By Genoa Barrow | Observer Senior Staff Writer
Irene B. West was of a different era. One where women, especially Black women, weren’t largely seen and heard beyond what was expected was of them as wives and mothers. Ms. West challenged those limits. While she most certainly “took care of home,” she also became a revered educator to boot.
Ms. West, the first African American teacher in Elk Grove, passed away on April 21 of an apparent heart attack. She was 88.
The Linda Mae Mahon Lema Foundation honored Ms. West in 2019 with a “This Is Your Life” style performance featuring past and present students from Sheldon High School’s THEATREworks program.
Ms. West was a graduate of the HBCU Fisk University in Tennessee. She moved to Sacramento along with her husband, Clifton Louis West Jr., when he was transferred to a civilian position at McClellan Air Force Base.
She took a job as a first grade teacher at Elk Grove Elementary School in 1962. The pioneer would go on to dedicate 27 years within the Elk Grove Unified School District (EGUSD), spending her latter years there as a principal. The EGUSD honored that history by naming an elementary school after her in 2002.
In addition to her work in the classroom, Ms. West was also a full-time mother to four children–Clifton, Cornel, Cheryl and Cynthia and was determined to see that each achieved personal excellence. Ms. West was also a respected community leader, participating in a number of civic and social activities that expanded opportunities for local African Americans to thrive. The Sacramento OBSERVER named her its Mother of the Year for 1963, later honored her as one of its Women of Inspiration and gave her a Medallion of Honor as a “community legend” in 2003.
“She was an example of a woman who did it all,” shared Deidra Thorpe, who counted Ms. Thorpe as a mentor.
Ms. Thorpe’s late father, Charles Thorpe, worked at McClellan Air Force Base with Ms. West’s late husband. Her mother, Edna and Ms. West kept their kids in groups like Jack & Jill. The families formed a community as a part of a small group of African Americans who came from down South and were living in the South Land Park area at a time when it was difficult for Blacks to find homes.
“Just imagine all the lives that wouldn’t have been touched had she not had a career of her own,” Ms. Thorpe shared.
Like Ms. Thorpe, Rev. Anthony Sadler, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, has known Ms. West most of his life. He was raised in the Oak Park area sanctuary, where she has been a member since June 1959.
“She was and is one of the finest Christian women I’ve ever come across,” said Rev. Sadler of Ms. West, who served many years as a deaconess.
“She was committed to all that she laid her hands on for the Lord. She loved her God, her family, her church and her pastor and we loved her back,” Rev. Sadler said.
Fellow educator, Dr. David Covin called Ms. West “a foundational person for the whole Sacramento area.”
“Her work, including that of her children, has helped shape the contemporary world,” shared Dr. Covin, a former Government and Ethnic Studies professor at Sacramento State.
Dr. Covin’s connection to Ms. West dates back to the fall of 1969 when he first traveled to the area to interview with the local university. Late leader Grantland Johnson and a few students took him around the city and introduced him to people in the community. Ms. West was one of those he met during that trip.
“The open joy and delight with which she and her husband welcomed us was extended to many newcomers, as well as to many who had toiled alongside them in laying the foundation for the city’s unusually productive Black community,” Dr. Covid said. “Without her striking presence, the capital city of California would not have become home to the local, state and international leadership that has arisen from its Black population. We thrive on the roots she planted. Her presence was and is a triumph.”
Sacramento OBSERVER photographer Larry Dalton featured Ms. West and other trailblazing women in his 2014 exhibit, “Portraits In Black,” at Underground Books.
“This is our small way of giving them their props,” Dalton shared at the time.
RoLanda A. Wilkins shares his sentiment. Ms. Wilkins’ Earth Mama Healing, Inc. recognized Ms. West in 2018 with its annual Grandma’s Hands community award.
“When we honor elders like our beloved Queen Mother Irene West we are actually honoring the best in ourselves,” Ms. Wilkins said.
Since learning of Ms. West’s passing, Ms. Thorpe and members of her family have been reminiscing about their varied experiences with her over the years. She said her brother Thorston, shared the memory of going to her home recently to drop something off and being swept inside so she could hear all that was going on in his life.
“He said, ‘she is the classiest woman that I’ve ever known. I said, ‘Absolutely.’”