UCLA has a rich history of African Americans who have made significant contributions to UCLA, Los Angeles and society. In the third part of a continuing series, we honor these black pioneers and changemakers through the decades who make us all proud to be Bruins.
Bessie Bruington Burke’s parents left Kansas in a covered wagon in 1887, settling in North Hollywood, California. Their daughter would become Los Angeles’s first African American teacher, and the first African American principal.
Burke attended local public schools, and graduated in 1911 from the Los Angeles State Normal School, which would ultimately become UCLA. At the time of her graduation Los Angeles schools were segregated and there were no African American teachers. Driven by her passion for education, Burke scored well on the Teacher’s Exam, placing 7th out of 800 test takers. Her high scores and pressure from the community led to her being hired. She received a placement at 51st Street School, later renamed Holmes Elementary, the first school built in a black neighborhood. She taught for eight years, and was promoted to principal, and went on to serve as principal of four schools.
Burke’s career spanned 44 years until she retired in 1955. In an LA Times article, a former student recalls, "Mrs. Burke used to make us toe the line. She was one of those principals who didn't have to say much. She would just look at you. You weren't even allowed to giggle in the hall."
In addition to her work as a teacher and administrator, Burke volunteered for a number of civic organizations and was active in the community. She passed away in 1968, and is buried in Angelus Rosedale Cemetery; her tombstone simply lists her name beneath the word “Educator.”
Miriam Matthews arrived in Los Angeles with her parents, brother and sister from Pensacola, Florida during the early 1900s. She would become Los Angeles’s first African American librarian.
Matthews attended Los Angeles High School, and then the University of California Southern Branch, which became UCLA. She transferred to UC Berkeley to experience independence from her family, but returned to Los Angeles after graduation with a degree in library science.
When she began her job search, there were unsuccessful attempts by library staff to prevent her from taking the Civil Service exam. In 1927 Matthews became the first credentialed African American librarian to be hired by the Los Angeles Public Library, and is considered to be the first black librarian in California. After 10 years as a librarian, she earned a master's degree in library science from the University of Chicago. Returning to Los Angeles she was promoted to regional librarian for the South Central region, supervising 12 branch libraries.
In addition to her work as a librarian, Matthews was dedicated to collecting materials on Los Angeles’ African American history. She collected publications, wrote for local papers and organized exhibits by local African American artists. Over her lifetime she built an archive of materials many of which are collected in her book "The Negro in California from 1781-1910: An Annotated Bibliography."
She advocated for Los Angeles to observe a “Negro History Week,” a precursor to African American History Month. A branch of the Los Angeles Library has been named in her honor Hyde Park - Miriam Matthews Branch Library. When asked about her achievements, Matthews listed her leadership in opposing censorship, her research on the history of African Americans in California and her fight against prejudice.
Augustus Freeman Hawkins, known as Gus, was the first African American from California to be elected to Congress. Hawkins came to California with his parents from Shreveport, Louisiana. He planned to become an engineer, but the Great Depression put those plans on hold. He attended UCLA, graduating with a degree in economics in 1931, working his way through college as a soda jerk at a drugstore at 27th and Central Avenue.
Hawkins saw the impact of the Great Depression on Los Angeles’ African American community, including his father who lost all his savings. He and a group of friends became interested in gaining more political representation for their community and speaking out about segregation. In 1934 at age 27, Hawkins ran and was elected to the state assembly becoming the only African American elected official in California at the time. In the Assembly he championed fair housing, fair employment practices, housing and disability protections. He recalls this as a time when his generation began “to lay the foundation for the Civil Rights movement.”
Elected to Congress in 1963, Hawkins represented southern Los Angeles County. He was the first black representative elected west of the Mississippi River. Over his career he wrote more than 300 state and federal laws, targeting the elimination of discriminatory practices.
Hawkins believed targeting discrimination in the workforce was essential to the advancement of civil rights, and worked to establish the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Hawkins was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
With a public service career spanning 56 years, Hawkins championed the rights of workers, and fought for fair housing and civil rights. The Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park in South Los Angeles was built as a legacy to his service.
