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A most memorable lady

UC Berkeley’s Ida Louise Jackson Graduate House — newly renamed to honor a pioneering educator — is the campus’s first structure named for an African-American woman.

Ida Louise Jackson Graduate House slideshow  Slideshow: A most memorable lady

 Ida Jackson House
The newly christened Ida Louise Jackson Graduate House, at the corner of College Ave. and Durant Ave. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

– Eighty-four years ago, a precocious teenage girl from Vicksburg, Mississippi, enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, planning to become a teacher. She was one of only 17 African-American students on campus — eight women and nine men. As a student, she often felt invisible, unspoken to by classmates and uncalled upon by professors. But the Biggest Man on Campus, President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, stopped and chatted with her one day, and that raised her spirits, as did a friendship she made with the dean of women, Lucy Ward Stebbins.

The student was Ida Louise Jackson. Her father, Pompey Jackson, once a slave, and her mother, Nellie Jackson, made sure their eight children were educated. Ida, the youngest, could read at the age of three, and she was soon helping others learn that skill. This early teaching helped determine the course of her life.

The accomplishments of that life were commemorated on August 30, 2004, when the utilitarian "College-Durant Apartments" were rechristened as the "Ida Louise Jackson Graduate House." The $14-million structure, just a few years old, "is the first building at UC Berkeley to bear the name of an African-American woman," said Mary Ann Mason, dean of Berkeley’s Graduate Division. "And for this historic first, I don’t think we could have chosen anyone better. Her name will be remembered here as long as the university goes on."

Mason added that the facility is also the first at Berkeley to be devoted solely to housing graduate students, an auspicious beginning toward filling a crucial need.

The San Francisco Chronicle called the dedication "a glowing tribute for a woman who broke through barriers of injustice, paved roads to advanced education for African-Americans, and inspired generations of others with her devotion."

During that lonely initial year at Berkeley, to help make the campus more hospitable for young African-American women, Jackson and a few of her friends co-founded the Rho chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, which has remained a strong presence at Berkeley to this day. (Symptomatic of the climate of the times, however, their group portrait was excluded from the student yearbook — without notification.)

Jackson graduated in 1922 and went on to earn her master’s degree in 1924. Her training was in education, and she put it to use it for the rest of her long life. She didn’t set out to be a pioneer, but life sent her obstacles and she overcame them, allowing others to follow.

Jackson was one of the first African-American women to be certified to teach in the state of California. In 1926, she became the first African-American of either gender to teach in the Oakland Public Schools, and remained so until 13 years later when another African-American woman, Beth Wilson, was hired. Jackson’s assignment to teach at Oakland’s Prescott Intermediate School "was met with protests," said Barbara K. Phillips, a former national president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, who came from North Carolina for the dedication ceremony. She described Jackson, one of her role models, as "a star in the fabric of existence." A large group of white teachers and administrators tried repeatedly to have Jackson reassigned from Prescott School, Phillips said. But her students — including white children — helped her through a period Jackson described as "the unpleasantries."

She remained active in her sorority, and in the 1930s became its national president. Enlisting medical professionals and teachers from among her sorority sisters, and using her own funds because in those times the sorority had no program budget, Jackson led projects to bring badly needed education and health care to rural areas of the Deep South, particularly in her native Mississippi. "I couldn’t believe some of the things I saw," she recalled in later interviews. "People were working on plantations, not knowing that they were free." She was invited twice to the White House, in 1934 and 1935, and spoke to President and Mrs. Roosevelt about conditions in Mississippi and her work there, teaching teachers and helping inoculate thousands of infants against diphtheria and cholera.

In her long journey, Jackson never forgot about the University of California and its influence on her as a person and as an educator. Later on, when she was able to, she gave back to the campus — by creating a fellowship for African-American students seeking their doctoral degrees at Berkeley.

The university came to treasure her, as well. In 1971, she received the Berkeley Citation, awarded to those who reflect the highest ideals of the university. She was elected to the Berkeley Fellows honorary society, whose membership list includes notable names from many fields, such as conservationist Horace Albright, actor Gregory Peck, computer scientist Donald Pederson, nutrition pioneer Agnes Fay Morgan, art historian Walter Horn, U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren, business executives Edgar Kaiser and Walter Haas, and novelists Irving Stone and Joan Didion. She contributed to There Was Light, a book of alumni memories published to honor the university’s first century, and in the mid-1980s the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office completed her oral history, Ida Jackson: Overcoming Barriers in Education.

Now she will live on not only in hearts and minds, but in an edifice, the purpose of which meshes nicely with her own goals and ideals.

She wrote, in the mid-1960s, "I am more than ever convinced that education is the greatest factor in the upward climb of any person or people. My theme song has been: learn, study, read — continuously." She added, "The University of California has done for thousands what it has done for me. 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."

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