By Shirley Hawkins
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — The first Black woman to serve on the Los Angeles City Council who later served on the Board of Library Commissioners for 15 years was honored with a plaque on the wall outside the Vermont Square Branch Library Dec. 10 in a ceremony attended by Mayor Eric Garcetti and other elected officials.
Rita Walters, who died in February 2020 at the age of 89, was a lifelong champion of public service, equity and civil rights. She served on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education for 12 years, before being elected to the 9th District seat on the City Council in 1991.
While on the school board Walters pushed for racial integration in the public schools through her support of busing and the magnet program.
After retiring from the City Council in 2001, Walters continued to serve the city by accepting appointment to the Board of Library Commissioners in 2002 by then Mayor James K. Hahn. She served on that commission under three mayors, Hahn, Antonio Villaraigosa and Garcetti before retiing in 2017.
Walters was a graduate of Shaw University, in North Carolina, and held a master’s degree in business administration from UCLA.
She was also a longtime civil rights advocate, working with groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. She taught adult education courses and English as a second language classes in Watts before being elected to the school board.
Speaking at the Dec. 10 ceremony, Garcetti praised Walters and her dedication to public service.
“Rita Walters’ life and legacy is an inspiration, from her work fighting for racial integration in our schools as a member of the LAUSD Board of Education to her efforts to steward [the library’s] expansion on the L. A. City Council and the Library Commission,” he said.
“She broke so many glass ceilings and contributed so much to our city. It is truly humbling to have the chance to honor her today.”
City Librarian John F. Szabo said he had fond memories of working with Walters.
“I loved Rita Walters,” he said. “She served our community for nearly 40 years. She was tough, fierce, smart, focused, caring and empathetic. She had a deep commitment for service and she understood the power of libraries.
“This library reflects the beauty of this woman. The Vermont branch is worthy of Rita Walters’ name and she is worthy of us,” Szabo added.
Walters’ daughter Susan thanked Szabo and the Board of Library Commissioners for the tribute ton her mother.
“This particular branch was the neighborhood branch for my father and his siblings,” she said. “We all know this branch very well.
“On behalf of my brothers and my extended family, we really want to express our gratitude to everyone for the hard work they extended to be here today and for joining us in honoring our mother. This is a meaningful tribute and it has touched us deeply.”
Councilman Curren Price, who currently represents the 9th District, has fond memories of Walters.
“Rita Walters achieved many firsts throughout her life and opened the door for many more to follow,” he said.
“We know that she was a firm advocate for children, workers’ rights, and for all the underserved members of society. As a woman of color, she experienced discrimination in various degrees, but faced difficulties head on with courage and strength.
“She sought out change at every turn and in doing so, she became relentless in her fight for justice and equality, not just for herself, but for everyone.”
Price also has fond memories of the neighborhood surrounding the library.
“I attended Normandie Avenue School right here at Normandie and Vernon Avenue and I used to walk here,” he said. “This was my library back in the day.”
Bich Ngoc Cao, president of the Board of Library Commissioners, remembers the dedication Walters always demonstrated.
“Rita Walters was a trailblazer, a model public servant and champion of equality and equity,” Cao said. “She was a tiny lady, but I consider her one of the giants of Los Angeles. I was so fortunate to have served with her on the library board for five years.
She was 83 when I arrived on the board and at 31, we came from such different times that when she talked about finding a ride to the Central Library, I suggested Uber and she looked at me like I was speaking another language.
“She never treated me like a kid and showed me by example how to be an effective commissioner and leader. … I’m happy to be here representing my colleagues as we unveil the plaque honoring her.”
Jacqueline Hamilton, an aide to Rep. Karen Bass, said Walters was a mentor and an adviser to Bass and someone without whom she might not have had the resources to serve in elected office without Walters’ direct advice and support.
Hamilton said Bass was submitting an entry into the Congressional record acknowledging the dedication ceremony.
“Karen Bass likes to say that getting into the Congressional Record is like being entered into the official history of the country,” Hamilton said. “Rita Walters deserves nothing less.”
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.