Growing up in Houston, Texas, Clora Bryant and her siblings loved watching movies. When her older brother was drafted into World War ll he left behind a trumpet she learned to play and joined her high school marching band. Bryant attended Houston’s Prairie View College, a historically black university. She joined the Prairie View Coeds jazz band, a group of female musicians who travelled and toured, even performing at New York’s Apollo Theater.
When Bryant’s father left Texas for a job in Los Angeles, she moved with him and enrolled at UCLA. While attending UCLA she discovered the jazz clubs on Central Avenue, and was entranced by bebop music. She quit school and began touring with the first integrated female band Sweethearts of Rhythm, and then with the Queens of Swing, the first women's jazz group to appear on television. At around the same time she married and started a family, bringing her young children on the road with her bands.
Bryant had a long and star-studded career, playing with the jazz greats Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday. It’s said she is the only female horn player ever to play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie who became a mentor to her. Mikhail Gorbachev invited Bryant to Moscow where she was the first jazz musician to play in the Soviet Union.
“Gal with a Horn,” Bryant’s first and only album was recorded in 1957. She co-edited the book Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles, part of the UCLA Oral History Project. Bryant was profiled in a documentary, “Trumpetistically,” by L.A. Rebellion filmmaker Zeinabu Irene Davis, M.A. ’85, M.F.A. ’89.
In a 2007 interview in JazzTimes Bryant was quoted as saying, “I’m really just trying to keep on living my life according to those little sayings that my father kept repeating: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Put a smile on your face and love in your heart, and you’ll make it.” In 2017 she was honored on her 90th birthday at the annual Central Avenue JazzFest.
Civil rights activists Robert and Helen Singleton took part in the historic civil rights Freedom Rides, a turning point in American history.
When Robert Singleton returned from World War II, he enrolled at UCLA to study economics. There he met Helen Singleton who was also a UCLA undergraduate. They were inspired by the civil rights speakers who came to speak on campus, including James Farmer, Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. Robert became president of the campus NAACP group and he and Helen joined the sit-ins, trained in nonviolent resistance and began organizing events.
Inspired by the courage of the earliest Freedom Riders, Robert recruited fellow students to travel to Jackson, Mississippi to protest the injustice of segregation on city transportation. The strategy was to fill the jails with Freedom Riders. Robert and Helen were one of the few married couples who participated in the Freedom Rides. Arriving in Mississippi they were arrested and charged with breach of peace. They were sent to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Penitentiary where they spent 40 days in a maximum security prison. UCLA’s 1961-1962 student council voted to use student body funds to pay UCLA Freedom Riders’ appeal bonds, but were blocked by a rule forbidding the use of these funds for political reasons. UCLA faculty members stepped in to raise the needed amount. Three months after their release, the federal government ordered that the buses be desegregated.
Robert returned to UCLA where he earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. He taught at UCLA and served as the founding director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. Currently, Robert teaches economics at Loyola Marymount University. Helen graduated with a degree in fine arts and pursued a career in nonprofit arts and education organizations.
The Singletons stay involved in the social justice movement. Robert has been quoted as saying, “You (have) got to stand up for what you believe in.” In 2016 Robert and Helen Singleton were both honored by UCLA’s Black Alumni Association.
Charles Burnett is a writer-director whose work has received extensive honors. Called "one of America's very best filmmakers" by the Chicago Tribune and "the nation's least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director" by the New York Times, his film career began at UCLA.
Burnett’s family moved to Watts when he was three. Balancing a need to be practical with a desire to be creative he enrolled at Los Angeles City College to study electronics. However his interest in film and his creative spirit won out and he transferred to UCLA where he earned a bachelor’s degree in writing and languages. He then enrolled in the UCLA College of Fine Arts, now the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, where he pursued a Master of Fine Arts.
A diverse group of filmmakers were studying at UCLA as part of an Ethno-Communications initiative for communities of color. Influenced by the politics of the time, and acting against the portrayal of African Americans in 1970s black exploitation films, the program’s students and faculty developed a creative, collaborative culture. A group of African and African American filmmakers, dubbed the "LA Rebellion," made films which weren’t limited by Hollywood’s rules and structure.
