a portrait of a young Ruth Acty, whose name may be chosen to replace Jefferson Elementary School
A young Ruth Acty, who in 1943 was hired as the first Black teacher in the Berkeley Unified School District. Photo: Berkeley Historical Society

Update Dec. 10: The Berkeley Unified School Board approved the name change during their meeting on Wednesday night.

Original story: Ruth Acty, the first Black teacher in the Berkeley Unified School District, could be the new namesake for Jefferson Elementary School if the board of directors approves the move on Wednesday.

The push to rename the school came with the board’s Black Lives Matter resolution in June, which recognized that the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, owned enslaved people. Community members had attempted once before, in 2005, to take his name off the school but failed to garner the votes.

This time around, in the midst of a nationwide civil-rights uprising following the police killing of George Floyd, the board unanimously agreed to begin the name removal process for both Jefferson and Washington elementary schools.

Jefferson students, teachers and parents submitted nearly 70 recommendations for the new name — which included John Lewis, Angela Davis, Nelson Mandela and both Michelle and Barack Obama. BUSD’s name selection committee emerged with a shortlist of seven names in October and finally chose one to send to the board for approval this week.

Acty was raised in West Oakland and studied at UC Berkeley, and was initially unable to land a job at BUSD in 1939. There were no teachers of color at the district at the time, but there were more than 5,000 Black residents with no representation in schools, BUSD’s biography of Acty notes, crediting activist Frances Albrier for bringing the issue to the forefront.

In an interview with the San Francisco Examiner in 1984, Acty said the superintendent at the time made her wait two hours on the day of her interview, and finally told her, “We’re not ready for a Negro yet, but when we are, we’ll be sure to call you.”

Ruth Acty posing in front of a painting of her done by her students
A photo of Ruth Acty in the Berkeley Alumni Association Journal, posing in front of a painting of her done by her students. Photo: Berkeley Historical Society

Four years later, through the efforts of Albrier and other activists, Acty was offered a job to teach kindergarten at Longfellow Elementary School (now a middle school). The position was considered low-stakes because kindergarten wasn’t mandatory and parents could withdraw their students if they took issue with the hiring of a Black teacher.

She went on to teach in the district until 1991, advocating for local history lessons that represented indigenous people and people of color, and paving the way for more diverse hiring practices. She passed away at the age of 85 on July 28, 1998.

Acty was a leading candidate during the renaming process for Sylvia Mendez Elementary School (formerly LeConte) in 2018, and this time was selected from a pool of six women, as well as Muwekma Ohlone — the full name of the people indigenous to the Bay Area.

Muwekma Ohlone had also been a popular choice during the failed 2005 process, but, this time, BUSD had a special meeting with the tribe’s chairwoman and tribal council to secure permission for using their name. With feedback from tribal representatives, Superintendent Brent Stephens concluded that BUSD needs to spend more time considering its curriculum’s representation of indigenous history before it adopts the tribe’s name for a school.

Ruth Acty with her students in a classroom
Ruth Acty in a classroom with her students. Photo: Berkeley Historical Society

Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to integrate a public school in the South, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who received the majority of student votes following her death) and poet Maya Angelou were other frontrunners.

BUSD staff said Acty was ultimately in the top three names selected among students, staff and caretakers, with many noting that the name would commemorate a “local Black woman who persevered and exemplified excellence.”

Natasha Beery, who headed up the name selection process as the director of Berkeley Unified community relations, said she was pleased to see that, throughout several meetings, community members said they were excited about all the names, and supported opportunities to lift up people and cultures important to Berkeley.

Now, she said the name change needs to be backed up by concrete steps — like those outlined in the Black Lives Matter resolution — that commemorate Acty’s work pushing past barriers of racism, and that of activists past and present. She echoed board member Ka’Dijah Brown’s statement during the June vote on the Black Lives Matter resolution, saying renaming is the easiest part of progress — and structural change to dismantle racism is the hardest.

“Names are powerful symbols — a school name in particular,” Beery said, calling schools a “scarce resource.” “You don’t want to just rename a school…and say we’re done.”

The board will vote on the name during its meeting on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...