Florine Washington, an educator who was believed to be the first African American to enroll at what is now California State University, Sacramento, died Saturday, her family said. She was 97.
The granddaughter of a runaway slave, Mrs. Washington brought a rich history to her calling in education. She never had children, devoting herself instead to educating and making a difference in the lives of young people.
She joined the former Del Paso Heights School District in 1954. She expected to teach sixth-graders, but the principal who interviewed her for a job asked her to consider first grade instead.
"I jumped straight up and said I would never touch a first-grade class, but if that was where he wanted to use me, I would do my best," she told The Bee in 1995. "So I did, and I fell in love with that class. There's something about getting kids started."
Mrs. Washington spent 25 years teaching first and second grades and serving as a principal at Fairbanks, Garden Valley and Del Paso elementary schools. For many years after she retired, former students who spotted her in public thanked her for inspiring their dreams, including a group who organized a party for her 80th birthday in 1995.
That was six decades after her first teaching job during the Great Depression in Texas, in the same school she had attended as a youngster. Born in 1915, Florine Hortense Hurdle grew up in Diboll, a tiny mill town in the piney woods of east Texas. Her father was a principal and her mother was a teacher.
She was just out of Prairie View State College in Texas in 1935 when she started teaching in Diboll in the Jim Crow era. The segregated school lacked desks, proper texts and even drinking fountains.
"Kids would bring water to school in jars," she recalled in 1999. "Can you imagine that?"
She met Columbus Washington, a sawmill edger, at a Negro League baseball game and they married in 1937. They moved to Yreka before settling in Sacramento in 1943 in a basement apartment near Southside Park.
Mrs. Washington got a job at McClellan Air Force Base. At night, she joined the first class in 1947 at the newly opened Sacramento State College, on the campus of Sacramento Junior College on Freeport Boulevard.
She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in education at the school known today as CSUS, according to records. In 1999, she was inducted into the International Educators' Hall of Fame as the first African American student to register at CSUS.
In the early 1960s, Mrs. Washington and her husband were among the first African Americans to settle in the Greenhaven neighborhood. She belonged to St. Andrews AME Church for many years and was active in Iota Phi Lambda Sorority Inc. and Les Belles Artes Club Inc.
Her husband died after 43 years of marriage. She lived alone before moving to an assisted-living center about four years ago and attended family reunions held every two years, most recently in 2011.
"She encouraged all of her nieces and nephews to go to school," said her niece Byrolyn McDonald. "She had students who were very successful in life. She prided herself on the fact that young people walked in her door and she was able to touch their lives."
Born: July 31, 1915
Died: May 4, 2013
Services: Funeral, 11 a.m. today at St. Andrew AME Church, 2131 Eighth St., Sacramento
Remembrances: In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Les Belles Artes Club Scholarship, P.O. Box 231431, Sacramento, CA 95823.
Call The Bee's Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @bob_davila.