ALAMEDA HISTORY: The Alameda High School Strike of 1936

ALAMEDA HISTORY: The Alameda High School Strike of 1936

Jim Pruitt and Kate DeWein

Seventy–six years ago Alameda politics reached a crisis point embroiling City Hall, the schools, the local district attorney and the community in public controversy noted far beyond the Island. The issues were resolved only after a massive student strike. Here is the story.

The November 1934 municipal elections made changes to the city charter and brought in a new slate of City Council members. Voters approved measures to create a police commission empowered to hire for that department and to change the charter to provide for the removal of city department heads by three votes of the council, where previously four votes were required. The new council then selected Hans Roebke as the mayor. Roebke took office in April of 1935 and with a majority behind him installed a new city manager, B. Ray Fritz. The Alameda Times-Star, distrustful of both Fritz and Roebke, editorialized that a “political upheaval” had occurred and that it did not “augur well for the prosperity and advancement of the city.”

The new council immediately started removing city officials. The city attorney, city clerk, director of social services, supervisor of streets and parks and city physician were all replaced by people picked by Fritz and Roebke. The entire membership of the Social Services Board was removed. The head of the Library Board was removed. In that era, the council appointed the school board, and the replacement of one member would have given Roebke a majority.

However, the school board situation complicated things. First, the discharged board member, Donald D. Lum, refused to step down, arguing that his removal was illegal. Second, the board gave one-year employment contracts to 81 department staff to protect their job security.

Council meetings over the next year were long, ill-tempered affairs. In May, fistfights broke out and threats were made. A citizens group began to organize a recall petition against Roebke, launching its effort at an evening meeting in the Haight School auditorium.

There matters stood until March 3, 1936. That night, the City Council again dismissed Lum and directed the board to fire Superintendent of Schools William G. Paden.

Paden was a popular administrator who had taught at Longfellow and Lincoln schools and was well known in the education community throughout California. Matters began to escalate quickly and the next three days were pivotal ones in Alameda history.

On March 4, a delegation of Alameda High School students met with Fritz seeking to persuade him to reverse Paden’s dismissal. The meeting went nowhere. Fritz told the students to give their names and his secretary began to transcribe them. One of the boys snatched the paper from her notebook and Fritz ordered them all to leave.

At the same time, Roebke’s and Fritz’s relations with the police reached a breaking point. Police officers – now acting under the new charter which made them independent of the council – began guarding their department in the basement of City Hall against a takeover by the city manager.

The same day, the student council at Alameda High voted to strike until Paden was reinstated. In bringing forth this vote, the council rebuffed pleas from the acting superintendent who had been called in to replace Paden.

“I’ve never seen such determination,” the Times-Star quoted high school principal George C. Thompson as saying of the student council.

Soon, 2,000 high school students left their classes (see photograph number 1). They picketed City Hall and paraded on Park Street.

Throughout the next three days, the strike was orderly. It was joined by elementary school students from Haight and Lincoln and supported by rallies led by the Dads’ Club and the PTA Council. The Times-Star endorsed the strike. Activities were planned for the students. The Alameda Hotel held dances (see photograph number 2), and the Alameda Theatre gave discounts on movie tickets. Picnics and rallies were held at Neptune Beach.

The athletic director of the high school, Otto Rittler, announced that striking students could still participate on the school’s sports teams. The Times-Star noted that the students refused “to succumb to the appeals of a reported communist.” (This is of interest because later court testimony asserted that two men in the employ of Fritz attempted to distribute fake circulars during the strike to try to show that communists were behind the students’ actions.)

Thousands of Alamedans rallied in front of the high school on the evening of March 5. Student body president Don Morgan reportedly told the crowd:

“Students of Alameda High School do not wish to take part in politics, but if politics are dragged into the education of the students, it becomes necessary for the students to take measures, such as the strike you witnessed today.”

Morgan’s father addressed the crowd, as did Jo Frederick, identified as an officer of the associated student body. Frederick escalated the rhetoric, saying that the strike would continue “until Mr. Paden is back and Fritz is out.” Civic leader Frank Osborne asked the assembly, “Are we going to resurrect the dead of Huey Long of Louisiana and restore him in the form of Fritz here in Alameda?” (Long, the autocratic governor of Louisiana, had been assassinated six months previously.)

For his part, Paden refused to leave his office (see photograph number 3). He and the acting superintendent each appointed the other to the classroom and when neither acquiesced, Paden put in paperwork labeling the acting superintendent absent without leave.

The situation in Alameda came to the attention of Alameda County’s district attorney. Asked to look into the firing of Paden, he issued a finding on March 6 which read in part:

“William G. Paden’s contract was legally entered into on April 6, 1935, for a period of four years. The Board of Education has not the power to summarily dismiss Paden except for some breach in that contract and that has not been charged. William G. Paden is the legally constituted superintendent of Alameda schools and is entitled to his office.”

That evening, at another mass rally in front of Alameda High School, Paden addressed the students.

“Words fail me,” Paden said. “I am proud of you and what you have done. I am going to ask a favor of you – a favor that will mean more to me than all you have done. I am going to ask that you return to school Monday morning. I am your superintendent of schools.”

It was the first step back toward normal life in Alameda.

