On Sept. 23, 2011, 500 black leaders and luminaries — including Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, former Ambassador Andrew Young and entertainer Common — will converge on schools across the country to share their stories with students. The second annual "Back to School With The HistoryMakers" event is being presented by The HistoryMakers, the nation's largest African-American video oral history archive, which was founded by Julieanna Richardson. In honor of the event, The Root will publish an essay from one of the HistoryMakers every day this week. The first installment is from Washington insider and Berkeley, Calif., native Leola "Roscoe" Dellums.
Just the mention of her name, "Miss Acty," and it's the 1940s. I am a child again, sitting at my desk at Berkeley, Calif.'s Longfellow Elementary School, a beneficiary of one of the first voluntarily integrated school systems in the United States.
I visualize her standing in front of my class in her quiet, nonflamboyant way, commanding complete attention and respect. I blink my eyes and see a slender, delicate-featured lady, with a pale, beige, slightly freckled face, wearing a controlled smile, standing with folded arms and posture so erect that the slightest breeze could send her tottering.
I can still hear her distinct voice, with diction and enunciation so precise that her words, once released, seemed to "squeak" like freshly rinsed, shampooed hair. Mention "Ruth" and I can see the face of my mother's friend.
Miss Ruth Acty and my mother, the late Esther Lee Higgs, met when they were girls. They flowered into young women who wore the label "ladies" — a term used to describe women known to be cultured and well-educated — in earnest. Miss Acty was a student of literature and the theater, my mother a classically trained pianist. Miss Acty attended San Francisco State (my alma mater); my mother attended Juilliard briefly, the Baptist Divinity College and U.C. Berkeley.
What I do recall are Miss Acty's visits with my mother. They would sit on the champagne-brocade French Provençal couch in our living room, sipping tea from porcelain cups, and reminisce about the past or discuss the diverse creative pursuits of "one of the Higgs girls": ballet and tap, piano and singing, cello, viola and violin. There were six of us, and I was No. 2 of the six.
Sometimes my mother would move to her white baby-grand piano (a wedding gift from my father to her) and play while Miss Acty would hum or recite one of her theatrical pieces. Then there were the times when my maternal grandmother, Esther Jones Lee, would enter the room and join them, and the discussion would become more serious.
My grandmother was a civic activist and, as mentioned by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) in the Feb. 27, 2003, Congressional Record, had leadership roles in a plethora of organizations and clubs, especially the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, where she served for three terms as president of the California chapter, distinguishing herself by leading California's efforts in the Anti-Lynching Campaign, working closely with State Sen. William Knowland.
Before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1904, my grandmother taught high school in Macon, Mo. She was one of the people credited with getting the city of Berkeley to hire black teachers and integrate its public school faculty.
But as it turned out, my mother married Leo C. Higgs (the first black realtor in Berkeley and a man 20 years her senior) and, for nearly the next six consecutive years afterward, began having babies, all girls. Her friend, Ruth, however, ended up with a distinguished teaching career, never married and never had children.
The 1940s were quite a time. On Dec. 12, 1941, I was born, five days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Yet in our small college town of Berkeley, this was a time of pride. And in 1943, the school board performed a historical and progressive act by welcoming their first black teacher, Miss Acty.
Miss Acty didn't teach me until the 1950s. Single ladies were wearing Red Fox stockings, fire-engine-red lipstick and fingernail polish to attract single men. But in 1956, no-nonsense Miss Acty, always the consummate professional, walked into my boisterous classroom at Burbank Junior High, just as subdued and conservative as she had always been.
The '50s became a different time for my peers and me; the harsh reality of America's racism crept into our sheltered lives and would remain like an unwelcome stranger. This uninvited guest would leave that dark place where Jim Crow loomed and make its presence known in our enlightened Berkeley, one of America's few cities to successfully experiment with integration.
Needless to say, Miss Acty would find herself challenged. In addition to the realities of the day, she had to deal with us teenage girls, dressed in the latest fashion — poodle skirts, starched petticoats, ponytails with bleach-blond streaks, spit curls with hairpins to keep them in place. Also, penny loafers and bobbie socks rolled down to the ankle and — if one were cool — an ankle chain. She was there not only to teach her students how to become cultured; I believe her other mission was to personally make sure the Higgs girls would never become "cool."
She was my mother's eyes and ears during the school day. So by the time I got home, my mother would know if I had snuck on some lipstick or created an Elizabeth Taylor mole on my cheek with a black eyebrow pencil.
In retrospect, Miss Acty had not just done my mother a favor watching over us; she had done me a favor. In 1961, when my mother died of breast cancer, she was there to console me just as she had done in 1952 when my 4-year-old baby sister died, and I told her so.
I can remember getting the call that Miss Acty had passed. The 1990s had become a time of many goodbyes to friends from my parents' generation, and because of this, I knew a very special time was passing, too.
Goodbye to those special people who would know immediately that rap music wasn't music and that being smart didn't mean you were trying to be "white." Goodbye to folks who would have made sure that Ebonics was only a punch line in a joke. Goodbye to those proud black people who had lived through a depression without standing on a corner with a Styrofoam cup asking for a handout. A very loving, caring and protective generation of adults who were not held hostage in the community by lawless youths but who saw me and other children in the neighborhood as part of their extended family.
Many of my role models were teachers such as Miss Acty. They were the ones, before affirmative action, who, through example and encouragement, made it seem easy and natural for us to earn our degrees of higher learning from predominantly white institutions and go as far as our determined wings would fly us. So at this time, I am honored to remember Miss Acty because it gives me yet another opportunity to say "thank you" to her.