Oral Histories

Interview of Sidney Thompson

First African-American superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. University of California, Los Angeles coordinator of education-related research.
Black Educators in Los Angeles, 1950-2000
African American History
Biographical Note:
First African-American superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. University of California, Los Angeles coordinator of education-related research.
Stevenson, Alva Moore
Thompson, Sidney
Persons Present:
Thompson and Stevenson.
Place Conducted:
UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alva Moore Stevenson, Program Coordinator in the UCLA Library Department of Special Collections; M.A., African American Studies, UCLA.Stevenson prepared for the interviews by reviewing secondary sources on Black education nationwide and in Los Angeles.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. The interviewee was then given an opportunity to review the transcript and made a number of corrections and additions. Those corrections were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research staff.
9.75 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
This series documents efforts to secure quality education for Black students in the Los Angeles area in the years 1950-2000. This includes the issues of integration/desegregation, increasing the numbers of Black teachers and administrators and the struggle against discriminatory hiring practices, securing equitable resources and safe learning environments, and maximizing achievement levels
Childhood and education in the Grenadines and British Guiana—Strict British-style school—Facility in reading—Skipped grades—Service in Merchant Marines and Navy—Learning about different races and ethnic groups in school—Civil servant opportunities for Blacks under British colonial system—Shifting allegiance from Britain to U.S.—Cross-country bus trip—Experience with discrimination in Las Vegas—Bitterness as a result—Those who have not experienced racism—Change in attitude after Obama election—Thompson’s mother—Arrival of slaves in West Indies—Intermixture between Slaves and Carib Indians—Mother’s race on Thompson’s birth certificate—Physical differences among Thompson brothers –Playing cricket with entertainers—Mother’s work as a domestic—Father’s occupation as a teacher—Lack of employment opportunities for Blacks—Father’s interest in radio—Lockheed hires father as a radar engineer—Father’s death due to smoking and emphysema—Thompson’s grandmother a midwife on Bequia—Reputation of Thompson’s family on the island—Current development on Bequia—Father attends Cambridge auxiliary university in Jamaica—Impact of Obama’s parentage on the election—Romanticizing of Blacks who are “different”—Excuse for subjugation based on difference—How Thompson’s father succeeded—Father’s knowledge of radio—Emphasis on education—Father first Black engineer at Lockheed—Thompson’s multiethnic neighborhood growing up—Demographics of Blacks in Los Angeles during the 40s and 50s—De facto discrimination—Discrimination in the South versus L.A.—Internment of Japanese American neighbors—Thompsons take care of neighbors’ belongings—Loss of Japanese Americans’ property due to internment—Thompson’s thought on internment as a child—Internment as another expression of racial inequity—Dehumanization of Japanese as buildup to war against Japan—Racist indoctrination of Marines—Inability to discern between Japanese and Japanese Americans—Significance of Central Avenue—Drake Family—Social life relegated to Central—Dunbar Hotel—Elementary school experience—Catching up because of skipped grades—Feeling a misfit—Uncle Captain Hugh Mulzac—Unable to find employment commensurate with experience—Mulzac’s perfect score on Captain’s examination—FDR commissions the S.S. Booker T. Washington—Refusal to lead a “Jim Crow” crew—Black women’s auxiliary on Central Avenue—Murmansk Run—Father’s admonition to get a bachelor’s degree.
Role of religion in Thompson’s upbringing—Different religions practiced by family—Broken nose in the Academy—Drifts away from religion—Problems with Thompson’s young age and stature at Virgil Junior High School—Catching up in mathematics—Skipping grades—Caste system in West Indies—The Outliers—Colorism in Black community—Skin color differences among Thompson brothers—Severn brothers—Prohibitions on mixed coed dancing—The Flats—Zoot Suit Riot—Relations between Black and Mexican gangs—Black members of Mexican gangs—Cross-alliances—Lack of college counseling—More “community”—Attending UCLA—Gangs in different eras—Recreation as a teenager—Restricted social life—Segregated parties—Integrated activities at downtown Y—Encounters with police—More on UCLA—Wrestling team—Application to Merchant Marine Academy—Physical exam—Academy School at King’s Point, New York—Time at sea on merchant ship—Standing watch—Reassignment due to Thompson’s race—Commission in the U.S. Navy—Thompson a training officer—Ship assignment according to race—Nature of coursework—Other African Americans at the academy—Haitian cadet—Fairness of academy—Progression—Awareness of Blacks in the military—Tuskegee airmen—Prevalence of racist thinking—Postgraduate work—Salesman for International Harvester—Impetus to teach—Teaching math at Pacoima Junior High—Corporal punishment—Affinity with kids—Diversity of school’s demographic—Teaching gifted kids—Prerequisite of teaching to be an administrator—Plane crash—Ritchie Valens one of Thompson’s students.
