Reflecting on the life of education pioneer Ida L. Jackson

A housing complex titled "Ida Louise Jackson Graduate House"
Amanda Ramirez/Senior Staff

“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.”

These words were written in the mid-1960s by Ida Louise Jackson, a UC Berkeley alumna and the namesake of one of the campus graduate residence halls: the Ida L. Jackson Graduate House Apartments. As a pioneer in education and a staunch public health advocate, Jackson began her journey toward greatness long before she first stepped foot on UC Berkeley’s campus.

Jackson was born in 1902 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, as the youngest and only daughter in a family of eight children. Her father was a minister, farmer, carpenter and businessman, and her mother was a homemaker. Growing up, Jackson devoted herself to academics and could read by the age of three. She helped her peers learn this skill in school, sparking a lifelong love for teaching.

Jackson enrolled at Cherry Street High School in 1910 at the age of eight and graduated four years later. Immediately afterward, she attended Rust College in Holy Springs, Mississippi, but later transferred to New Orleans University (now Dillard University) where she graduated with a Normal Teaching Diploma and a certificate in home economics in 1917.

She and her family moved to Oakland, California soon after and she entered university once again. She arrived at UC Berkeley in 1920 as one of only 17 Black students on campus (eight women and nine men).

Her initial experiences at UC Berkeley were far from satisfactory. Jackson felt lonely at times and invisible to her peers and professors. To make the campus more welcoming for Black women, Jackson and her friends decided to co-found the Rho chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first African American sorority at UC Berkeley. But, reflective of the era during which she lived, their group portrait was unceremoniously cut from the student yearbook without notification.

Nonetheless, Jackson did not allow for these moments of racism to influence her studies, and she graduated in 1922 with a bachelor’s degree in education, vocational guidance and counseling. She applied to be a teacher in Oakland but was told she needed “more education.” In response, Jackson returned to UC Berkeley to earn a master’s degree in 1924.

Upon reapplying for a teaching position, she was told she would need more teaching experience. Unwilling to give up on her dream of teaching in Oakland, Jackson then moved to the Imperial Valley and taught at Eastside High School in El Centro, California. In doing so, she became the first Black woman to be certified to teach in the state of California.

After several more attempts to obtain a job at an Oakland public school, Jackson was finally hired at Oakland’s Prescott School in 1926. The decision sparked protests as many white teachers and administrators tried to have her reassigned to another school, but the students wholeheartedly supported her.

As the Great Depression swept through the country, the 1930s were a time of peak inequality in the South. After becoming national president of her sorority in 1934, Jackson decided to expand the reach of her educational audience to the South, particularly her home state of Mississippi. She brought along teachers and medical professionals from among her sorority sisters and even used her own funds to initiate projects that would bring increased education and health care to the South. She founded a school for rural teachers and later established the Mississippi Health Project, which served as an arrangement of mobile clinics that traveled across rural areas of the state to bring medical attention to those who suffered from diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria and malaria.

The effects of the Mississippi Health Project were widespread and praised by many across the South as an evolutionary campaign that had aided many lives. Jackson was invited twice to the White House (once in 1934 and 1935) to have the chance to speak to then president Roosevelt and the first lady about her work navigating through the poor conditions in Mississippi and the rural, segregated South.

She briefly served as Dean of Women at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and was highly involved in the formation of the National Council of Negro Women. She later returned to Oakland to teach at McClymonds High School until her retirement in 1953.

But throughout all of this, Jackson never forgot the university that had been the start of her journey and where she had made her first real impact on others. In 1979, she donated her ranch to UC Berkeley and requested that the proceeds of the sale be used to fund graduate fellowships for Black students.

Jackson received many awards for the work she had done for the community and beyond. In 1971, Jackson was granted the Berkeley Citation, a prestigious award given to a select group of individuals and organizations whose contributions to UC Berkeley reflect and exceed the highest ideals of the university. She was elected to join the Berkeley Fellows honorary society, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the Alpha Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, UC Berkeley. Most notable of all, an apartment complex on College Avenue was renamed “Ida Louise Jackson Graduate House” on Aug. 30, 2004 in her honor.

Jackson was full of gratitude for the honors bestowed upon her and often thanked the university in turn for its part in providing her with the opportunity to grow into the person she eventually became. She proclaimed, “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.”

Contact Stella Ho at [email protected] .