Nelle Becker Slaton dies at 88; educator promoted science studies for minorities
By By Elaine Woo
Dec 21, 2009 | 12:00 AM
Nelle Becker Slaton, a longtime educator and co-founder of groups promoting science education for minority students and advanced degrees for African Americans, died of natural causes Dec. 1 at her Los Angeles home. She was 88.
The death was confirmed by her daughter, Shell Amega.
Slaton, who taught elementary school in Los Angeles for 35 years, founded Community Science Workshops Inc. in 1961 with her chemist husband, William. The program began in their living room and eventually served 200 students a year in small classes that provided hands-on lessons in physics, rocketry, chemistry, electronics and other subjects.
The Slatons operated the program for nine years until it was adopted by the California Museum of Science and Industry (now the California Science Center, in Exposition Park). It evolved into the science center's Hands-On Summer Camp which is one of the institution's oldest and most popular education programs, enrolling 3,000 kindergarten-through-8th-grade students each year.
In 1981, Slaton and two friends launched the Assn. of Pan African Doctoral Scholars to provide extra support to African Americans enrolled in doctoral programs. The group, which is still active, has guided nearly 300 black students toward doctorates by providing mentors, scholarships and an annual colloquium where they could gain experience presenting their research to experts in their fields.
"She always saw the big picture," said Marion Maddox, a longtime Los Angeles Southwest College instructor who co-founded the doctoral scholars group with Slaton and psychologist Sandra Cox. "That big picture was the need for education in the black community, the desperate need for advanced education."
The daughter of a lawyer and a schoolteacher-playwright, Slaton was born Aug. 31, 1921, in Providence, R.I. She earned a degree in occupational therapy from New York University in 1946 and worked briefly as a reporter for the California Eagle, a progressive black-owned newspaper, before obtaining a teaching credential from Cal State Los Angeles in 1952. In 1959 she began teaching elementary school in the Los Angeles school district. She also worked as a multicultural education coordinator.
When she was in her 60s, she enrolled in a doctoral program at Claremont Graduate University and wrote her dissertation on the role of oral tradition in learning to read. She earned her doctorate in education and sociolinguistics in 1988 when she was 67 and continued to teach elementary school until she retired at 75.
Described by friends as a quiet but determined, even stubborn, woman, Slaton doggedly researched her family history over the course of 30 years to find out if stories she had heard about an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War were true. She discovered records proving that she was descended from Daniel Perry, a Native American of the Narragansett tribe who belonged to the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, a unit of the Continental Army that had several companies of African American soldiers.
Her research enabled her to apply for membership in Daughters of the American Revolution, the nonprofit historic preservation society that for much of its history had excluded blacks from its ranks. Slaton was admitted in 1996 and was believed to be the first African American member on the West Coast, said Alice Magner, a past president of the organization's Hollywood chapter, where Slaton held a number of offices.
In addition to her husband and daughter, Slaton is survived by two sons, Glenn and Baxter; two brothers, Adolph Eric Becker and Dr. Leslie Earl Becker; and five grandchildren.
Memorial donations may be sent to the Nelle Becker Slaton Scholarship at the Assn. of Pan African Doctoral Scholars, c/o Juanita Coleman Merritt, 1506 S. Genesee Ave., Los Angeles CA 90019.