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Black History Month Reflections -

Message from the President

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African Americans have a rich history, full of accomplishments that have benefited people, communities, the United States and the world. As we close out Black History Month, let us remember that we do not need a designated month to celebrate our achievements. We should continually incorporate our history into district-wide and classroom initiatives, projects and discussions, so that students not only know about our contributions but develop pride and a healthy sense of curiosity.

This knowledge will broaden their exposure to people, places, opportunities and careers, and enable them to look for new possibilities in which to become successful, both in school and life.

In this newsletter, we are highlighting people and organizations that have contributed and made a great impact in history. It has been CAAASAs honor and pleasure to share and bring information to you on African American Leaders during this special month.

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Dr. Daryl Camp

CAAASA President

National Leaders

from the State of California

(Click on each image below to visit the alphabetized biography page)


Madame Kamala D. Harris – United States Vice-President

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Karen Bass

U.S. House of Representatives (California’s 37th District)



Maxine Waters

U.S. House of Representatives (California’s 43rd District)

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Congressmember Barbara Lee

U.S. House of Representatives (California’s 13th District)

Extraordinary Contributions of Black Americans That Shaped Our History 


Frederick Madison Roberts was born in Ohio and grew up in Los Angeles, where his parents moved in 1887. He is the great grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. He was the first African American graduate of Los Angeles High School and attended USC as a pre-law student. He graduated from and was a football star at Colorado College, he was a tax assessor, mortician, and college president.  


In 1911, Frederick Madison Roberts ran for the Los Angeles School Board with the slogan “Justice for All” but was unsuccessful in his bid to win. For many years he published the weekly Los Angeles New Age and, in 1918, he ran for the California legislature. Elected in a largely white district, he was the first black member of the assembly. He and his wife, Pearl Hinds Roberts, had two daughters.

Roberts was a vigorous advocate of civil rights in the legislature and in his newspaper, spearheading protests and boycotts as discrimination in Los Angeles grew with the arrival of more and more southerners. A loyal Republican at a time when blacks were realigning behind Roosevelt’s Democratic party, he lost his seat in 1934 and waged two unsuccessful campaigns for Congress. In 1952, when slated for an ambassadorship if Eisenhower were elected, his life was cut short by an automobile accident.

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Bessie Bruington Burke is an American Hero. She was the first African American teacher and principal hired in the Los Angeles public school system. Burke held influential, powerful, and redeeming responsibilities for over 40 years in California.

Burke was born on March 19, 1891 in Los Angeles. In 1887, her parents left their farms and teaching jobs in Kansas via a covered wagon. They settled in what is now North Hollywood. Burke attended Berendo Elementary School; Polytechnic High School; and the Los Angeles State Normal School (LANS). The normal school is now apart of the University of California, Los Angeles. Burke graduated seventh in a class of 800 from LANS. By 1911, Burke had received her teaching credentials and became the first black teacher in the Los Angeles Public School System.

Burke began teaching at Holmes Elementary School and became the first black principal in L.A. in 1918. In 1938, she became a principal at Nevin Avenue School, making her the first black principal to head a racially integrated school.

She retired from the Los Angeles Board of Education in 1955, and passed away in 1968. Burke is remembered as a distinguished humanitarian and well-respected educator and administrator. She served in a number of civic organizations including, the YWCA, Native California club, and the NAACP. Burke was also a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Bessie Burke is associated with the Historic Resources Associated with African Americans in Los Angeles Multi-Property Submission (MPS). It was approved and listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 17, 2009.

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Born in Elizabeth, Louisiana in 1917, Wilson Riles was orphaned at a young age. Family friends stepped forward to act as his foster parents. Encouraged to pursue his education byhis foster parents, teachers, and the members of his church, Riles worked his way through J.W. Hoffman Junior High School and McDonogh No. 35 Senior High School in New Orleans by delivering milk in the early mornings. Soon after his graduation, his foster parents relocated to Arizona. Riles joined them, enrolling in Arizona State Teachers College (now Northern Arizona State University), in 1936. By working a number of odd jobs he was able to pay his college expenses and graduate in 1940 with a major in education and a minor in history.

In the ensuing years he taught, became a principal, earned a Master's degree, and then came to California to work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation as a regional secretary. In 1958, Riles moved to Sacramento to join the California State Department of Education as a Consultant in Certified Employment Practices, (the title later changed to Consultant in Intergroup Relations). He was the Department's first African-American professional employee.

Riles became an expert in intergroup relations and the education of disadvantaged children. He served as Chief of the Bureau of Intergroup Relations, and as Chief of the Bureau of Compensatory Education (this position also carried the title of Associate Superintendent of Public Instruction). As his responsibilities increased, he began to attract national attention. Then-President Nixon invited him to Chair his task force on Urban Education.

In 1970 Riles, now the Deputy Superintendent for Program and Legislation, became convinced that the State's educational system could not survive another term under Max Rafferty. After being encouraged to run for State Superintendent of Public instruction, he decided to accept the challenge in spite of the fact that Rafferty appeared unbeatable. Following an intense campaign that featured several acrimonious debates, Riles was elected with 54% of the votes cast. California citizens re-elected Riles twice more, in 1974 and 1978.

