Sadie Patterson (B.A. ’46) was born in the small town of Eldorado, Arkansas, “In the days,” she says, “when the South was still segregated and the closest thing to a birth certificate was the church record.” Her great grandmother had been born into slavery and was eleven when the Civil War ended, and neither of Sadie’s parents received much of a formal education. “It was another world,” Sadie recalls, “and my mother wanted more for me.” In 1925, her parents decided to move the family out to California in search of a better life. With her father leading the way in his Model T Ford and her mother and their three children following by train a few days later, the family made their way across country to the Golden State.
Growing up in Los Angeles during the Great Depression was not easy for anyone, let alone for an African American.
“My education was always an important priority of my mother’s, who wanted me to have every opportunity that she hadn’t had, herself,” she says.
As a result, Sadie studied hard in school despite having to work to assist her parents. One of her jobs was as a mother’s helper for a family in Beverly Hills, where she lived in the quarters at the back of the house. Having a maid in the Depression was a real luxury, and while Sadie had not been hired as a maid, her employer bought her a maid’s uniform and taught her the basics of service to keep up appearances at dinners and parties thrown for friends.
Summer breaks were spent with her father on his 320 acre homestead in the deserts of Victorville. There, Sadie and her siblings went on hikes, collected rocks, and hunted jack rabbits. The desert also provided a wide variety of interesting subject matter for Sadie, who filled the margins of her mother’s Sears & Roebucks catalogues with sketches of the world around her. “We were too poor to afford regular drawing or coloring books,” she says.
Having developed a talent for drawing at a very young age, Sadie was encouraged by her mother and her teachers to pursue her passion for art. Despite the expense of the materials, Sadie’s mother purchased an artist box for her in the 5th grade that she still has to this day. To help pay for Sadie’s lessons, her mother and little brother posed in a life drawing class at the Chouinard Art School, an arrangement made by Sadie’s 5th grade art teacher, who encouraged Sadie’s talent, always hanging her drawings and paintings on the walls of her classroom.
Sadie graduated from Susan M. Dorsey High School in the spring of 1941, just a few months before the United States entered World War II. Reflecting back on the fear of that time, Sadie recalls, “When we went into war, we were not prepared [as a nation]. The navy was crippled at Pearl Harbor, and if the Japanese had known how bad it was for us, they could have won the war.” Many of Sadie’s former classmates were sent directly into combat.
“Almost everyone was involved in the war effort in some way or another. Everybody sacrificed; rationing sugar, coffee, silk stockings, chocolate, gasoline, and other goods and collecting aluminum.”
Although she received a $29 scholarship from a sorority to attend UCLA, it was not enough to cover her tuition and living expenses. Sadie enrolled at Los Angeles City College instead, receiving a certificate for university credit. She got a job through the US Air Force at Lockheed making junction boxes and wiring for P38s fighter planes and Hudson bombers, which involved soldering and assembling parts. While she had hoped to be able to work and attend college, she had to quit school to save money, working the swing shift from 3:30 until midnight in camouflaged buildings in Burbank. After working at Lockheed for over a year, Sadie quit when she received a lesser raise than her blonde co-worker, despite having worked just as hard. By that point, however, she had saved enough to attend UCLA, where she enrolled in the fall of 1943.
It was at UCLA that Sadie further developed her talents and training as an artist. Choosing art as her major, she spent many an afternoon in the botanical gardens of “the Gully,” and the fields surrounding campus, translating her sketches onto the canvas and experimenting with color and composition. At the time, Sadie had dreams of working for Disney Studios as an illustrator, but her drawing instructor, “Mrs. A.” dissuaded her by asking, “Do you want to earn lots of money as an illustrator, or do you want to be a real artist?” Since artists “made no money,” she enrolled in education courses, hoping to work as an art teacher while continuing to paint and draw. She had no idea at the time that she would grow to love teaching as a profession.
Although UCLA’s education courses provided Sadie with foundational theories in education, she did not necessarily apply these theories in the classroom. “I learned to make art relevant to my students’ needs as I taught,” she says, and she followed the advice of art instructors such as Millard Sheets, from whom she took a workshop later in life.