The student strike of 1936 was won by the students. They were well-organized and solidly supported by their parents, the local media, local businesses and advocates for good government. News of the strike was picked up by the wire services, resulting in front page coverage in the Washington Post, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Closer to home, the Stockton Record opined that:

“It reflects little credit on the public consciousness of Alameda when a lawless crusade of children must call attention to the efforts of the City Council crowd to flout a contract in order to get its tentacles on a school superintendency. The superintendent was reinstated after the youngsters led their elders into the fray.”

The student strike had attracted the district attorney’s interest in Alameda politics and he began investigating corruption in the city government. In June of 1936, he brought charges against Roebke, Fritz and two members of the council.

Fritz was indicted for perjury and subornation of perjury. The case stemmed from charges that Fritz had taken money from the municipal employees association and attempted to persuade the head of the association to lie in court, and Fritz was convicted of the perjury-related charges. On October 1, 1936 he was sentenced to one to 14 years in San Quentin. Late in 1937, Fritz was released on parole.

In July, Roebke, two members of the council and two other officials were indicted for conspiracy to commit bribery and petty theft and other related charges and in August, Roebke and the two councilmen resigned. Roebke and the councilmen pled guilty to conspiracy to commit petty theft. The councilmen received sentences of 100 days in the county jail and Roebke paid a $500 fine because of judicial consideration of his poor health.

Milton C. Godfrey was appointed to the council with other appointments to follow. Lum was returned to the Board of Education.

In the November 1936 municipal elections, the Police Commission was abolished, a new council was elected and a the provision that four council votes were required for removal of city officers was reinstated.

Paden retired from the Alameda superintendency in 1952 after serving 27 years. He then became a professor of history at the University of Pacific and died in 1954. His son, William Paden, was a prominent orthodontist in Alameda as is his grandson, also William Paden, who was born four days after his grandfather’s death.

Milton C. Godfrey later served as mayor of Alameda, as did his son, William Godfrey. (His wife, Ellen Godfrey, as a retired educator, taught one of the writers of this article as a long-term substitute in the fourth grade at Haight School in 1960-61.) Alameda schools and parks are named for Lum, Paden, Rittler and Godfrey, and the football field at McKinley Park is named for Thompson.

The Alameda County district attorney went on to international fame, serving as attorney general of California, governor of California, a Republican nominee for vice president and finally Chief Justice of the United States, where he led the Supreme Court in such decisions as ending school segregation, ensuring the rights of the accused and ending school-sponsored prayer. He headed an historic commission charged with investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His name was Earl Warren.

Photo credits:

Photograph 1: Students leave classes and gather in front of Alameda High School on March 5, 1936. Oakland Tribune, March 5, 1936. Photo by Oakland Tribune Staff, Copyright Bay Area News Group.

Photograph 2: The "Strike Fund Dance" at the Alameda Hotel on Central Avenue. Funds raised by the dance were used to reimburse the students for gasoline and other "strike supplies." Oakland Tribune, March 7, 1936. Photo by Oakland Tribune Staff, Copyright Bay Area News Group.

Photograph 3: Superintendent William G. Paden in his office in defiance of the City Council during the 1936 strike. Courtesy of Dr. William Paden of Alameda, grandson of William G. Paden.

About the Authors

Jim Pruitt lives in Alameda and can be reached at njamespruitt@gmail.com. Mr. Pruitt holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Master of Labor Relations from Michigan State University. He is the Vice President of Labor Relations for the Permanente Federation of Kaiser Permanente and a substitute teacher in Alameda. He attended Haight School from 1957-64.

Kate DeWein lives in Portland, Oregon and can be reached at Kate.DeWein@gmail.com. Ms. DeWein holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Master of Education from the University of Oregon. She is a public school teacher.

Comments

Submitted by knealy on Tue, Aug 21, 2012

Great article. Thanks so much. It appears we have a long history of having to fix what our City Council messes up.

Submitted by knealy on Tue, Aug 21, 2012

BTW, I only see the first small photograph in this article, -not all three referred to.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Tue, Aug 21, 2012

Hey K: You can click on the photo for the 3-pic slideshow.

Submitted by Margie Sherratt on Tue, Aug 21, 2012

Thanks for this article. It was so interesting to read. The students, as they still are today, were awesome!
My parents both were graduates of Alameda High a couple of years before this. My Mom's brothers (there were seven of them) had related this story, and embellished it at long ago family dinners!

Submitted by Bill 2-Wheel Smith on Tue, Aug 21, 2012

Marvelous bit of history. When we get frustrated by today's negative campaigning and pine for the "good old days," stores such as this encourage us by reminding us that we have made considerable progress in making government more responsive and responsible.

Submitted by Laura Thomas on Wed, Aug 22, 2012

Fascinating bit of history; however, I would like to know more about the political forces that brought Roebke to office and why he and the manager wanted to fire all the city officials? There must be a little more to it. What was going on behind the scene?

Submitted by marian on Tue, Jan 14, 2014

Marvelous bit of history. When we get frustrated by today's negative campaigning and pine for the "good old days," stories such as this remind us that nothing has really changed [e.g. SunCal slate vs Gallant] The worst corruption is found in the smallest cities [Bell, CA...Rizzo] More stories like this can be found in Paul Vigness, Ph. D: Alameda Community Book, 1952. Mr Vigness taught history @AHS.

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