Riverside Unified School District’s first African American teacher, Dr. Hazel Hawkins-Russell, passed away on Friday at the age of 93.
Dr. Russell broke Riverside’s color barrier in education in 1947, and since then has touched the lives of thousands of students in elementary school, junior high, and college at California State University at Fullerton and Riverside Community College.
In a February 2015 Voice exclusive, Dr. Russell said she knew her journey would not be easy when, in the summer of 1947, she walked into the office of the district’s Assistant Superintendent Ray Berry, and he asked her, “what made you think you could be a teacher?”
During the interview with Berry, Dr. Russell sold herself so successfully that she secured his blessing. However, area schools did not jump at the opportunity to hire her. She secured her first teaching job at Casa Blanca Elementary, primarily because the principal was having difficulties filling teaching positions at the time.
As a forerunner in the Riverside Unified School District (RUSD), Dr. Russell faced her share of resistance as the district’s first Black teacher. She told The Voice that she knew “If she didn’t break down the door, who would?”
Students who attended school in RUSD benefited from Dr. Russell’s commitment to teaching for more than 27 years. During her tenure, she taught elementary and junior high school. She also consulted for the Pupil Services Department where she worked with students who struggled with disciplinary issues.
Over the years, Dr. Russell served as a tenured professor at Cal State Fullerton in the Department of Sociology & Human Relations, and later as an Adjunct Professor at Riverside Community College where she taught Black History and Sociology.
Dr. Russell was bestowed numerous honors: In 1997, she was honored by Congressman Ken Calvert for her commitment to education and the children of Riverside County. She was awarded the ACIRE Presidents Award, the YWCA Award for Outstanding Community Leadership, a certificate for outstanding service at the First National Human Relations Conference, the Derby Club Outstanding Black Woman Inland Area Trophy, as well as the Ida Louise Jackson Graduate Achievement Award presented by Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Dr. Russell continued to serve the cause of education until her retirement at the age of 88.
The Voice/Black Voice News joins the community in celebrating the life and mourning the loss of an icon, Dr. Hazel Hawkins-Russell, who led the way to integration in education for the Riverside community.