“He suggested that you elevate a layman’s knowledge and tastes if you can connect to his understanding and appreciate his history and personal experience,” Sadie explains.
She took this advice to heart as a teacher, always striving to consider her students’ perspectives and background when teaching a new concept.
Like many of her UCLA classmates, Sadie did her student teaching in Westwood at Emerson Junior High and University High School. Given the relative affluence of this community, Sadie believes she would have been completely unprepared for her first teaching position in Boyle Heights had it not been for her Junior High advising teacher, Ms. Furbush, “[Who] was very strict on discipline and provided me with excellent training on how to get and keep control over a classroom.”
Having received excellent grades from the faculty and both of her training teachers while at UCLA and been accepted into the National Delta Epsilon Art Honorary Society and the League of Allied Artists, Sadie was recommended for a teachers’ assistant position during her senior year but was not hired, she believes, due to her race. Famous African American students such as Ralph Bunche, Rafer Johnson, and Jackie Robinson had been students at UCLA a few years before Sadie, and Melanie Blocker, the first Black art teacher to graduate from the Education Department was one of Sadie’s role models.
Still, “It was not an easy time for us,” Sadie says, referring to Black students at UCLA in the 1940s. Reflecting back on the attitude of her advisor, who told her that the only jobs available to her after graduation would be in the “Colored areas,” Sadie says,
“You never get used to people trying to make you feel less than you are.”
After receiving her teaching credential in the spring of 1947, Sadie began her career as an art teacher at Belvedere Junior High School in the struggling neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Along with many of the 24 other new teachers of her cohort, Sadie had to adjust to a very different educational environment than those she had encountered in her training at UCLA. At the time, Sadie recalls, many Belvedere students – boys, girls, even “good kids” – were involved in gang fights after school.
“The big hairdos that were popular at the time were banned, as kids were found hiding switchblades in their hair. I had students show me their weapons and tell me that they would kill any kid that came into their neighborhood [from a different neighborhood],” Sadie remembers. “They didn’t know I was snitching.”
In such a tense environment, establishing a safe and positive learning environment for her students was Sadie’s top priority. “Kids size their teacher up in the first few seconds and can see all your insecurities and weaknesses in the first few moments,” she says.
Sadie learned quickly how to earn and keep the respect of her students by setting high expectations of them while treating them with respect and connecting with them as individuals.
“The main thing is to try to get students engaged and involved before the problems start. If you can get them excited about the material and show them you care about them they will want to please you. You see kids dropping out of school because they don’t think it’s relevant to them. If you can connect the material to them and show them how it relates to their world, you show them that you care about their lives and their future and they work harder.”
As an art teacher, Sadie would work with her students to try to better see the world around them, teaching them how to focus on objects within a landscape, for example, and to learn about the effects of light on color and form. She often gave the most troubled kids a special task such as updating the school’s bulletin boards, to encourage in them a greater sense of pride and ownership in their school and the community.
“Sometimes art is the only thing that keeps students in school if they don’t excel in academics or other areas,” she says. “That’s why it breaks my heart that so many schools are having to cut back on their arts programming.”
After twenty six years of teaching in LAUSD schools, Sadie took an early retirement in 1976 to return to her art full-time. Living in a home that she and her late husband built together in the high desert, she continues to paint and draw. She is a member of the American Association of University Women and attended the Otis Art Institute, where she took workshops led by world-renowned artists as an adult. Just shy of 90 years old, Sadie continues to teach painting and drawing classes out of her home studio to pupils aged 8 to 80. The walls of her home display the depth and breadth of her talent – from landscapes to still life, to portraits and abstract pieces, her stunning canvases capture and celebrate the beauty of the world around her.
Looking back over her life and career, she reflects on her role as a teacher and artist with gratitude and pride.
“As a teacher I was able to give back to young people. I have bumped into some of my students later in life who have become artists and teachers, and I feel as if I’ve had an impact. It’s a small reward for teachers, seeing children learn and grow, but it’s worth all the effort.”