Celebrating 100 Years of Oakland Technical High School
Ruth Beckford ’43
When I was at Tech, we were a small minority of African Americans. There were a lot of very wealthy white students. Some even came to school in chauffeured limousines. I was the first black valedictorian. I spoke on the arts. I was already a professional dancer when I graduated. I had toured in Canada with the Katherine Dunham Dance Company for three weeks and got back in time for graduation. After Tech, I went to UC Berkeley.
I did not dance at Tech. The gym teacher, Ms. Ewing, was supposed to teach us dance. She wore bloomers and she couldn’t dance a lick! It was a waste of my time. I had been dancing since I was 3 and joined the Katherine Dunham Company at age 17, but I did other things too. My parents told me that dancing is just a part of my life, not my life. I knew I was good, but I didn’t think I was anything special. I did other things like play tennis and go to parties.
When I was at Longfellow Grammar School, I was already dancing in talent shows at movie theaters. I did contortions and I always won. I took tap, hula, Spanish, everything. When Louise Jorgensen, who did the Oakland Christmas Pageant, would come to Longfellow to select for the pageant every year, she would skip over all the black children. I never danced in a Christmas pageant. All our friends were in it. Our mothers went to the Board of Education as a group to protest that their children were being overlooked because they were black. Ms. Jorgensen said, “All right, but I will keep the fairies white.” She took two African American kids from our class who were biracial and didn’t even look black. From 1947 to 1967 I was in charge of the whole dance program at Parks and Rec in Oakland and of course I saw her because we employed her! I used to think how she had broken my heart. By the time I retired, there were black children, but I never once went to the pageant.
Tech was excellent in education. Most of the schools were. Children were very polite. We didn’t talk back. We were taught that in our homes, so the teachers could spend more time on teaching than on disciplining. It was not like today when teachers take their life in their hands. We were taught manners. The foundation that I got at Tech in education was so valuable. Tech taught you a wealth of things. They had sewing, cooking, shop, things you need. Kids today are made to feel insecure because they don’t all have computer skills. You need people to build offices for those who are sitting at their computers, don’t you? Tech was a great foundation.
We walked to school. I lived on 38th (now McArthur between Market and West. By the time we got to 42nd, there was a whole group of us walking. It was a lot of fun. Our neighborhood (which was called North Oakland then. Now it is called West Oakland) was very integrated. There were a lot of Japanese and we were all friends. The war started on my 16th birthday, Dec. 7, 1941. That was a Sunday. When we went to school the next day, everyone was crying and carrying on. People had scrolled on the sidewalk “Go home Japs!” We cried. They were our friends. After a half-day, they sent everyone home. We lost all our Japanese friends. From one day to the next they were gone and they never came back after the evacuation. We were very depressed. It was almost like science fiction. They were just gone. We had block wardens. We were one of the block wardens and people would ask us where they were. None of us knew where they had gone.
Tech was the most beautiful high school. Just look at that front! When they had graduations there, it was gorgeous. My sister was 7 years older and my twin brothers 5 years older and their graduations were out front. Our graduation was inside because of the black outs every night. If you even smoked a cigarette, people would yell at you to put it out. We’d hear the warning lights, and go inside and put up our curtains. The streets were silent and completely black. The Army and the Navy were all here and we didn’t know whether we’d be bombed. We were encouraged to volunteer at the USO. You had to be 18.
We went to the DeFremery mansion. Ms. DeFremery had been my Latin teacher at Tech. They still lived there then and during the war, they added a big ballroom for the USO events. My family had been here for many years and my father remembered fox in DeFremery Park when he was growing up. Later, when I was head of first of first recreational dance program in the US, I would have classes in that former USO ballroom at the DeFremery Mansion. I had actually applied at Parks and Rec to teach tennis, but they needed someone to teach movement and that’s how the dance program started. The classes were free. People would come from other cities to see dour program.
At Cal, there was no dance major so I had to take PE as a major. I took the dance classes they offered, but because I was already a professional, the teacher invited me to go with her to the Anna Halprin Dance Studio and later I became their first black company member. I did research in Haiti on Haitian dance and later, I opened the first Afro-Haitian dance company on the West Coast. Our first concert was in 1953 at Cal and when I retired from performing in 1961, my last concert was there too. I closed my dance studio in 1975 and went into acting and writing.
It’s great it is turning 100. It is still a great school. I have traveled the world and there is no place like Oakland. I will turn up my toes right here.