Bobbie Lee Holmes dies at 84; teacher challenged neighbors' racism

Bobbie Lee Holmes, a Los Angeles public school teacher who won an early victory for fair housing in California when she and her husband used the courts to challenge the racism of their Pacoima neighbors, died Sept.19 in Petaluma. She was 84.

The cause was complications from heart and

kidney disease

, said her son, Emory Holmes II.

In 1959, Holmes and her husband, Emory, moved with their three children from an integrated neighborhood on the east side of Pacoima to an all-white section a few miles away. She was a teacher in the Los Angeles city schools and her husband was a research scientist for Rand Corp., but their new neighbors did not welcome them because they were African American.

Malicious callers phoned the Holmes' house on Remington Street from morning to night. The family received unsolicited visits at odd hours from insurance salesmen, an undertaker, a veterinarian, an exterminator and various repairmen.

Rocks were thrown through their windows. Burning crosses appeared on their lawn. Tacks were scattered on the driveway around their cars, which were pelted with eggs. One night an ugly message was painted on a wall in front of their house: "Black Plague, Don't let it spread."

This "bizarre campaign of aggravation and intimidation" was not an uncommon experience for blacks in Los Angeles at the time, according to

Cal State Northridge

history professor Josh Sides, who wrote about the Holmeses in his 2004 book "L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present."

What was unusual was that Holmes and her husband fought back. In 1960 they

. The harassment stopped and they remained in the neighborhood for 20 years. Over time, their son said, they became good friends with some of the neighbors who had been among their bitterest antagonists.

Holmes was born in Trinity, Ala., on Feb. 11, 1927, and grew up under segregation. At a time when it was illegal to educate an African American student after the sixth grade, she dreamed of becoming a teacher and artist. In the early 1950s, she earned a teaching credential and a bachelor's degree in home economics from what is now Tennessee State University.

While living in Nashville, she pushed to enroll her children in an all-white Catholic school and integrated it in 1954, the same year that the

U.S. Supreme Court

outlawed school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education.

Her husband, whom she married in 1945, had moved to Santa Monica in 1953 to work for Rand. She saved enough money to follow him with their children in 1955.

In addition to her son, she is survived by two daughters, Evangeline Bolton and Denise Kennedy, and four grandchildren.

She taught elementary school in the Los Angeles school district from 1957 to 1979. After her husband became dean of student services at the UC San Francisco medical school in 1981, she taught in the Cotati-Rohnert Park and Petaluma school districts in Sonoma County.

She retired from teaching in 1993.

After her husband's death in 1995, she studied art and received a degree from Santa Rosa Junior College in 2000. In 2007 she completed a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Cal State Sonoma. At 80, she was the oldest graduate in her class.