After 43 years of teaching at Ventura College, Professor Ola V. Washington has been a steadfast figure representing African American culture, traditions and values within the Ventura County community for decades. Beyond the vibrant colors, Washington is an authentic woman who has grown from the most challenging of circumstances to be an anchor in her community.
Born in Ennis, Texas, deep in poverty and racial injustice, Washington was the third eldest of nine children and always had a natural affinity toward education. “I remember they would look through the window of the school house and point at me and say there’s that little girl who gets straight A’s,” Washington joyfully recalled.
Approaching the 9th grade, Washington’s parents divorced and her mother sold all of their belongings for $125 and moved all nine children to Bakersfield, California. In high school, “I would go door to door asking neighbors if they could take me to school,” she remembered. Despite academic talent and passion, familial circumstances led to Washington dropping out of high school. She then moved back to Texas where she met a young soldier, serving in the United State Army, and got married at the age of 17. With income from her husband’s military service, Washington looked forward to returning to school; but, within the first year of marriage she became pregnant and had her first child.
As a military spouse, Washington experienced living in various places, including California, Kansas, Oklahoma, Washington, and Germany. During the two years she lived in Germany, her life was greatly impacted. “I loved the German people and they loved me. It was my first experience with living in a culture where I did not encounter prejudice,” stated Washington. She became fluent in German within five months and today speaks German as a second language.
Returning to the states, Washington worked several jobs to make ends meet. While working at Fort Riley in Kansas, she broke barriers by becoming the first Black Supper Club waitress on base. As a high class waitress in the officers’ club, she was surrounded by high-ranking military men who recognized her intelligence and encouraged her to continue her education. She knew she needed a high school diploma to obtain any mobility. After receiving her high school diploma from Bakersfield High School, Evening Division, she moved to Oxnard to be closer to her extended family that helped her with her children while she pursued her educational goals. Thereafter, Washington enrolled at Ventura College alongside her two sisters, where it would take her 10 years to get her A.A. degree, she likes to say.
Washington credits Ventura College for changing her life. Gary Johnson, a history professor at Ventura College, influenced her to become a college instructor and to attend the University of California, Santa Barbara. While attending Ventura College, Washington was the vice president of the Black Student Union and led student actions to get administration to hire more Black professors and to establish African American History courses.
With guidance and a recommendation from Johnson, in 1970 she transferred to UCSB. A single mother, she was socially active during the climax of social unrest regarding domestic and foreign social issues during that period. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and received the distinction of commencement speaker. She felt a responsibility to “speak the truth,” as she puts it, and quoting revolutionary abolitionist David Walker made many controversial statements regarding social justice during her speech. Though, unsettling to the audience, she spoke from her devotion to justice and equality.
Washington also earned a master’s degree from UCSB in 1974, and did post-graduate work at UCLA, US C, and the University of Ibadan in Africa, all while being a single mother. Her career as a college professor at Ventura College began directly following her graduate studies. At Ventura College, she taught Early African American History, Modern African American History, Contemporary African American History, Early American History, and Modern American History. Her teaching legacy includes giving race relations lectures to employees of Ventura County agencies, businesses and other organizations as a part of IMPACT, a program started at Moorpark College designed to address changes brought about by Affirmative Action.
Teaching employees how to understand African Americans, many uninterested and held newspapers in front of their faces, “I jumped on the table and told the students, take a good look at me and tell me what you notice.” They made observations regarding her colorful clothing, jewelry and then finally a student would respond “you are Black.” ”And that’s what we are going to talk about today,” she would respond. “They did not have to like it, but they learned to like me,” Washington said referencing the lectures. By the time Washington finished teaching the courses she would notice students who entered the class with inherited prejudices would leave her class changed individuals with opened minds. “The key to my effectiveness is that all of my teachings come from the heart” she said. Today, Washington still teaches African American History courses that she fought to establish as a student more than 40 years ago.
Her many accomplishments include serving on the UCSB Alumni Board, founding Ebony House of Faith Institute, a community school and Agape House of Faith, a non-denominational church, acting as a guest speaker during Black History Month for the Oxnard Union High School District, teaching youth through the California Division of Juvenile Justice, previously known as California Youth Authority, becoming an ordained minister in 2007, authoring two books- “Return to the Homeland: Travels in Nigeria No Snakes, No Monkeys, No Apes” and “Infinity and Me,” a book of poetry and verse, plus, being the matriarch to her children, grandchildren and extended family.