Burnett’s thesis project at UCLA, “Killer of Sheep,” which he wrote, directed, shot, edited and produced has been declared a “national treasure” by the Library of Congress. It was one of the first 100 films selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry. Burnett has a long, impressive career of films including “To Sleep With Anger” and “The Glass Shield.”
In 1988, he was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship, and in 1990 he became the first African American to receive the National Society of Film Critics’ best screenplay award for “To Sleep With Anger.” In November 2017 Burnett received an Honorary Award from the Academy's Board of Governors for his body of work.
Lula Washington was inspired to dance after seeing a performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. A young mother with no dance training, Washington applied to the UCLA Dance Department and was rejected for being too old to begin dance training. She appealed and was admitted.
As a student, Washington danced and performed in numerous productions including the Academy Awards and in the film "Funny Lady" with Barbra Streisand. Washington established the Black Dance Association to bring artists of color to the UCLA campus.
With a style that fuses African and Afro-Haitian dance, Washington is influenced by ballet, modern, street, theatrical and hip hop. She also includes political and social commentary in her choreography.
Washington and her husband, Erwin ’73, M.F.A. ’78, founded The Lula Washington Dance Theatre as a creative outlet for minority dance artists, their daughter, Tamika Washington ’95, works with them as well. Located in South Los Angeles the school reflects African American history and culture and trains students for careers in dance. Washington is artistic director, choreographer, teacher and dancer. Now an internationally recognized institution, the school has trained more than 45,000 dancers.
Working in numerous creative fields, Washington developed movements for the film “Avatar” and choreographed “The Little Mermaid” animated film. She was honored with the UCLA Alumni Community Service Award in 2013 and is a member of the UCLA Black Alumni Network. Her dance company travels the globe, bringing dance to people across the world. Chosen to represent UCLA as a UCLA Optimist, she has been quoted as telling her students, “All things are possible if you focus, pay attention, study and listen.”
Mike Powell is a two-time world champion, two-time Olympic silver medalist and holder of the long jump world record.
Powell went to high school in West Covina, California, where he placed second in the 1981 CIF high jump. When he transferred to UCLA from UC Irvine he was ranked 10th in the world for long jump. During his senior year at UCLA, Powell was ranked first, but was sidelined by an injury. After graduation, Powell competed in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul where he won the long jump silver medal. He continued to compete, although Carl Lewis was considered the favorite, a rivalry that served to motivate Powell.
Powell set the world record in the long jump jumping 29’4.50” at the 1991 World Outdoor Championships in Tokyo, breaking Bob Beamon's record set at Mexico City’s 1968 Olympics by two inches. The win also delivered Carl Lewis’ first loss in 10 years.
Powell went on to win silver again at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. During his long jump career Powell won two World Championships, two Olympic silver medals and six United States Championships. His long jump winning streak reached 34.
Powell’s world record has stood for 26 years. He retired after the 1996 Olympics to begin a coaching career and has expressed interest in coaching the athlete who will break his record. Powell was inducted into USA’s Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2005.
When Channing Dungey was named president of ABC Entertainment Group, she became the first African American woman to hold that title at any major broadcast TV network.
Dungey graduated magna cum laude from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT). She has said, “I was encouraged to try everything and get experience with all the disciplines — screenwriting, editing, cinematography. I learned so much about the process of working and collaborating with others. And that’s really inspired me along the way.”
After graduating from UCLA TFT she began her entertainment career as a story editor and film producer for Davis Entertainment. Her hands on training began as a story editor at Steamroller Productions, and then a production executive at Warner Bros. She helped develop successful films including “Bridges of Madison County” and “On Deadly Ground.”
While working in film, Dungey realized that she wanted to spend her free time watching television instead of going to movies. Growing up she and her younger sister, the actress Merrin Dungey who has a theater degree from UCLA, loved watching television. Before the family owned a VCR, they would audiotape programs to listen to later, and then would plan their television viewing schedules each week.
