SACRAMENTO, Calif. — February is Black History Month and ABC10 wants to honor trailblazers in our area.
We started with the first black teacher in Elk Grove, Irene B West. And when we looked at her family albums, some familiar faces jumped out.
Irene moved to Elk Grove in the 1960s when her husband was stationed at McClellan Air Force Base. At the time, Elk Grove had virtually no black population. That's when Irene became a teacher.
"I had four kids. I just wanted a job," Irene said.
Born and raised in the south in the 1930s, you'd think the racial climate of America would make her fearful to go for a teaching job in a place where there were no other black people. But Irene says she didn't let that stop her.
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"I always had good self-esteem. Not that I think I'm better than anybody else, but I don't think anyone else is better than I, either," Irene said.
She says her sisters, who were also teachers in the south, had it rough and that they prepared her for teaching in the racial climate the best way they could.
"[My sisters told me] 'you just go there and do the very best job that you can do and make sure that every one of them learns the curriculum,'" Irene recalled.
And that's exactly what she did. She worked her way from teacher to principal at Cosumnes River and Franklin Schools all while raising four children. Now, Irene West Elementary is named after her.
Irene says her dedication to her family and raising her children with values is one of her greatest achievements. While speaking with a neighbor who grew up near West and her family, she remembers him saying, "Anytime between 5:30 and 6 we could look through the window and all six of you were eating dinner."
Irene said it is important to have time together as a family, where everyone caught up on their days and the children had a chance to really connect and communicate with their parents.
Looking through her family albums, we see a face that has gained national notoriety for activism and education. Dr. Cornel West, Harvard and Princeton graduate, turned Harvard professor and political activist is her son.
"He just questioned everything and there were times he was absolutely right," said Irene.
But that’s not all. Her oldest son, Clifton West III, taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is known for his work with the Sacramento Runners Club. Her daughters are Cynthia Rochelle West McDaniel and Cheryl Lyn West.
Irene says she's just grateful her family and her children will leave this earth having done some good.
"I never thought of them as being successful. I just thought of them as being people who were given gifts and using those gifts to help others," Irene said.
We want to hear from you
For Black History Month, ABC10 is highlighting people in the community who are making history or who have made history in their lifetime. Let us know who you think we should highlight.
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