You can have no part of your population beaten down and expect the rest of the country not to feel the effects from the big groups that are underprivileged. That is so of our groups of white people and it is so of our underprivileged groups of Negro people. It lowers the standard of living. Wherever the standard of education is low, the standard of living is low, and it is for our own preservation in order that our whole country may live up to the ideals and to the intentions which brought our forefathers to this country, that we are interested today in seeing that education is really universal throughout the country.
- Eleanor Roosevelt, Address delivered at the National Conference on Fundamental Problems in the Education of Negroes, Washington, D.C., May 11, 1934
Oakland public schools in the 1930s were not segregated, yet as Eleanor Roosevelt discusses in the speech excerpted above, elsewhere in the U.S. during the 1930s and afterwards, public school education was segregated by law in 18 states and in the nation's capital, Washington D.C. In direct contrast, some states already had their own legislation preventing segregation and mandating the inclusion of nonwhites in public schools. California, with absolutely no state laws regarding segregation or integration, seemed to ignore the issue of school segregation altogether. This led to a range of local school segregation policies in California, from Oakland's integrated schools to fully segregated white-only schools.
However, even in Oakland and the Bay Area, integration was not historically the norm. By the 1930s, Americans had been in control of California for less than eighty years. From the beginning of the American influx into California at the start of the Gold Rush, California's population was racially diverse. California Indians and Mexican Californios were quickly outnumbered by American whites. As whites came to dominate the state politically, non-whites were barred from attending segregated all-white schools.
This "de facto" enforcement of segregation was occasionally also mandated by local law, but often was simply implemented on a local level and enforced on a school-by-school basis, rather than through the courts. In both urban and rural areas where the population was predominantly white, non -whites organized and paid for their own schools. The relatively small Black communities across the state began founding their own one-room community-funded schools in church basements or storefronts when other facilities were not available. Chinese communities also funded their own separate schools.
However, in San Francisco's large Chinatown, local governments didn't want to take chances and rely on the Chinese community's efforts. The local government therefore established a separate school so Chinese American children would not attempt to attend the segregated all-white San Francisco public schools. When California Indians, Blacks, Chinese, Asian Indians, and others did attempt to attend California's public schools, they were stymied in the courts. Some students simply opted to move out of state to pursue racially integrated public education.
De facto segregation persisted into the 1930s, and was especially clear in rural agricultural communities. Segregated public schools in these communities were provided for Mexican Americans that emphasized vocational training and obedience to white authority figures, rather than academic skills and higher education. When such public schools were provided, the favored mode of instruction in English for non-English speaking students was punishment for speaking or writing in their home language. To combat the resulting home language loss, some groups, like the Japanese, paid for their own schools to teach home language, literacy, and culture.
It is clear from this photograph that Oakland's school integration brought students from different neighborhoods together. However, whether students of all races were given the same educational opportunities and were equally encouraged to excel academically remains an open question.
11.11 Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society. (11.11.7)