The Rev. Ralph Anthony was eight years old when he realized the value of an education.
A foreigner to Kern County, he and his family traveled to Bakersfield in 1948 and got to work picking cotton. Anthony would alternate his studies with back-breaking farm labor, picking hundreds of pounds of cotton daily to help support his family. Occasionally, they would travel to Santa Maria to pick potatoes.
“I was a youngster and being a cotton hand was hard work and small pay,” Anthony said. “I asked the question, ‘Why couldn’t my father get a job at the school?’”
He wasn’t aware at the time that because of the color of his father’s skin, there was no way he could stand at the front of a schoolhouse and teach. It made a lasting impression on him when he found out.
Now, seven decades later, Anthony — a black farm laborer of humble roots who dedicated himself to community work and religion at an early age — will be sworn in Tuesday as a trustee at Bakersfield City School District, helping to lead the very schools that segregated him from white classmates years ago.
It will be his second term on the board. He was elected once before in 1992 and served a two-year term, then lost by 52 votes in a contested 1994 election.
His goal this time around hasn’t changed much from the priorities he laid out in the early 1990s. He wants to close the achievement gap between black children and their white peers.
When it comes to state-testing standards for mathematics and English, black students perform worst of all demographic groups in the district, according to 2017 state data.
The data wasn’t much different in 1992, Anthony said.
He helped lead a progressive board at the time that not only named a school after civil rights leader Cesar Chavez — a decision that was criticized at the time, Anthony said — but also implemented policies geared toward closing the achievement gap.
Those policies, however, never took hold, he said.
“We tried to close the achievement gap and it didn’t take,” Anthony said. “We started a program, but it didn’t take hold.”
He’s participated in a committee since at least last year focused on closing the achievement gap at BCSD schools.
“If you remove all the obstacles, I think we would retain more young people in Kern County,” Anthony said. “Lots of youth leave and don’t want to come back and that’s still a challenge of ours today.”
It was a challenge for Anthony during his youth, too.
He graduated from Bakersfield High Schoo and then had an opportunity to work at a local downtown business, but was turned down because of his race, he said.
Then, his car broke down and he spent the next six months hopping freight trains and looking for work in the fields from California to Washington. Anthony described it as “a strange adventure.”
He returned and put himself through Bakersfield College by starting a door-to-door milk delivery service before serving a four-year tour with the U. S. Air Force.
Eventually, he became a life insurance underwriter and disability agent for Golden State Mutual, a job he left in 1972 to take leadership positions with Friendship House Community Center, the Kern County Liberation Movement, Kern County Civic Unity, and a health center founded on the ideals of providing care to migrant farm workers known today as Clinica Sierra Vista.
He credits all of it to his education.
“I worked with people who were good teachers to me who kept saying, ‘You go to school and get your education,’” Anthony said.
Anthony will be sworn in at the 6 p.m. Bakersfield City School District board meeting, 1300 Baker Street.