More than a century of Oakland Public School history on display at main library

The Emerson School band poses for a photo in 1916, one of the many historical photos on display at the downtown library as part of its exhibition,

The Emerson School band poses for a photo in 1916, one of the many historical photos on display at the downtown library as part of its exhibition, "Educating Oakland: The History of Oakland Public Schools, 1852-1982."

Castlemont High School in 1930. (Image courtesy of the Oakland Public Library History Room.)

The first school in Oakland opened in the 1850s, had 16 students and was taught by a woman named Hannah Jayne. A portrait of Jayne holding a diploma with a calm, blank expression on her face is on display as part of “Educating Oakland,” an exhibit on the history of the city’s public schools at the main branch of the Oakland Public Library.

The exhibit features a dozen cases of photos and artifacts from more than a century of campus life in the city. Among the highlights are a 1930 photo of the original building for Castlemont High School, which shows that the school did indeed originally look like a castle—right down to the defense tower and sprawling garden that seems more likely to be found at a British country house than in East Oakland.

Another exhibit includes a copy of a newspaper which shows that when the city got its first male teacher in 1950, the headline in the Oakland Tribune read “Woman’s World Invaded: Male Teacher Crashes Oakland Schools.”

And an old photo proves that Tom Hanks wore a grass skirt when he acted in Skyline High’s performance of “South Pacific” in 1974.

The full title of the exhibit is “Educating Oakland: the History of Oakland Public Schools, 1852-1982,” and it will run until March 31. The exhibit was organized by Dorothy Lazard, the librarian at the Oakland History Room at the downtown library. The collection of documents, student publications, class photos, diplomas, bulletins, and books on the school system was assembled from materials is from the history room’s archives and donations from the Oakland Unified School District, as well as from former teachers, students or their family members. The cases are dedicated to the history of school buildings, superintendants, teachers, curriculum, diversity, sports and the arts.

Lazard, a 1977 Castlemont grad, said she was inspired to create the exhibit after recently joining the Castlemont alumni association, hearing stories from older alums about what school was like for them, and remembering favorite teachers with her friends. She said she wanted to celebrate a local institution with a display that showed its rich history, and the schools offered plenty of material, like photos from the 40s of the McClymonds High School marching band and the cast of Roosevelt High School’s performance of “Cyrano de Bergerac” in the 1930s.

“There’s just so much great stuff,” Lazard said. “I was like, ‘Look at this student literary journal from the ’20s, or some World War II-era photo.’ So that was the inspiration, just to share all the wonderful stuff that we have.”

Kids at Emerson School pose for a class photo in 1914. (Image courtesy of the Oakland Public Library History Room.)

The displays also show a history of diversity in Oakland schools. There are a few class photos showing racially integrated classrooms that go back more than 50 years, like a 1953 photo of a smiling 3rd grade class at Manzanita School. Even as far back as 1883, there is a black student in a Lincoln elementary school photo. “The city has always been diverse, and its schools have also been diverse,” Lazard said.

In the display case that focuses on athletics, there is a Castlemont High yearbook from 1976 opened to the page for the basketball team, which won the coveted Tournament of Champions title and featured future NBA player Clifford Robinson. Spread out next to the yearbook is a blue button-up collared shirt with a card noting that it’s a PE uniform from Elmhurst Jr. High from the 1970s. It was Lazard’s own shirt from the 7th grade—“mandatory gear,” she said—and it reminds her of her own days going to school in Oakland.

“I remember at my school we had a golf team, a tennis team, badminton, basketball, baseball, football of course,” she said. “Just a lot of activities. It was a lot of fun.”

The main library is located at 125 14th Street and is open seven days a week. For library hours, go here.

2 Comments

  1. sandra izatt

    I went to Emerson Elementary from 1953-1959 and would like to see a picture of the school as it was during that time. Is there one available or anything else of that time period?

    It was a great school and I had some good teachers. There was a Mrs. Lamb,2nd grade, Mrs. Burns 4th and 5th and Miss Olivia for 6th grade. I still have my class pic from that year.

  2. Maryann Burks

    I attended Lowell Jr. High
    on.Market 1960-61 what happened
    to it? Also Tompkins Elementary on Chestnut St.,
    also what was 5th and
    Chestnut area called..
    not west Oakland?

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