William J. Oakes - A Unifying Principal


“Principal Oakes started the Boys Club because he believed in us, even though he was white and most of us were African-American. We alumni believe in today’s kids, who are predominately Hispanic. Like Mr. Oakes, we don’t see color. We see kids.”  - BGCGSD Alum Dean Hancock

In an era in which race often drove people apart, Memorial Junior High School (now Memorial Preparatory for Scholars and Athletes) brought folks together. Located in the heart of Logan Heights at 2850 Logan Avenue, the school’s student body was comprised primarily of African-Americans and Caucasians, with a growing Mexican-American population as well as other nationalities.

Memorial, part of San Diego City Schools (now San Diego Unified School District), was led by a principal with strong principles: William J. Oakes. Oakes was persistent in pursuing his goal of creating a Boys Club to enrich his students’ lives.

An educator who also held a law degree, Oakes served as Vice Principal of Sherman Elementary School from 1921-1931, and as Principal of Memorial from 1931 until his death in 1953. It would not be until the early 1960s that a black director, Hal Jackson, took the reins of the clubhouse. But in the 1930s, with a white establishment prevailing in San Diego, a Caucasian who felt an empathetic connection to his students of all colors was arguably the right man in the right place at the right time.

As busy as he was running a school and raising a family, Oakes always made time to propel the Club’s creation forward with great perseverance (but not always patience – he was eager to keep the ball rolling and not afraid of speaking his mind to attain his goal). He met with BCA representatives while attending out-of-town conferences, worked late into the night on the project for years, and self-effacingly never sought publicity.

Excerpt from our new "Against The Grain"  book. 

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