Ella Mae Earnest was born on August 23, 1931 in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi; the fourth of 15 children born to Ollie and Elma De Loach. Her life story exemplifies a truly American story of sacrifice, commitment, and triumph over overwhelming odds. In 1960, in an effort to escape the oppression and segregation of the Jim Crow south, Ella and her husband James embarked upon a journey west with their five young children in search of the American Dream and the long-denied promise of justice and equality. They settled in the Watts area of Los Angeles where she would become the librarian/educational aide for the Los Angeles Unified School District (for over 30 years) and later a community activist fighting on behalf of disadvantaged youth.
The catalyst for Ella’s social activism was her arrest for speaking out against excessive police force she had witnessed being used against a neighborhood youth. She was arrested while exercising her First Amendment right to speak out against what she knew was clearly police misconduct. Ella was later cleared of all charges, but she was undaunted and unafraid. The incident, which reminded her of the Apartheid she had chafed up under in the Deep South, helped to crystalize Ella’s commitment to fight for social justice and equality for youth in South Los Angeles. Her passionate community activism would later profoundly influence the activism and public service career choices made by her youngest son and three of her grandsons.
As a committed educator and as president of the Graham Elementary School PTA, Ella played an important role in the movement which established Saturday School in disadvantaged communities in South Los Angeles and other communities. She was also actively involved in juvenile justice reform efforts and helped to establish the Judge David V. Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in South Los Angeles. Because of Ella’s tireless advocacy on behalf of youth, law enforcement came to appreciate and respect her perspective of embracing, mentoring, and teaching youth how to become productive citizens.
A devout Christian, Ella raised her children at Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church, Reverend J.W. Wesly, pastor, where she taught Sunday school, participated in the Home Missions Program, and various church service auxiliaries. Ella received the “Award of Merit for Outstanding and Dedicated Service” from the Teen Post Program in South Los Angeles. She stayed active by volunteering for the Cub and Boy Scouts, Troop #383 and was also active in her workers union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99. Ella’s other community engagement activities included the Estelle Van Meter Senior Citizen Center and President Lyndon Johnson’s “Model Cities Program”.
At Graham Elementary School, Ella was officially recognized by the principal, Marjorie Aquilino for her hard work and dedication to children. This led to the development of a very special friendship that lasted for over 40 years between the two women who shared a passion for youth. The love and respect that they shared for one another simply cannot be described by mere words. Their shared commitment to academic excellence and respect for diversity and empowering children greatly helped to elevate Graham School. It was Ella’s profound belief that Marjorie was not just a good friend, but rather her sister in every sense of the word.
Ella earned the name “Mama Earnest” by doing the Lord’s work; she never failed to reach out to help those in need. Even with five children of her own, she took in homeless neighborhood teens that had nowhere to go. She embraced these children as her own by providing them with food, clothing, shelter, and above all love and attention. Ella never gave up on these teens and always treated them with the utmost respect. The vast majority of these young men and women have gone on to become successful and productive citizens.
Those who preceded Ella in death are her son Walter Gregory Earnest, first husband James Earnest and her second husband Theodore “Harry” Hunter.
Ella leaves to cherish her memory, and carry on her legacy, her three daughters and son, Reverend Patricia Cross (Gary), Shela Winston (Wayne), Sherry Earnest Tyler, and Curtis J. Earnest (Raenette); eleven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. She also leaves behind six sisters and two brothers, Oillie Ruth DeLoach, Elma Lee Anderson, Willie Lucille Jordan (Cleo), Athelene Trotter (Samuel), Gloria Barron (David), Paul DeLoach (Bonnie,) and Thomas DeLoach; and a host of nieces, nephews, other family members and friends.