Leola Havard was born on April 3, 1920, in Ethel Louisiana (Obituary). Leola moved to California after graduating from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She followed after her father and brother and moved to San Francisco where she would spend her life and raise her family. In a personal interview with Havard’s son Jerome, he recalls that Leola’s father and brother worked at a shipyard during the war while she worked at the treasury department. Jerome also mentioned that Leola wanted to be a teacher ever since she was a child. Her intention was to get a teaching credential at San Francisco State University.
At this time San Francisco State was hesitant to recognize Southern University’s credentials, so they refused to accept Leola’s degree. They wanted her to retake remedial courses in an attempt to prevent her from attending the university. This didn’t stop her, however.
Jerome remembers the story of his mother and aunt taking the bus to Sacramento to lobby the governor on Havard’s behalf. The governor proceeded to make a few calls and write a letter to San Francisco State University to ensure that Leola could pursue graduate work at the institution. At San Francisco State, Havard was a charter member of the Beta Nu chapter of Phi Delta Kappa, the teachers’ fraternity.
In 1949, after earning her teaching credentials, Leola began working for San Francisco Unified School District. She taught at Patrick Henry, Geary, and McKinley Schools. After many years of dedication, she was promoted to the position of vice-principal. She served at Marshall Annex and Starr King Elementary as the first female African American administrator in the San Francisco Unified School District. She finished off her career as principal at John Muir Elementary School, where she would retire in 1979.
According to her son Jerome, even in retirement Leola remained an active community member. She was an invested member in her church and actually became the first female chair of the board of trustees for the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco. She was also a lifelong member of the NAACP as well as the National Council of Negro Women. Additionally, she was involved with the Madam CJ Walker Home for Young Women, an organization that took in African American women new to the city at a time when they were excluded from places like hotels.
Leola Havard was the first African American woman to serve as a Principal in the San Francisco Unified School District.
In 2011, Leola Havard was officially recognized for her work in education by the renaming of the Burnett Child Development Center. Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown discovered disturbing information about former California governor Peter Burnett. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Rev. Brown discovered that Peter Burnett was a driving force for the exclusion of black communities and the eradication of Native Americans. Through efforts from Rev. Brown and the NAACP, the school was renamed in Havard’s honor.
The Leola M. Havard Early Education School remains as a lasting legacy of a woman who was dedicated to her community and who was a pioneer for education. San Francisco Unified School District Board members said of the name change: “We want [students] to know and be proud of who their school is named after.” Leola Havard fought the odds by becoming the first female African American principal in the San Francisco Unified School District. Rachel Norton, on the Board of Education, described the renaming ceremony as a “community celebration.” The San Francisco Bayview wrote that “Community members attended the meeting in full force to show their support.” The community came to the event dressed in red to celebrate Havard’s favorite color and to express her important role as an educator in San Francisco.
Leola Havard passed away on May 22, 2018. She is still remembered as a woman who was able to break barriers and who worked to change the status quo. Her legacy lives on through the many students that she helped throughout the duration of her career. Havard’s refusal to take no for an answer has paved the way for many others. Her commitment and dedication to education helped to shape the values of the San Francisco school system.
— Madison Owens and Ben Hamblin
“Burnett Child Development Center to Be Renamed Leola M. Havard Early Education School after District’s First African American Female Principal.” San Francisco Bay View. 14 May 2011.
“Jerome Havard Remembers His Mother, Leola.” Interview by Ben Hamblin.
Personal interview. 5 Feb 2017.
Norton, Rachel. “Posts about Leola Havard.” Rachel Norton: SF Board of Education. 12 Apr 2011.
“San Francisco school swaps out name of racist California governor.” The Mercury News. 20 May 2011.