A particular McClymonds High School alumnus made national headlines recently when NBA legend and civil rights activist Bill Russell, a graduate of the class of ‘52, passed away on July 31 at the age of 88. While Russell is arguably the school’s most widely known figure, McClymonds has no shortage of famous graduates. But it’s a lesser-known group of alumni that’s been working behind the scenes to keep McClymond’s legacy and sense of community alive for the past three decades.
Every few years, Debra Sharifa Kimble-Walton, Darlene Harris-Quinney, Paula Williams-White, and Jeffrey Sims get together to share ideas for how to best commemorate their high school class of ‘72. This year the friends are preparing to hold another reunion with former classmates, and it’s shaping up to be the most momentous: it will be their 50th anniversary and, sadly, their last.
“A lot of our classmates have passed away,” said Kimble-Walton, who now lives in Chicago but remains deeply involved on the alumni committee for the class of ‘72.
Harris-Quinney lives in Richmond, and Williams-White still lives in Oakland. But all three women were born in the city and raised in West Oakland, and their love for their hometown and alma mater is evidenced by their continuous work on behalf of the community. DeFremery Park, which they call the heart of West Oakland, is located nearby the high school and holds a special place in their memories.
Kimble-Walton moved away from Oakland after college, landed in Atlanta after receiving her master’s degree, and then settled in Chicago. She visits Oakland every year. “I have stayed connected. Being in the Chicago area, I miss California,” she said.
Harris-Quinney and Williams-White have known each other since their days at Prescott Elementary. Both are heavily invested in the future of West Oakland and DeFremery Park.
Williams-White worked for Oakland Parks and Recreation at DeFremery Park from high school through college. After graduating from California State University, East Bay, she worked for the Oakland Police Department for 27 years and for the Alameda County Superior Court in downtown Oakland for 10 years.
Harris-Quinney followed a similar path in public service, obtaining a degree in kinesiology and working for the Oakland Unified School District as a physical educator for 37 years. Like Williams-White, she has and continues to be heavily engaged in the affairs of DeFremery Park and its future.
Because this will be their last reunion with the class of ’72, the committee is planning a three-day celebration, happening next month. It will include a meeting between alumni and current students and faculty at McClymonds on Thursday, Sept. 22.
“We are going to speak to the kids on our journey, the journey we had as students at McClymonds,” Harris-Quinney said. “And get some feedback from them on how their journey is currently at the school and what they are doing to stay positive and focused.”
All three women were on McClymonds cheerleader squad—Harris-Quinney was a cheerleader, Williams-White was a letter girl, and Kimble-Walton was a song girl—and are excited to meet the school’s current squad and football team. Last December, the McClymond’s football team won the state championship, the first team in the history of the Oakland Athletic League (OAL) to do so.
“We’re going to talk about that and then share a song or routine, whatever we can remember,” said Harris-Quinney.
Kimble-Walton recalled that the letter girls in her day used to spell out “Warriors” and the whole squad would sing the school’s official song. She learned from talking with current administrators that the latter no longer happens. It’s something that Kimble-Walton hopes to bring back. “We’re going to teach them the school song because that has fallen by the wayside, unfortunately,” she said. “We want to keep that going.”
But do they still remember all the words? “Oh McClymonds, oh McClymonds, you’re the one school for me,” the trio sang in unison. “We gotta practice that one,” said Kimble-Walton.
The school meeting will be followed with an alumni meet-and-greet at Everett & Jones in Jack London Square. The next day, the class will have a banquet at the Waterfront Hotel. The committee also plans to honor the life of Bill Russell, although those details have not been ironed out yet.
Then on Saturday, Sept. 24, alumni from the class of ‘72 and others will meet for the school’s annual “Family and Friends Day.” For the past 25 years, the McClymonds Action Committee (only Darlene Harris-Quinney is part of this) has organized the annual picnic on the fourth Saturday in September at DeFremery Park.
“This yearly picnic doesn’t just start with the class of 1972. It goes as far back as those who graduated and are now in their 80s,” Williams-White said. Archie Lee Belford, a notable organizer of the McClymonds Alumni Association and huge supporter of the yearly “Family and Friends Day,” passed away in January.
Choosing DeFremery as the location for the picnic is no coincidence, as the park is steeped in West Oakland history. It’s one of the places the Black Panthers used to gather, and is where NBA figures like Bill Russell and Paul Silas played ball. More recently, the park has maintained its relevance in other ways. Since the pandemic started, the basketball courts have become an impromptu skating rink, and the park’s public swimming pool fully reopened in June.
The trio fondly recalls the many activities they used to partake in when they were kids—from swimming, to learning how to play tennis, to attending festivals and seeing the Black Panther Party in action. Defremery, they said, was a safe place for kids in the neighborhood.
“It was either free or 25 cents to go and swim, and then the snow cone truck would come by. Do you guys remember the snow cone truck?” Williams-White asked her two friends. “I know you do.”
These memories from their youth make the picnic at DeFremery Park such a special place to convene every year, said Williams-White.
“If you were raised in West Oakland and went to Prescott, then you have a little story to tell about DeFremery,” she added. “And, more than likely, it was a spot where you had a good time.”
The trio has seen some major changes in West Oakland caused by urban renewal, like the destruction of the 7th Street corridor, and have seen how some lifelong residents are fighting to keep its history alive.
Shifting demographics in West Oakland’s neighborhoods have also altered the sense of community in the streets surrounding DeFremery Park, said Harris-Quinney. When the trio was growing up, everyone knew each other. Now, some lifelong residents who gather at the park feel like strangers in their own neighborhood.
“Things that we used to do at the yearly picnic like parking along the street, now, people complain,” said Harris-Quinney.
“We have some ground-rooted people that live here, their extended family, and if we can’t continue going to DeFremery to have a fun, safe time because we’ll get complaints or get a ticket—it’s not fair,” Williams-White added.
And while they can’t turn back time to the Oakland they once knew, the friends hope that DeFremery Park forever remains a meeting place where longtime residents and newcomers can meet and find common ground.
“Use the facility as it was designed to be used for. For the community’s purpose, where people can come and grow, where people can come and talk,” Harris-Quinney said. “It’s the glue that holds that community together.”
To those who love their hometown and worry about its future, Williams-White encourages keeping the neighborhood’s stories alive.
“Pick brains of the older people like myself. Your grandparents, your aunties. Learn from other people. Listen, have an open mind,” Williams-White said. “Stay together. Communicate. Because if you don’t learn, you won’t care.”