Education during the Riles years experienced many stresses and exciting changes. It survived busing, integration, student unrest, and Proposition 13. Programmatic innovations of the time included Early Childhood Education, the School Improvement Program, and the Master Plan for Special Education. In 1983, after a bitter campaign against a former supporter, Riles left office to form an educational consulting firm, Wilson Riles and Associates, Inc

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Mary Ellen Pleasant was born on Aug. 19, 1814 in Virginia and spent her early years in Nantucket, Massachusetts. She worked as a bond servant to the Hussey family, an abolitionist family. She later married James Smith, a wealthy former plantation owner and an abolitionist. Mary Ellen and James worked on the Underground Railroad. After Smith’s death four years later, Mary Ellen continued her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Mary Ellen married John James Pleasant around 1848. To avoid trouble with slavers for their abolitionist work, the couple moved to San Francisco, California in April 1852. Mrs. Pleasant established several restaurants for California miners, the first named the Case and Heiser. With the help of clerk Thomas Bell, Mrs. Pleasant amassed a fortune by 1875 through her investments and various businesses by 1875. She also helped to establish the Bank of California.

Pleasant earned her title as the “Mother” of California’s early civil rights movement, establishing the local Underground Railroad. She financially supported John Brown from 1857 to 1859. In the 1860s and 1870s, Mrs. Pleasant brought several civil rights lawsuits in California, especially against the trolley companies, most of which she won.

During the 1880s, a smear campaign by the widow of Thomas Bell damaged Mrs. Pleasant’s reputation. Local newspapers began to taunt her with the pejorative title “mammy,” which she reportedly hated. She never recovered her prestige from this campaign. Mary Ellen Pleasant died on Jan. 4, 1904.


Jefferson Lewis Edmonds was a prominent newspaper editor and political activist in late 19th Century Los Angeles. Edmonds was born a slave and worked for 20 years in tobacco and cotton fields in antebellum Virginia. Once freed in 1865 Edmonds relocated to Crawfordsville, Mississippi in where he pursued an education in a series of “freedman schools.” In 1875, at the age of thirty, Edmonds began teaching in the black schools of Mississippi and continued this work until 1888. He also bought a small farm in Northern Mississippi about 35 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee and was active in local politics.

Growing increasingly disenchanted with post-Reconstruction Mississippi, Edmonds moved west and arrived in Los Angeles around 1890. In 1896 Edmonds published his first newspaper, the Pasadena Searchlight. He used the paper to support the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat, when the vast majority of Southern California’s African Americans were Republicans. The outcry over his support of the Democratic Party led his partners to hire another editor.

In 1900 Edmonds started a second paper, the Liberator, in Los Angeles. The Liberator, which operated for fourteen years, was known for its support of working class black Angelinos, fought for civil rights, and supported candidates of any party who he felt supported African American community objectives. Edmonds was also a California “booster” who believed Southern blacks should migrate to Los Angeles both for economic opportunity and political freedom. He wrote that Southern California was “ripe for advancing the race” and cited specifically the ability of blacks to own businesses and homes. Edmonds viewed home ownership as especially important in the black quest for full citizenship.

By 1910, it seemed to some observers that the Liberator’s main purpose was to instigate migration to Los Angeles. While the Liberator could not be held solely responsible for the influx of blacks into Los Angeles, the African American population increased from 2,131 in 1900, the year Edmonds started the newspaper, to 7,599 people in 1910 and 15,579 in 1920, giving the Southern California city the largest and fastest growing black population in the Far West. 

Edmonds was involved in other activities designed to promote “race advancement.” In 1903 he, Frederick Roberts, and Reverend J.E. Edwards created an organization called the Los Angeles Forum whose primary purpose was to challenge racial discrimination and consolidate black political power in Los Angeles. Edmonds also played a significant role in the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Los Angeles in 1913.

Jefferson L. Edmonds died in Los Angeles on January 4, 1914.


In August 1908, Colonel Allen Allensworth and four other settlers established a town founded, financed and governed by African Americans. Their dream of developing an abundant and thriving community stemmed directly from a strong belief in programs that allowed blacks to help themselves create better lives. By 1910, Allensworth’s success was the focus of many national newspaper articles praising the town and its inhabitants.

An unavoidable set of circumstances made it impossible for the residents of this tiny town located 30 miles north of Bakersfield to achieve their founders’ dreams over the long term. But the town did remain home to a handful of families and individuals throughout the 20th century, and true to the courage and resolve of its founders, the town has survived and persevered, earning the well-deserved title “The town that refused to die.”

In 1974, California State Parks purchased land within the historical townsite of Allensworth, and it became Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. Today a collection of lovingly restored and reconstructed early 20th-century buildings—including the Colonel’s house, historic schoolhouse, Baptist church, and library—once again dots this flat farm country, giving new life to the dreams of these visionary pioneers.

With continuing restoration and special events, the town is coming back to life as a state historic park. The park’s visitor center features a film about the site. A yearly rededication ceremony reaffirms the vision of the pioneers.

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