Cohort of African American Women Students, 1919-1929
During the period of 1919-1929, a small cohort of African American women entered the University of California for undergraduate and graduate studies. During this period, Lucy Stebbins was the Dean of Women and by all accounts was a reliable ally of the African American women on campus. She was a source of encouragement and strongly supported their campaigns to start two different sororities on campus, the Rho Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, headed by Ida Louise Jackson and the Kappa Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, headed by Vivian Osborne. Both groups were groundbreaking West Coast firsts. The Delta Sigma Theta sorority was the first to be officially recognized between the two groups in the campus’ Daily Californian newspaper of February, 1921. At first, they were excited about being recognized in the paper, but, as the article referred to their newly established Kappa Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta as part of the national “negress” sorority, their joy was quickly replaced with disappointment. This derogatory term dating back to 1786, persisted right up until the 1960s, and was splashed in publications all over the country to describe women of African descent. African American women sororities and club movements of those times fought strenuously against this kind of terminology and the debasing assertion that they were immoral, hypersexual, and uneducated. These onslaughts put a great burden on them in addition to the academic rigors they had to contend with in their student life.
The Rho Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority led by Ida Louise Jackson, has a now iconic photo of the group (displayed in full glory at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland – AAMLO) showing their young faces beaming with earnest pride. A photo that would never make it into the yearbook and ultimately come to represent their dismissive treatment. As told by Ida Louise Jackson in, Overcoming Barriers in Education, each of the women with the help of family members had collected enough money to pay the $45.00 yearbook photo fee (equivalent to about $600 today). Yet, their sorority photo never appeared in the yearbook. As Jackson stated, “When the Blue and Gold came out, we weren't in there. It just was a terrible thing.” They decided to make an appointment to see President David P. Barrows. “We wanted to know why we did not appear in the Blue and Gold; we met the requirements, we had paid our fee and had our picture made, and why weren't we in there? So he told us we ‘weren't representative of the student body.’”
So here they were, a sisterhood that would splinter at times and suffer painful losses, but also have incredible victories. Their courage born from a tradition that would command them to not only fully embrace their own destinies, but to also make a difference in the lives of the generations that would follow. A tradition where the scales of balance tipped towards family and a sense of community to form a strong identity of self-worth. This is evident by the motto of the “National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs” at the time, and echoed by the California Chapter, “Lifting as We Climb.” They carried the torch of the “race women” that came before them. A term used to describe African American women who entered into public leadership roles and felt it was their duty to serve as activists, institution builders and public thinkers on the questions of race and the condition of the African American community in the United States. These women worked diligently to replicate opportunities denied their community in education, healthcare, religious expression, music, and recreation. Where a door was shut in their face, they opened their own.
Not included in this history are Coral Johnson and Myrtle Price. Both of them are mentioned in various sources as part of the first group of African American Women who attended Berkeley in the early years, but additional information on their lives has been elusive so far.