Dungey also made the transition to television in her professional life, accepting a job offer with Touchstone Television. In 2004, she joined ABC Studios where she was responsible for the development and acquisition of shows including “Private Practice” and “Criminal Minds.” She worked her way up through the drama development departments, rising to executive vice president, drama development, movies and miniseries, where she oversaw a successful group of shows including “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Once Upon a Time.” She was promoted to president of ABC Entertainment Group in 2016.
Dungey is a founding member of the nonprofit Step Up Women’s Network, and is dedicated to strengthening community resources for women and girls.
Russell Westbrook is the 2017 NBA MVP, following in the footsteps of fellow Bruins, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ’69 and Bill Walton ’74, to achieve this honor.
Born in Long Beach, California, Westbrook entered Leuzinger High School at 5’8” where he was cut from the basketball team his freshman year. The summer before his senior year a growth spurt gave him an edge at 6’3”. That year he averaged 25 points per game and was offered a scholarship to play for UCLA by Bruins head coach Ben Howland.
Westbrook wore number 0 throughout his career at UCLA. In his first year, UCLA advanced to the Final Four, but lost. That summer Westbrook increased his workout intensity and improved his game. By the end of his second year, Westbrook decided to enter the 2008 NBA draft and was selected fourth by the Seattle SuperSonics, who soon relocated to become the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Westbrook is a seven-time NBA All-Star, and has twice led the league in scoring. In 2017, he became one of only two players ever to average a triple-double for an entire season. With 42 triple-doubles in a single season (2016-17), he set a new league record. He has represented the U.S. National team twice, and won gold in the 2012 Olympics with Team USA.
Westbrook is known for his sartorial choices, expressing his personality through his clothes. He sits in the first row at fashion shows and designs a line of clothes for Barneys.
He met his wife, Nina Earl Westbrook ‘11 at UCLA, where she played for UCLA Women’s Basketball. They were married in 2015.
Westbrook gives back to the community through The Russell Westbrook Why Not? Foundation, named after the motto that he credits with bringing him success. Westbrook also continues to support UCLA, and made the largest donation ever received from a former UCLA basketball player to help build the Mo Ostin Basketball Center.
Jessica Watkins was chosen by NASA to join the 2017 astronaut candidate class, a childhood dream come true. In elementary school Watkins attended the Judith Resnik School, named for an astronaut killed in the Challenger explosion, and was inspired by Resnick’s story to become an astronaut herself.
Watkins attended Stanford for her undergraduate degree, where she enrolled as a mechanical engineering major. Disillusioned by her studies but unwilling to give up her dream, she discovered a passion for planetary geology and changed her major but did not abandon her dream. Also a talented athlete, she played on Stanford’s women’s rugby team, and the USA Rugby women’s sevens team, going to the rugby World Cup semifinals in 2009.
Watkins earned her Ph.D. in geology from UCLA studying landslides on Mars and Earth. A dedicated scholar, she won the UCLA Chancellor’s Prize and her department’s Harold and Mayla Sullwold Scholarship for Academic Excellence and Outstanding Original Research. She has worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and on the Curiosity rover at the California Institute of Technology.
Watkins is one of 12 candidates chosen by NASA from 18,300 applicants for a two-year astronaut training program at Johnson Space Center in Houston. The program will cover all aspects of space exploration. She will learn about the International Space Station, train in robotics, experience space walks, and learn Russian and flight training. Watkins will then work in the Astronaut Office as she waits for her flight assignment.
Watkins is the sixth African American woman to become an astronaut, three of whom have been in orbit. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, is among Watkins’ heroes. Watkins was quoted as saying, “What she provided for me was exposure. Being able to see somebody who looks like you in a position or in a role that is something that you aspire to do, I think is really important.” Something she is hoping to do for other girls, “I’m excited about that opportunity, to be that kind of representative, to be able to be somebody that people can look to and see doing cool things, like going to space, and hopefully they will be able to see that that’s something that they can do, too.”