Jessie Mae Beavers might have been reminiscing about her family, so casual was her manner. How, when she was a girl, the YWCA had separate weeks at summer camp for its black campers. Heck, black Y members in the 1940s and 1950s--no matter where they lived--all had to belong to the same southeast chapter. And when she was at UCLA, Beavers continued conversationally, blacks weren’t allowed to live on campus.
“It was a way of life. Nobody thought anything about it. At UCLA, I was just glad I’d been accepted. But no, girl, I wasn’t bitter then. I’m not bitter now.”
Nevertheless, Beavers is not about to let anyone forget those times. A Tom Bradley appointee to the city’s Human Relations Commission 12 years ago and its president four times, she’s made a lifetime career of involvement with the black scene--its politics, its society, its journalism:
--Head of the commission’s affirmative action committee, she’s drafted and published position papers, held seminars and organized task forces, including leading the 1982 investigation of discriminatory hiring policies in the entertainment industry and its examination of how minorities are portrayed in movies and television.
--Executive editor of the Los Angeles Sentinel (the area’s largest black-owned newspaper), she’s been writing (under her maiden name of Jessie Mae Brown) about who’s doing what socially in the black community since she was a student at Los Angeles High School. During the years, both with the California Eagle and, since 1950, the Sentinel, she’s accumulated a slew of awards from journalism organizations.
--She’s a 30-year member and past president of the Lullaby Guild, a support group to the Childrens Home Society, and active in Links, the prestigious service organization, which every fall conducts a large debutante ball for young black women, and the sororities Iota Phi Lambda and Alpha Kappa Alpha. She’s attended the Second Baptist Church since girlhood and, in 1978, chaired the Women’s Day Committee, which as part of its celebration had the Paul R. Williams-designed church declared a historical monument by the Los Angeles City Cultural Heritage Board.
--Both she and her husband, LeRoy A. Beavers, are from old Los Angeles families. Her husband’s uncle was George A. Beavers, one of the co-founders of the nation’s largest black-owned insurance company, Golden State Life Insurance. LeRoy Beavers, now retired from management, began his career at the family firm and in the mid-1960s was among the first blacks hired by white-owned Equitable Insurance. He subsequently became its first black agency manager, running the Century City office. The couple, married 37 years, have three children: Deborah, 34, a project director with the city Parks and Recreation Department who is married to a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Arthur Ross, and has a son, Arthur, 3; LeRoy III, 30, a private consultant specializing in entrepreneurship, and Kimberly, 26, a teacher at an L.A. Unified School District magnet school, who is married to another teacher, Paul Noble.
Jessie Mae Beavers is a high-energy person who’s up at 6:30 every morning to walk briskly while her husband and son jog three miles around the Dorsey High School track. By 7:30 a.m. she is back home in Lafayette Park, getting dressed and ready to proceed with a day of meetings, bouts at the typewriter, luncheons and social functions. She has no concept of slowing down, and her age is the one question she won’t answer directly. Rather, she’ll respond, “To give you an idea when I came along, I remember listening to ‘Myrt and Marge’ on the radio.” (It was a popular show of the 1930s.)
But age has undoubtedly given her a certain sense of perspective. Although she belongs to a few racially mixed organizations and serves as vice chairman of the county Music and Performing Arts Commission, she conceded that it is by design that she has focused her life in the black community.
“I was born in it. But I’ve chosen it. I’m dedicated to volunteer service, and I’ve always felt there was a job for me to do in working with the women here. That’s why I’ve stayed with the paper too. I saw I could be an example as well as cover what we were doing. And I’ve enjoyed it. And I feel I’ve made a contribution.”
That sense of perspective also extends to her views on human rights. Take one recent afternoon after a commission meeting. Even as she was declaring that affirmative action is still the hot subject and muttering about Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (who has provoked considerable controversy with his statement that “black leaders and civil rights supporters are practicing a ‘new racism’ by promoting preferential treatment for minority group members”), Beavers was also musing about how funny it is that things that once seemed so vital can become distant memories.
