth her father, a carpenter, farmer, and preacher, had narrowly escaped Louisiana after winning a court case against a white man who had fraudulently tried to take his farm. A white neighbor warned the Jackson family that a lynch mob was assembling and t hey fled in the night across the Mississippi.
In 1918 Jackson moved with her widowed mother to Oakland, following her brothers who told her, she later wrote, “here in California I could get a better education free.” She registered for classes at the Univ ersity of California.
In a memoir published in the Irving Stone-edited anthology, There Was Light, she warmly recalled the financial gift of a women students service organization that helped her after graduation, and another “source of great joy and insp iration,” the friendship and support of Dean of Women Lucy Stebbins, and Assistant Dean Mary Davidson.
(All three women—Stebbins, Davidson, and Jackson—would ultimately have student residences named in their honor.)
Yet Jackson also remembered the experience of “entering classes day after day, sitting beside students who acted as if my seat was unoccupied, showing no sign of recognition, never giving a smile or a nod.”
To help combat that isolation—she was one of only 17 African American students at Cal in 1920—she and four other African-American women students organized a sorority, the first chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha in the western United States.
After a semester’s probation they were granted official status and “we began to feel we were a part of things,” she wrote. But “a bruise that did not quickly heal” was the exclusion of the sorority’s picture from the yearbook, paying the required assessment and sitting for the official photographer.
In 1922 Jackson received her B.A. degree, after two years at Cal. She participated in the traditional Senior Pilgrimage through the campus. “I walked alone, unnoticed by my fellow classmates,” she wrote.
Jackson then earned her master’s degree at Cal, encouraged by friendly faculty in the School of Educa tion. Her thesis examined the role of sociological and environmental factors in the performance of African-American children on standard intelligence tests.
She first taught in a segregated school in El Centro, California. Within a year she came back to Oakland to teach as a substitute. She was Oakland’s first African-American public school teacher, and the first African-American woman certified to teach in California’s schools.
On her first day, when her adult white colleagues protested her presence to the superintendent, two white children from her class appeared at her classroom door at lunch with armloads of geranium blossoms because, they said, “we like you.”
Some years later Jackson began, with the support of her old sorority, a summer outrea ch program to train and provide school supplies for rural teachers in the Deep South. A health clinic followed, serving thousands. Her work attracted considerable support and publicity, including an invitation to the White House.
Graduate study at Columb ia and a stint as dean of women at Tuskegee Institute prepared her, she felt, for an administrative position in Oakland’s public schools but she was told “the time is not ripe for a Negro principal.”
She returned to the classroom, ultimately spending 27 years as an Oakland educator and finally retiring in 1955 from the position of principal of McClymonds High School.
“I am more than ever convinced that education is the greatest factor in the upward climb of any person or people,” Jackson wrote in the m id-1960s. “My theme song has been: learn, study, read—continuously…to tear down is not to build, as something of value is lost in the individual who seeks to destroy.”
“The University of California has done for thousands what it has done for me,” she added. “It has enabled me to realize the vast avenues of learning and culture to be explored, and strengthened a desire to try, and in the exploration to take others along on the journey.”?µ