How Tarea Hall Pittman became ‘the best known Negro woman in California’

Tarea Hall Pittman was civil rights worker and activist in California from the 1930s through the 1970s.

Her parents’ families immigrated from the South to Bakersfield near the close of the 1800s. They were among the first black families to settle in Bakersfield. Her father and his brothers founded the local chapter of the NAACP.

The Halls were a family of great talkers. Family dinners inevitably led to passionate debates about issues in the community. Uncle Mansion, president of the Bakersfield NAACP, held everyone spellbound with his mighty voice.

The community had worked together to establish the high school Tarea attended, Kern County Union High School. All the students from the area were bussed there– some from 30 and 40 miles away. Because all the resources were centralized to one school, the education was impeccable, with multiple languages and advanced programs for academics.

The school was intended to be an oasis from the racial prejudiced that pervaded Bakersfield. Tarea’s mother recalled walking past trees as a child, and seeing bodies of Mexican immigrants hanging from the branches.

One of her first brushes with activism came during college as a member of Delta Sigma Theta. So small they couldn’t afford a photo in the school annual, the sorority also suffered the ignominy of being refused admittance by the Interfraternity Council. They said they couldn’t admit anyone who didn’t have their own house. The sisters knew what they really objected to was the color of the members. The rules said all they needed were sufficient grade point averages, which they had. They petitioned Dean of Women Lucy Stebbins. She supported them. The IFC was eventually obliged to accept members of their sorority to the board.

An early teaching position found her managing a class of 49 fifth-graders in a portable building. Her class was mostly poor black students, and the children of Mediterranean immigrants. Fresh out of school, she wrangled dozens of attention spans, most of whom only understand a fraction of what she was saying. She could have asked for no better conditions with which to learn how to make herself heard.

As much as she enjoyed teaching, and relished the opportunities to improve her students’ lives, she gradually realized it wasn’t what she wanted. She began looking for a way to help people that didn’t require being stuck in a classroom all day.

316598d757e63c102994529ef70ed7a8.pngShe turned to social work and community activism, becoming active in the NAACP and California State Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and served as president from 1936–1938. During her term, she worked with the Fanny Wall Children’s Home and Day Nursery in Oakland to help it achieve the state standards required for foster homes. Pittman said her time working with the Home inspired her to eventually pursue a degree in social work, so she could speak authoritatively on matters affecting black families. Advocating for matters affecting the welfare of black children and families would become a cornerstone of her career as an activist.

During the mid-1930s, she helped establish the National Negro Congress on the West Coast. In 1935, the group began broadcasting a program called “Negroes in the News” about positive black activities and accomplishments in the Bay Area in an attempt to combat prevailing negative reports about black Americans. When the organization decided to abandon the project several months later, Pittman worked with other activists to continue it, serving as its host, and becoming a well-known area radio personality for the next four decades.

download.jpgWhile pursuing her social work studies in the 1940s, she called upon the compassion she developed for immigrants acclimating to a strange land while working for the Richmond Travelers Aid Society during World War II. They helped black migrant workers looking for shipyard jobs settle into the area. It was eye opening. Women sometimes did not know their husband’s legal name, accustomed to calling him by a family nickname, which made finding his address or place of employment a Herculean task. She found herself picking her way over loose boards laid in a line as a path through the mud flats that surrounded her client’s homes. All the same, Tarea liked it better than teaching. She was actually working with people helping to solve their problems.

After the war, she was a leading figure in agitating for public childcare, fair employment practices, and fair housing legislation. As black women were often obligated to work outside the home to help support the family, and could not always rely on relatives to watch their children, black families were absolutely dependent on accessible, affordable childcare facilities. When state officials attempted to reduce, or even eliminate altogether, funds for childcare, Pittman and other members of the California Council of Negro Women worked alongside activists throughout the state to pressure legislators for expansion of the state’s childcare program. As a result, in 1957, California established a one-of-a-kind permanent childcare program.

That same decade, she became California’s first full-time lobbyist for fair employment practices. After the inauguration of labor-sympathetic Governor Edmund G. Brown, the state legislature passed a bill establishing a Fair Employment Commission, thereby creating a state agency dedicating to prohibiting discrimination in the workplace. With Pittman as regional director of the NAACP from 1961 to 1965, the organization spent much of the 1960s fighting for fair housing laws.

76838a089c562192aeafcc3c617e87aa.jpgAlthough Pittman officially retired when she left the NAACP, she continued to take short-term positions with activist agencies. In 2015, a community group undertook to have the South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library renamed in her honor. It was a rare recognition, considering the library’s long-standing policy of not naming buildings after individuals. However, Tarea Hall Pittman was a rare individual. As C.L. Dellums, know for his leadership in both the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the NAACP said of her, “I have never known anyone with more energy, enthusiasm, dedication to any cause that Ty believed in and participated in.”


Ellison Langford, Guest Blogger
Ellison Langford is an independent historian living in Gainesville, FL. You can follow her work about women’s experiences during World War II on Twitter and Instagram @RealRosieWWII

Sources:

Fousekis, Natalie. Pittman, Tarea Hall (1903–1991). SAGE Knowledge. The University of Florida. September 2013.

Orenstein, Natalie. After long wait, Tarea Hall Pittman Library gets sign to match new name. Berkeleyside. 24 Oct 2017, online.

Pittman, Tarea Hall. “Tarea Hall Pittman.” Interview by Joyce Henderson. Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Berkeley. 1974.

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