The 19th Century Teacher Who Fought to Give Black Children an Education

On May 29, 1854, a 26-year-old woman opened the doors to her Sacramento home and invited 14 students inside. This simple act—in a humble house on Second Street—established the first private school for African American children in the city.

From these scrappy beginnings, teacher Elizabeth Thorn Scott Flood would go on to change education in Northern California forever.

By the time she opened that first school in Sacramento, Elizabeth had already proven herself incredibly resilient. Two years earlier, she had left Bedford, Massachusetts, traveling by ship across the Isthmus of Panama and onto California, so that her husband Joseph Scott—then a mariner—could become a gold miner. Soon after they had settled in the rowdy mining community of Hangtown (now Placerville), Joseph died suddenly, leaving Elizabeth alone with their newborn son, Oliver. Understanding that Hangtown was not a safe environment for a single mom, she soon made the move to Sacramento.

Elizabeth's quick thinking soon came into play once again, after Oliver was refused entry to the local public school based on the color of his skin. After talking with her equally frustrated neighbors, Elizabeth's determination to open a school grew beyond the necessity of educating her own child and toward bettering the lives of her entire community. The fact that her first 14 students ranged so widely in age, from four to 29, speaks volumes about the exclusion of people of color from the education system at every level.

An itinerary of proceedings for Sacramento's First State Convention of Colored Citizens.
An itinerary of proceedings for Sacramento's First State Convention of Colored Citizens.

Within three months of opening her home to students, Elizabeth was in need of a larger classroom; children of Asian and Native American descent also wanted to enroll. So she moved the school to the basement of St. Andrew's Church on Seventh Street. Within a year, the Sacramento School Board accepted it into the official school district, making Elizabeth's the first African American public school in Sacramento. However, the Board also refused to provide her with any funding, following the example of the rest of the state. (Although the California Constitutional Convention had introduced a tax fund for state schools in 1849, local school boards routinely granted funding to white schools only.) As such, Elizabeth's students agreed to pay tuition of one dollar per week to keep her doors open.

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Meanwhile, Elizabeth herself kept involved in civic matters beyond her school. Upstairs, St. Andrew's hosted Sacramento's first State Convention of Colored Citizens in November 1855. The convention's primary concerns were voting and housing rights, civil rights protections and access to education. Elizabeth was in attendance, as were 49 delegates from 10 California counties.

That same year, she married Isaac Flood, a man 12 years her senior who, unlike Elizabeth, had been born into slavery. Flood had purchased his own freedom, moved to Oakland during the Gold Rush and in 1855 worked as a tradesman. At the time of their meeting, Flood was also a single parent to a young son. The merged family soon moved to the area east of Lake Merritt—then named Brooklyn—into a house on East 15th Street. Elizabeth left the St. Andrew's school in the capable hands of another teacher from Massachusetts, Jeremiah B. Sanderson.

As one of the first African American families to settle in Oakland, the Floods made their presence felt immediately with a series of firsts. In 1857, Elizabeth turned their home into Oakland's first private school for Black children. (She designed the curriculum from scratch.) That same year, the couple's first son together, George, was the first Black baby born in Oakland. The next year, in 1858, the Floods helped establish Oakland's first Black church—the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. When the church moved into a former schoolhouse, Elizabeth taught classes there, too.

The First African Methodist Episcopal Church has been located at 3701 Telegraph Avenue since 1954.
The First African Methodist Episcopal Church has been located at 3701 Telegraph Avenue since 1954. (Google Maps)

In 1866, Elizabeth's fight for better schools began to pay off. Up until then, no laws existed protecting the right of Black children to attend school. The Revised School Law required the establishment of a public school for Black students in any district with ten or more Black children that wanted to attend, or else make allowances for them to join white schools (board of trustees and parents permitting.)

The following year, Elizabeth's campaign for equal education came to a tragic halt when she died suddenly at the age of 39. But her loving husband picked up the baton, later serving as secretary on the Education Committee of the Colored Citizens of California. Crucially, in 1871, he successfully petitioned the Oakland School Board to admit children of color based on the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Finally, in 1880, integrated schools became California law.

Elizabeth and Isaac's youngest child was just five when she lost her mother—but she certainly inherited Elizabeth's determination. Lydia Flood Jackson was one of the first children in Oakland to attend a desegregated school, and went on to be a campaigner for women's suffrage, speaking at the 1918 California State Women's Convention and serving on the board of the Federation of Women’s Colored Clubs.

Elizabeth Thorn Scott Flood dedicated her short life to bucking a status quo that steadfastly refused to serve her people. She understood that the only way to prevail over a system that refuses to serve you is to go outside of it. And she simply set good example after good example until the system decided to finally catch up. Those who remember her rightfully call her the Mother of Desegregated Education. The number of children's lives she transformed is impossible to calculate.

For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here