Sylvester Hodges, who died last week, was a parent activist and lifelong civil rights leader who became President of the Oakland School board and led the fight to stop the state from taking over the school district and its financial resources. Despite repeated attempts, the state was never to seize control until Hodges retired from the Board.
Besides serving on the Oakland Board of Education for 12 years, Hodges served as chair of the Paul Robeson Centennial Committee, working successfully to rename the school district administration building in Robeson’s memory. He worked as an administrator for the Cypress Mandela Training Center, training countless Black and Latino young people to overcome the barriers to enter positions in the construction trades. He also served on the board of the Oakland Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, a school he loved because of its unique approach to young people, and he was active in the affairs of McClymonds High School.
Hodges was born on April 30, 1942, and passed away on May 21. He was 78. One of six boys born in Montrose, Arkansas, to Chester and Maggie Hodges, he moved with his family from Arkansas to Oakland, California, in 1946. He attended Prescott Elementary, Lowell Junior High School, and McClymonds High School. He married Lola Ingram in 1965, and the couple had one son.
Hodges became a passionate reader while serving in the U.S. military. He was influenced by “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”.
Hodges became involved in electoral politics as a vehicle to advance the issues affecting African Americans, while he attended Merritt College in Oakland during the late 1960s.
He graduated from California State University, Hayward, (CSUH) in 1969, where he was named to the CSUH Sports Hall of Fame as Most Valuable Wrestler. He worked first for the Oakland Public Schools and then for the recreation department in San Mateo County. He developed an advocacy organization of one hundred East Oakland parents while his son was attending E. Morris Cox Elementary School.
Hodges ran for a seat on the school board and was defeated by the nationally prominent African American minister J. Alfred Smith. When Smith resigned from the board because his school board duties interfered with his church responsibilities, Hodges won the citywide election. Geoffrey Pete, the owner of Geoffrey’s Inner Circle (later Planet Soule) and a co-founder of both the Oakland Black Caucus and Niagara Movement Democratic Club, said of Hodges, “He was the most influential individual in terms of integrating the economic landscape in Oakland”
A major contribution was his successful strategy to prevent the takeover of the Oakland school district by the State of California in 1988.
While a powerful array of state politicians pressured the board to accept a $10 million loan which would have placed Oakland under the fiscal control of the state for 30 years, Hodges and his school board colleague Darlene Lawson argued that the takeover attempt seemed to be “ a power trip for the downtown business interests, who are mostly white.” So, Hodges and Lawson together arranged a form of financing called certificates of participation, which precluded the need for a state loan and prevented the takeover.
In the subsequent decade, Hodges, as chair of the Budget and Finance Committee of the board, led the district to achieve Standard & Poor’s highest bond rating. Because the district maintained local control for an additional 15 years after 1988, the African American majority was able to pursue such important initiatives as increased African American employment and contracting, the rejection of the racially insensitive Houghton Mifflin social studies textbooks, and the affirmation of African American language rights (known as the Ebonics debate). Soon after Hodges retired from the board, the district went into significant debt and was taken over by the State of California in 2003.