Such as red-lining, restrictive covenants and segregation in general. “It took a struggle to bring us to this point. For years, all we had was the voice of the black press, the strength of the black church. The black pioneers in this city. They really worked to bring us where we are today.
“And the Human Relations Commission, it’s here to provide those little reminders to keep us on the right track. The commission,” she said, leaning forward in a cracked vinyl chair at the commission office in City Hall, “is for all the things that tend to make life beautiful. The Human Relations Commission was set up to see that human relations are respected. It’s a sounding board reminding people to respect each other, to try to be fair.”
The Human Relations Commission operates under the mayor’s office and makes its reports directly to the City Council. It is staffed only by a full-time executive secretary and part-time secretary. Besides the nine commissioners, there are 27 advisory people plus a slew of volunteers who, Beavers said, are indispensable for both help and complaints. If the description of the commission as “a sounding board” indicates a certain impotency, Beavers counters that since the commission has the power to subpoena, it indeed has considerable power.
It also has considerable interests: initiating the Los Angeles City/County Indian Commission, annual Human Relations Week luncheons, the monthly salutes to volunteers (which since 1978 have brought more than 2,100 men and women from throughout Los Angeles to the ceremony at City Hall), the annual commission-Bank of America essay contest for L.A. city schoolchildren. This year, the commission co-sponsored with USC the recent “L.A. 2000" conference, from which reports will be sent to the City Council for future education, transportation and human relations planning.
Beavers smiled. “You’ve heard the expression ‘yard by yard, it’s hard. Inch by inch, it’s a cinch’? Well, in this commission, we practice inch by inch.”
It’s deceptive, this way Beavers has of always accentuating the positive, never seeming to feel anger or hostility over what she considers unfair situations. Rather, her manner was matter-of-fact, even wry, as she declared that “the Reagan Administration is cutting back on national directives. But locally the problems that cause the need for it are still prevalent.”
Many, she readily acknowledged, have no quick answers--or no longer do. Ten years ago, for instance, she wouldn’t have thought twice about bilingual ballots. It was a good idea. Now she’s not so sure.
Need Starting Point
Beavers is conscious of a pull. “It’s not always easy. By fighting for some groups, you’re not getting it for others. . . . Some people are against quotas, time schedules. I can understand that. But minorities are so far behind, how else can we catch up? We need to have a starting point. Some people don’t think there’s a need for redressing past ills. I do. But there should be an ending point.
“When? Well, and I’m including women as a minority as well as ethnics, as long as we’re not given fair and equal treatment we’re going to have to play catch up.”
The answer? “It gets down to a moral thing, a consideration of what’s just plain right.”
That moral thing--to Beavers, it’s as certain within her as good table manners or knowing how to cook or the assurance that your family will always be there if you need them. It’s the way she was reared--"even thinking about my youth is pleasant"--her father a cement contractor, her mother a real estate agent who always kept her license, her seven brothers and sisters who all grew up to be “good Angelenos,” and to this day all are close. It came from knowing exactly what was expected of you.
“In my day, life revolved around the church. My mother held that well-bred people did not discuss religion, politics or age, but you still read the newspaper every day just so you knew what was going on (on segregation and other injustices). . . . You didn’t get too hung up on any of it. The important thing was trying to live a good life, to do the right thing.”
Except for discussing religion and politics, none of this has changed. What has changed, Beavers observed, are the options.
She sighed. Her children--all young people for that matter--life for them is so different. “Many blacks today don’t even know anything about the Eastside. They don’t know where it is. So much more is offered young people today. They live in a fast lane, and to keep up with them, you’ve got to live in the fast lane too. You’ve got to adjust to all that’s going on.
“But when it comes to the moral side of a question,” she wanted it made clear, “what’s right is what’s right. And that’s what you’ve got to do.”