Times Past

MLK scholarship recipient helped bridge SLO High’s racial divide

Liz Lewis, seated, in 1969 was the first scholarship recipient from the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Fund in San Luis Obispo. Standing are two of the fund co-founders, Rusty Duval and Jennie Hiltel.
Liz Lewis, seated, in 1969 was the first scholarship recipient from the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Fund in San Luis Obispo. Standing are two of the fund co-founders, Rusty Duval and Jennie Hiltel.

Wherever Liz Lewis’ family moved, the children always knew her 1969 Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship plaque had to be hung first in their new home.

Liz was the first recipient of a scholarship from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial High School Scholarship Fund in San Luis Obispo. Her dad, the Rev. John L. Lewis of St. Luke’s Missionary Baptist Church, annually sold about 140 tickets to the scholarship fund’s annual fundraising barbecue.

“I enjoy helping, knowing it might keep someone in school, instead of being out on the streets, messing up,” he told Dorie Bentley of the Telegram-Tribune.

Liz, who got a bachelor’s degree and trained chefs for a Disney cruise ship in Florida, returned to San Luis Obispo in 1999 for a surprise tribute to Jennie Hiltel, one of the scholarship founders and the little lady who “took King’s dream and spread it to her neighborhood,” according to Loriann Gill.

Liz was student body vice president at San Luis Obispo High School when Dr. King was assassinated in April 1968. She had already played a major role in helping to heal a racial divide among the students.

At a student council meeting the previous November, former principal Rusty Duval said, there was concern over the lack of students participating in Homecoming events.

“After a number of members voiced their opinions, Liz said, ‘I don’t know about anybody else, but I know why the black kids didn’t participate. We don’t feel welcome in student activities.’ The roof almost came off, with heated comments coming from all sides.”

Rusty decided to use the YMCA’s Camp Ocean Pines at Cambria for a daylong interracial retreat. He borrowed a bus from the First Baptist Church, inviting 10 black and 10 white students, along with counselor Glen Dollahon.

“On our way to Cambria, the bus looked as though a ‘Mason-Dixon’ line had been painted down the middle, with the black students on one side, the whites on the other. Not much conversation occurred between the groups.”

By the end of the day, the situation was transformed.

“On the ride, home, the bus looked like salt and pepper, with black and white students sitting with each other and finding that they had so many things in common to talk about.”

When Loriann Gill listens to the news these days and thinks she’s not powerful enough to help eradicate the injustices in our nation, she reflects on Jennie Hiltel, her husband’s grandmother.

After the assassination, Jennie said, “I had to do something. The newspapers told of memorial contributions sent to Atlanta. I thought: ‘Why not a living memorial here in San Luis Obispo for our students?’ 

By making the scholarship fund and its barbecue a community activity, Jennie envisioned that same kind of interaction that occurred at the student retreat at Camp Ocean Pines. People would come together to publicize, sell tickets to the barbecue, prepare the meal, and ultimately decide which students would be awarded the scholarship.

The board of directors has always been diverse. Rev. George Aki of the Congregational Church served on the board. George, whose family had been “relocated” to Japanese-American internment camps in Utah and Arkansas, volunteered as a chaplain for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Jennie asked noted Cal Poly artist Robert Reynolds to design a poster for the event. The income from the barbecue grew and so did the size and number of scholarships, awarded to students of every race and based on financial need.

This year, the barbecue will be held Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. at the Elks Club, 222 Elks Lane in San Luis Obispo. The chicken barbecue is $10. Homemade desserts are available. Take-outs are ideal for the Super Bowl game.

Another don’t miss event is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 11.

The Cal Poly Chinese Students’ Association is hosting its 60th annual Chinese New Year Banquet on Saturday, at the university’s Chumash Auditorium. Reservations are essential. Call Juliana Yee at 805-626-8525 or email calpolycsa@gmail.com.

Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and dinner begins promptly at 6:30 p.m. Performance of “the Four Guardians,” graceful, dramatic martial arts performed by Beijing-trained Liu Yu and her advanced students and the Lion Dance. Adults only $12 and children younger than 12 are $10. If you want to skip the food, you can still attend for $5.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com. Liz Kreiger is a retired children’s librarian for the San Luis Obispo County library.