One of Oakland's earliest educators was a woman born in the East but who dramatically changed the racial composition of California schools. Elizabeth Thorne Scott Flood was born free in 1828 in the state of New York. She was educated in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a town known for its political activism. She married Joseph Scott and together they emigrated to California during the Gold Rush and settled in Placerville. Her husband, who worked as a gold miner, died shortly after their arrival, leaving Elizabeth to raise their young son Oliver alone. In the early 1850s she and Oliver moved to Sacramento which had a sizable African American population. When Oliver was barred from attending the local public school, Elizabeth responded by establishing a private school in her home to educate her son and other African American children. This school opened on May 29, 1854. Elizabeth was paid $50 a month by the parents of her pupils. Before long, she was also welcoming Native American and Asian American children into her school.
The following year the Sacramento school board accepted Elizabeth’s school into its district, but only as a segregated institution, refusing to provide public funds for its administration. Elizabeth accepted this arrangement, but she never stopped fighting for equal educational opportunities for children of color. That year she joined dozens of other African American advocates of votings rights, educational access, and judicial rights who convened in Sacramento for the first annual Colored State Convention. At these conventions African Americans of all political stripes strategized on ways to lobby the state legislature for better representation, civil rights protections, and educational funding.
That same year Elizabeth married her second husband Isaac and moved with him, Oliver, and Isaac’s son to Brooklyn, a small but thriving community across the lake from Oakland. The couple opened a school in 1857 at their home at 1334 East 15th Street where they taught the community’s African American children who, at the time, had no access to the city’s public schools. Having insufficient funds to purchase textbooks for the students, Elizabeth designed the curriculum herself.
In a few short years, the Flood family grew with three more children. The Flood’s son George is believed to be the first African American child born in Alameda County. Elizabeth and Isaac Flood were not only one of the earliest African American families in the Oakland area, they were also one of the most prominent and progressive. They helped establish Shiloh African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1858. The founders purchased a small, 20’ by 30’ foot redwood building, the old Carpentier School, and had it moved to Seventh and Market Streets in 1863. This building served as both chapel and church-run school where Elizabeth continued to teach. In 1884 a larger, grander church building was erected at West and 15th Streets and renamed the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. For the remainder of the 19th century the Shiloh AME Church was the main African American institution in Oakland.
Elizabeth Scott Flood died prematurely at the age of 39 in 1867. She was survived by Isaac and their five young children. Without a teacher, the school she had founded to educate children of color, was forced to close. A mere five years later the efforts Elizabeth had fought for were finally achieved. California schools would be desegregated by 1880. Oakland schools would be open to all students of all races by 1872, the same year Brooklyn was annexed to Oakland. The Flood children would become some of the first African American children to enroll in California’s integrated schools. When Elizabeth’s daughter Lydia died in 1963 at the age of 101 she had the distinction of being the “oldest living native of Oakland.”
To learn more about Elizabeth Scott Flood and other women pioneers of the West, check out these titles at your local Oakland Public Library:
African American women of the Old West by Tricia Martineau Wagner
Blacks in Oakland, 1852-1987 by Don Hausler
California's Black pioneers: a brief historical survey by Kenneth G. Goode