Monterey County Celebrates Black History Month

 

This year, during Black History Month, we are asked to reflect on the theme of Black Migrations – the literal, historical movement of people of African descent to new destinations, as well as migrations toward new social realities in ever-changing times.

The Civil Rights Office recognizes this year’s theme by honoring the story of a Monterey County community activist, public servant, and civil rights hero, Helen Rucker. Ms. Rucker has led a life of listening to her heart and has inspired many generations to care and fight for civil rights, democracy, and the promotion of love.

On a sunny morning, I arranged to meet Ms. Rucker at her Seaside Office on Fremont Blvd. It’s a small, modest space, that one might walk past without a second glance. However, inside the office, Ms. Rucker reports to work each day making sure she is physically available for any person seeking information or help regarding their civil rights. I asked Ms. Rucker to tell me her story, and she graciously sat with me for two hours doing just that.

During the middle of my conversation with Ms. Rucker, I sat in awe listening to her tell the stories of her life. In a reflection of her 86-year old life, she powerfully stated, “I’ve been proud to be black all my life.” At that moment, it was clear that Ms. Rucker’s life work should not be viewed through the lens of singular accomplishments, but rather admired as a full anthology of a life dedicated to social justice and democracy. 

Ms. Rucker recalled her first experience with racial prejudice and injustice. As a little girl in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she was denied access to use of the public library. She said, “I think I wanted those books, because they told me I couldn’t have them.”  Ms. Rucker was not deterred by segregation – the separation of whites from non-whites – and found ways to attain what she was looking for.

When it came to books, her father would give her a handful of coins to use at a local bookstore. Ms. Rucker would walk the steps down into the basement where she could shop for children’s books. She would carefully examine and decide which one or two books she would purchase. When she made her decision, she walked up the steps to the cashier, and held out all the pennies and nickels she had in her pocket. The cashier would select only a penny or nickel from her hand. It was not until Ms. Rucker was older that she realized she was never fully charged for the books. The white cashier just wanted her to have them. Ms. Rucker recalled this experience as the first time she recognized that not all white people were the same and that some could be kind and strive to treat all people with the same humanity during a time when people of color were generally treated unjustly. 

Ms. Rucker grew up loving books and loving school. She was an avid learner and excelled in her studies. After high school graduation, she attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, completing her degree at just 18 years old. Next, she attended Louisiana State University where she earned the distinction of being the first African-American to earn a Master of Library Science in 1959.  All the while, she spent her time engaged fighting for civil rights. 

Ms. Rucker contributed to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s by learning and exercising civil disobedience – a peaceful form of political protest – to combat blatant and violent acts of racism, holding voter registration information sessions for community members, and being a facilitator during a bus boycott in Louisiana, corresponding to the great Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.

In the 1960s, Ms. Rucker headed west to continue her education. This journey took her to the heart of the Bay Area to Oakland, California. In Oakland, Ms. Rucker continued to live her life surrounded by Black culture and causes. She worked as a librarian at a middle school until she became reacquainted with James Rucker, a military man whom she would marry and move with to Monterey County.

Ms. Rucker described the Monterey County that she first encountered after moving to Fort Ord. She recalled that Seaside was an Army town – small and built for its military population. She was surprised that the same injustices she had faced in the South were apparent in California, a place she had envisioned as beyond the grasp of racism.

Attempting to continue her career in education, she applied for a teaching position with the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. She encountered a white administrative assistant who told her she was not welcome to apply for any open teaching positions, the insinuation being that Ms. Rucker was an “unqualified” candidate simply because of the color of her skin. Ms. Rucker demanded an application and filled it out in the office immediately. She attempted to hand in her application, but the lady would not accept it.

Believing that as soon as she left the office, her application would be thrown in the garbage, Ms. Rucker immediately sought out the first person of color she could find on the street. She asked a gentleman if he knew who the president of the local NAACP – National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – was, and he helped to quickly track down a person with the needed information. That same day, Ms. Rucker was able to locate the president of the Monterey County Branch NAACP. The president made a call to the superintendent of the school district and, within a day, Ms. Rucker had secured an interview, and subsequently was offered a teaching position. 

This inspired Ms. Rucker to start a movement in Monterey County, dedicating herself to spreading knowledge designed to secure civil rights and democracy for all – but especially people of color. Ms. Rucker has served as a teacher, librarian, school board member for Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, city councilmember of Seaside, President of the Monterey County NAACP, and as the founder of the Seaside Voter Education Center. Throughout all these ventures the message is consistent: be engaged in your community, learn the issues, and vote to ensure the reality of your community reflects your truth.

Near the end of our time together, I asked Ms. Rucker to tell me about the proudest moment in her life. Her eyes began to well with tears, and she pointed to a picture of her son and his family. Her son is grown, accomplished, and similarly shares a passion for justice and democracy. She stated that it is evident in every decision he makes.

Recently, she told her son she was proud of him for taking in a family in immediate need of safety and shelter at his home in San Francisco. She asked her son how he and his family came to such a selfless decision. He responded, “This is what you taught me to be.” Ms. Rucker placed her hand to her heart and seemed to let the memory of her son’s statement settle within her soul. She looked at me, nodding her head in assurance and said, “He’s my proudest accomplishment.”

Her parting message is that she hopes to continue setting an example for young people and to teach them how to secure their rights. She says: “Community is so important, and I hope to set an example for the kids… especially the kids.”

Contributed by Elyse Rivas, Associate Equal Opportunity Analyst for the Monterey County Civil Rights Office

For more information regarding the Civil Rights Office, please visit our website.

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