This article, written by Lisa Harrington, appeared in the print version of the The Graduate in the Spring of 2001.
Six young women gathered one day in 1921 to have a photograph taken for the Blue and Gold yearbook. Beautifully dressed and comfortable together, they were charter members of Rho chapter, Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black sorority at Berkeley. Ida Louise Jackson, the chapter president, had borrowed $45 from her mother to pay for the portrait to appear in the student clubs section. But when the books arrived several months later, she discovered that Alpha Kappa Alpha had been excluded. Jackson was told that the picture “wasn’t representative of the student body.” Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Over the next few years, Jackson would earn two degrees from the University and make history as the first black woman certified to teach in California schools. Her crusades to improve education and health care for black Americans, as well as her experience at Cal, would lead her to bequeath part of her estate to provide graduate fellowships for black students at Berkeley.
In time, the University would recognize her achievements and acknowledge the obstacles she faced along the way. In 1971, Jackson received the Berkeley Citation, awarded to those who reflect the highest ideals of the University. She was elected to membership in the Berkeley Fellows honorary society and in 1974 was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. Jackson was one of 39 distinguished alumni asked to contribute memories to There was Light, a book commemorating the University’s first century. In 1984–85, the Regional Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library completed her oral history, Overcoming barriers in education. Jackson was also featured in Chronicle of the University of California: Ladies Blue and Gold, published by the Center for Studies in Higher Education in 1998.
Ida Louise Jackson’s life began in 1902 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. She was the only girl and the youngest among eight children. A gifted child, she could read by age 3 and was allowed to accompany her brothers to school, where she taught other children how to read. Her parents, Pompey and Nellie Jackson, made sure that their children would be educated by sending them to private schools. Jackson’s father, an exslave, worked as a farmer, carpenter, and minister. Although he died when she was 10, he remained a strong influence throughout her life. Jackson once said that her father believed that education could “solve the racial problem.”
Jackson graduated from high school at 14 and left Vicksburg to attend Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, for two years. She went on to New Orleans University (now Dillard University), where she earned a teaching degree in 1917. Some of her brothers were living in California by that time, and they persuaded Jackson to move to Oakland with her mother in 1918. Shortly after she arrived, a friend asked what she planned to do. “I’m going to teach,” Jackson replied. Her friend told her that they didn’t have any black teachers in Oakland. In disbelief, Jackson applied for a teaching position, only to be told that she needed more education.
When Jackson enrolled at Berkeley in 1920, there were 17 black students on campus, eight women and nine men. While she enjoyed the wide range of classes, she felt invisible among classmates who never spoke to her and professors who rarely called on her. One day, Jackson passed President Benjamin Ide Wheeler on campus. He turned and talked with her for a few minutes. Their chat lifted her spirits, as did her friendship with Lucy Ward Stebbins, Dean of Women. She recognized and admired Jackson’s determination and had been the one to approve the Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter. Jackson received an A.B. in 1922 and an M.A. in 1924, then took a teaching job at a predominantly black and Hispanic school in Imperial Valley. When offered a long-term substitute position in Oakland, she sought advice from Dean Stebbins, who, according to Jackson, was honest and direct.
Stebbins asked, “Do you think you will be happy in a situation where you may find yourself isolated? Do you think you can stand calmly by and see those less well qualified than you advanced in the system ahead of you? Can you endure being left out of things when you, as a teacher, should be included?”
In 1926, Ida Jackson became the first black teacher in the Oakland Public Schools. Thirteen years would go by before a second black person was hired to teach. Jackson taught at Prescott Intermediate School for 15 years, despite a large group of white teachers and administrators who repeatedly tried to have her reassigned. She often credited her students with helping her to survive what she later referred to as “the unpleasantries.”
Jackson also remained active in Alpha Kappa Alpha, and was elected national president. She led sorority trips to the Deep South to help educate blacks, particularly in her native Mississippi. “I couldn’t believe some of the things I saw,” Jackson recalled in later interviews. “People were working on plantations, not knowing that they were free.” In 1933, she founded the Summer School for Rural Teachers in Lexington, Mississippi, and soon realized that basic health care was even more urgently needed than education. The following year, she organized the Mississippi Health Project, which operated during summer vacations for eight years. She enlisted doctors, dentists, nurses, lawyers, and teachers from among Alpha Kappa Alpha’s members. Mobile units went from plantation to plantation, setting up clinics at local churches, taking down the doors to be used as examination tables. The project helped inoculate over 4,000 infants against diphtheria and cholera, diseases that took a heavy toll in poverty-stricken counties.
In 1934, President Roosevelt invited Jackson to the White House for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. The following year, Mrs. Roosevelt invited her back to discuss the clinics and conditions in rural Mississippi. In 1945, she was asked to serve as an observer to the United Nations in San Francisco. Jackson also served briefly as Dean of Women at Tuskegee Institute, where she had an opportunity to meet with Professor George Washington Carver.
She returned to the Oakland schools, but the administrative position that she had hoped for was never offered. She taught at McClymonds High School until her retirement in 1953. When her brother Emmett Jackson died in 1955, she took over responsibility for the family’s sheep ranch in Mendocino County, managing the property for 17 years. In 1972, she donated hundreds of acres of rolling pasture and forest to the University, and asked that the proceeds be used toward graduate fellowships for black students working on their dissertations at Berkeley. Ida Louise Jackson died in Oakland in 1996 at age 93. Before her death, a local newspaper asked whether she considered herself “primarily a black pioneer, a woman pioneer, or an education pioneer.” Jackson answered, “I really haven’t classified myself. I suppose I’ve tried to be the best at living every day, at seeing the best in everyone, no matter who they are.”