As I Walk these Paths: Honoring the Unheralded Courage of the African American Women Pioneers of the University of California, Berkeley

By Gia White

Administrative Director, Global, International and Area Studies

“Thus has the Negro girl proven her right to a share of democracy. Rights and liberties of civilized humanity include the right to move freely over the face of the earth. Yet after Negro girls have labored to acquire the needed education and culture, most of the doors of industry are shut in their faces, not because of their inability, but because of their color.”

Vivian Osborne Marsh, Oakland Tribune, May 9, 1926

A glance, a scent, a sound. All vehicles of memory and imagination that can transport us at any time and in any place. The sound of the Campanile bells this morning; strong, solid, reverberating, marking time as we know it as they do every day. But this day, they summon me to celebrate the courageous young African American women who came before me and whose very presence is woven into the fabric of the history of the University of California, Berkeley.

I imagine how it must have been for the first African American women walking the freshly paved paths and shrub lined curves of the beautiful and spacious Berkeley campus in the 1920s. They had to be just as hearty and resilient as the greenery that surrounded them every day.

They too heard the Campanile bells, just as I do now, setting their thoughts and aspirations to music on the days that would shape their young lives.

As a young African American woman entering UC Berkeley in the fall of 1982, I also traversed the iconic arch of Sather Gate, but in a markedly different time and space. Sadly, I knew nothing of these remarkable women that came before me. I did not benefit from the knowledge of their historic presence. I wasn’t buoyed by thoughts of their achievements or comforted by their ability to persevere, even in the darkest of times. That information void is counter to the motto of this towering institution that strives to bring knowledge to light as expressed by Fiat Lux.

As a newly minted transfer undergraduate, I experienced the palpable excitement that comes when you begin to envision your future. The Berkeley campus was humming with activity and possibility. To my youthful eyes, it was a veritable smorgasbord of faculty, staff, students and visitors from all backgrounds; purposely lunching at the communal cafeteria, bumping trays, exchanging ideas, and then efficiently crisscrossing the campus to their next destination. The noontime Sproul Plaza promenade was a feast for the eyes, with its colorful cast of Berkeley personalities and student groups all vying for attention. The African American students faithfully gathered at “the wall,” making their small but mighty presence known. The sheer diversity of the scene served as a visible reminder of the gains made during the Civil Rights, Free Speech and Black Power Movements.

I marveled at the depth of the Berkeley Course Catalog and longed to take a variety of classes that appealed to me. However, time was not on my side. Working two jobs while going to college quickly tempered my enthusiasm. I had to make good choices to meet all the breadth requirements for graduation. It is only in retrospect that I truly understand the significance of being a student at a time when I could experience the brilliance of Dr. Barbara T. Christian. The first Black woman to be granted tenure at Berkeley. I had the privilege of taking her class on Black Women Novelists. When the class bell rang, it felt like such an intrusion. I hung on her every word and lingered as long as I could with her other “groupies.” Her class, along with those of Margaret Wilkerson, June Jordan, and others, created a tectonic shift in my consciousness. Today, I imagine how much more I could have steeped myself in their knowledge, attributing my lack of foresight to the centrifugal force of youth.

In contrast, the first African American Women attending UC Berkeley in the early 1920s, knew immediately that their resources were minimal and their allies were few. They found some refuge at the YWCA Cottage as a student gathering place. However, it was the steadfast network of the African American community that provided their much needed housing and financial safety nets for their academic pursuits. This, in addition to the moral support so essential for mitigating the relentless currents of racism that punctuated their existence.

In August of 1922, Berlinda Davison, the first African American woman to earn an M.A. degree at the University of California, Berkeley, graced the cover of The Crisis1 in full academic regalia. This publication, founded and edited by W.E.B. DuBois, annually announced the statistics on African American graduates from across the country and proudly displayed their photos. The University of California was well represented in this volume which also recognized Vivian Osborne, Ida Louise Jackson, Modest O. R. Tatum and Walter Arthur Gordon as graduates.

However, the happy graduation news was interspersed with reporting on the Anti-Lynching parade in Washington, DC, held during the 13th Annual conference of the NAACP. A sobering reminder that progress and achievement were often met with horrendous atrocities. A fact the graduates were keenly aware of in those days. Several of their families participated in the first wave of The Great Migration (1910-1940) to escape economic inequality and the sustained threat of violence in the South. California had its own version of discriminatory practices and prejudices, yet it still offered a stark contrast to the southern states. 

Not all of these women would live long lives or have careers that would fill a Wikipedia entry, but their presence mattered. Only one of them, Ida Louise Jackson, is rightfully lauded as a two time degree holder from the University of California, Berkeley, the first African American school teacher in Oakland, recipient of the Berkeley Citation, and a campus donor. It is through her oral history interview, “Overcoming Barriers in Education,”2 that we learn of the other African American women in her circle, Berlinda Davison, Vivian Costroma Osborne, Modest Oreathial Richardson Tatum, Louise Alone Thompson, Ruby Cozetta Jefferson, Annie Virginia Stephens, Talma Catherine Brooks, Myrtle Price and Coral Johnson. Although not mentioned in Jackson’s Oral history, Tarea Hall Pittman is also part of this group and recounts her experiences of those days in her interview with the “Earl Warren Oral History Project.”3 Miriam Matthews and Josephine Cole are also on campus during this ten year span of the early 20s. There is no indication that any of these women knew of Vivian Logan Rodgers, the very first African American woman to graduate from UC Berkeley in 1909. However, the sisterhood born of their struggles to navigate the forces of discrimination inside and out of the academic world, will forever bind them together.

1 The Crisis, Vol. 24, No. 4. (August 1922)

2 Ida Louise Jackson, Oral History. Overcoming Barriers in Education, University of California Black Alumni Series Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, 1984-1985

3 The Earl Warren Oral History Project, July 1974, Tarea Hall Pittman, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley