James B. Taylor dies at 89; math teacher was one of L.A. Unified's first black principals

James B. Taylor, one of the Los Angeles Unified School District's first black principals — and a deputy superintendent during an era of integration controversies who lamented the intrusion of politics into education — died of congestive heart failure April 26 at his L.A. home. He was 89.

Taylor, an early advocate of magnet schools, began with the district as a math teacher at John Adams Middle School in the 1950s. He later broke racial barriers when he was appointed principal of predominantly white John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, then returned to South Los Angeles in 1967 to become the first principal of Locke High School.

Eventually, he ascended to the district's No. 2 post, working effectively as its chief operating officer as the debate over busing heated up in the 1970s.

Rita Walters, a former board member and city councilwoman, praised Taylor's "ability to get along with all sorts of folks" despite the bitter integration controversies of the time. "Never did he get angry, just very cooperative with people and tried to reason things through," she said.

Taylor was "in every aspect of his life ... quite measured," said his son Ron Taylor of Los Feliz. "He was a very thoughtful person, and probably by nature cautious."

Taylor's temperament helped him negotiate a period when the school board was becoming a political flashpoint, his son said. Newer members increasingly used it as a springboard for higher office. Taylor worked with them, but he privately regretted the shift.

Wanting to avoid the busing battles seen in other cities, Taylor sought fixes that would bring about racial integration voluntarily and seized early on the idea of magnet schools, his son said.

As the decades passed, Taylor grew to believe that education was becoming too politicized and industrialized, his son said. He regretted the loss of flexibility that came with a divisive new era. "It kind of made him sad, the way public and charter schools are pitted against each other," Ron Taylor said.

James Brainard Taylor was born Jan. 28, 1927, in Los Angeles to William Horace Taylor, a postman and bartender, and his wife, Louise Evangeline Ponder Taylor. He graduated from Manual Arts High School and was a staff sergeant in the Army during World War ll, teaching math to fellow soldiers on the home front.

He earned his bachelor's degree in math from UCLA and his master's in education from USC. At the end of his career in the early 1980s, he used his banked vacation time to return to teaching, volunteering as a math instructor at John Adams Middle School. "That was really his favorite thing," his son said.

In 2014, Animo James B. Taylor Charter Middle School in Watts was named for him.

Taylor was preceded in death by his wife, Jane Carolyn Johnson Taylor, who had been his high school sweetheart. He is survived by five children, nine grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

jill.leovy@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on May 07, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "JAMES B. TAYLOR, 1927 - 2016 - One of L.A.'s first black principals" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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