In 1849, a black man walked into a one-room schoolhouse in Ohio with his son, Ed.
“What’s the matter with this damn schoolhouse that they won’t take Ed?” he said when he confronted the white schoolmaster. “Ed has got to get in!”
His words rang for generations of his family, particularly his great-granddaughter, Ann Shaw.
“I grew up with the understanding that I was responsible … for not opening doors but for putting my foot in the door, holding them wide open for others to pass through,” Shaw, who cut a wide swath across Los Angeles as a civic leader for five decades, said when she recounted the story more than a century later.
Her grandfather Ed “got in,” and so did she: She earned degrees from three universities, including USC, as well as a seat at the table of influential charitable, community and political organizations during an era when minorities rarely penetrated the city’s elite circles.
Shaw, the first African American to head the YWCA of Greater Los Angeles and the only woman on the California Commission on Judicial Performance when it investigated the court of Chief Justice Rose Bird, died of natural causes May 5 at her Los Angeles home, said her daughter, Valerie Shaw. She was 93.
During her civic career, Shaw mingled with Ahmansons, Chandlers and other members of L.A.'s upper crust. Her husband, Leslie N. Shaw, was a banker who in the 1960s served six years as the city’s postmaster, the first black to be named to the position.
His prominence opened some doors, but Shaw made it her business to demonstrate that she was qualified to lead.
“Women of that generation of any color did not have the vision, the opportunity or the determination to be part of corporate America, the foundation world,” said Lydia Kennard, former executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, which operates Los Angeles International Airport, “but Ann sat on boards and engaged in a variety of business activities. She was not just window dressing but a contributor and very committed.”
Elected president of the Los Angeles YWCA in 1963, Shaw led the charge to persuade its board of 50 middle-class white women to start a job training program for an area with a large number of poor black families.
“I do think at the time my race helped me,” Shaw said in a 1993 oral history for the California Social Welfare Archives at USC, because the white board members did not want to appear racist by opposing the proposal. “I might say that’s about the only time that racism ever worked to my advantage.”
The Y won a federal grant to launch the program in 1965, just a few months before the Watts riots laid bare the economic hardships of the region it would serve.
Fifty years later, it is one of the largest Job Corps programs in the nation, according to Faye Washington, president and chief executive of YWCA of Greater Los Angeles, who considered Shaw a mentor.
“How she moved into a room, what she said, her demeanor, made her someone you wanted to be,” Washington said. “You don’t have to give up being lady to be a leader. That is what I learned from Ann Shaw.”
Margaret Ann White was born in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 21, 1921. Her father, P. Daniel White, ran a funeral home at a time when few blacks owned businesses. Her mother, Sarah Roberts White, was active in the local Episcopal Church and the segregated branch of the YWCA.
When her mother became ill, Shaw moved to Los Angeles to live with an aunt. She graduated from Jefferson High School and attended the University of Redlands on a scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in speech in 1943. “I had a lisp,” she told The Times when the paper named her one of its Women of the Year in 1969. “I fixed it. I decided if I could fix mine, I could fix somebody else’s.”
The following year she received a master’s degree in speech from Ohio State University, where she met Leslie Shaw. They were married in 1947 and settled in Los Angeles a few years later.
She applied to be a speech teacher in the Los Angeles school district but was not hired despite passing the eligibility exam three times. She was told she was overqualified but suspected that race was a factor.
As her husband’s career took off, she turned to volunteer work. In 1963, the year Leslie was appointed Los Angeles postmaster by President Kennedy, Shaw began the first of two terms as YWCA president.
Two years later, in the wake of the Watts riots, she helped lead a committee to ease tensions in the area’s schools. The severity of the problems she was asked to address spurred her to take a graduate course at USC that led her to a master’s in social work in 1968.
Over the next decades she served on many boards, including those of the California Medical Center Foundation, the California Community Foundation, the University of Redlands, the UCLA Medical School Board of Visitors, Lloyds Bank and what is now the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.
Her husband died in 1985, and a son, Leslie Jr., died in 2011. Besides daughter Valerie, she is survived by two other children, Dan and Rebecca; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.