Early Black vice-principals and principals—“Controlling” minority populations—James Taylor—Principal training program—Principal’s exam—Trouble filling positions in Black schools—Staffing difficulties after Watts Rebellion—Placement at Markham Junior High—Culture clash due to West Indian background—Incident near Markham—Interactions with LAPD—Learning about being Black—Walkout to keep Thompson at Markham—Teacher walkouts—Understanding and “knowing” Black students—Black students attending Westside schools—Interactions with gangs—Losing talented Black students—School within a School—Onus on the parents—Importance of self-knowledge—Quality teachers and administrators regardless of color—Diffusion of Black population—Effect of national events upon the local scene—Fear related to busing—Integration of teaching staffs—Loss of quality Black teachers—Changes as a result of the civil rights movement—Enduring effects of poverty—Effect of local movements upon education—Changes in perceptions of Blacks—Teachers’ informal study groups—Council of Black Administrators (COBA)—COBA’s mission and goals—Watts Rebellion of 1965—Mrs. Lacey—Trouble fomented in Watts—Martin Luther King Assassination—Left-leaning campus newspapers.
Cultural differences between African Americans and West Indians—British views on slavery—Emphasis on education for advancement—Effect of educated Blacks upon British—Acceptance of African Americans in U.S.—Overcoming legacy of slavery—Reversal of White flight—Housing patterns of African Americans in Los Angeles in 1940s—Segregation in New Mexico—Biased attitudes imported into Los Angeles—Other races pave way for African Americans—Odetta’s discriminatory school experience—School discrimination against Jews—African American effigy at Fremont High School—Unrest surrounding attempted integration of schools—Anti-integration feeling following WW II—African Americans and Latinos in the Valley—Teaching at Pacoima Junior High—Moving to Northridge in the 1950s—Facing housing discrimination—Confronting racism—Thompson’s neighbor—Impact of Martin Luther King assassination—One-way school integration—Anti-mandatory busing views of school board members—Voluntary busing—Changing demographics and overcrowding—Multi-track year-round schools—Shrinkage of White student population—African American speculation about busing—Self-segregation of students—Committed teachers—Oversight of busing—Integration of teaching staff—Permanent loss of dedicated teachers—Dorothy Rochelle—Middle school summer exchange—Margaret Wright—De facto housing segregation—Individual Black opposition to busing—Changed housing patterns of Blacks—Dispersal of Black population—Voluntary integration—Presidential ideas on education--Mayoral oversight of school district—Using example of Chicago—Difference in Chicago politics—Parental involvement—Crawford v. Board—Fighting to keep MacLay Junior High School integrated—“Baggage” of adults—Lack of White acceptance—Correlation between housing and school integration—Persistence of differences—Change in tone and dialogue after busing mandate—Atmosphere of hate—Potential for violence against bused students—Fringe elements of anti-busing organizations.
African American students’ experiences attending Westside schools—Perception of Westside schools as better—Self-segregation of students at integrated schools—Limited interracial interactions—Lack of true social integration—Educational deficits of African American students—Lack of teacher preparation—Lack of African American students in advanced classes—Teachers’ belief structures about students of color—Physics teacher speaks up—Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) longitudinal database—Failure and dropout rates—Lack of correlation between dropout rate and mobility—Persistence of social justice issues—No Child Left Behind—Totality of people responsible for educating African American children—Advocating smaller schools—Lack of emphasis on education— Better language skills of African American students—Continuing cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement—The N word—Issue of Ebonics in LAUSD—Importance of Standard English proficiency—Diffusion of Black population—Legacy of voluntary integration programs—Sensitivity to appearance of de jure segregation—Change in White attitudes towards African Americans—Thompson’s experience as principal at Crenshaw High School— School within a School—Beginning of small learning communities and learning centers—Impermanence of school reforms—Making smaller schools a district policy—Precedent of University High School—Perceptions of Uni—School choice of more affluent African Americans students—Crenshaw as an option for Eastside African American student
Challenges to bringing about change as superintendent—Public opposition to Propositions 1A and E—Collaboration between racial groups of administrators and teachers—Working for UCLA—Teaching for the Educational Leadership Program—Working with Bob Baker—Systemic change and research data on educational success—Leading by example to attract people to education—Exposing young people of color to academic fields—Involvement with Cal State Los Angeles, the United States Merchant Marine Academy, and community groups—African Americans in service academies, in the public spotlight, and as role models to youth—Challenges facing Ramon Cortines.