Jesse Moncell Bethel was born in New York City, New York on July 8, 1922. He was born to Jesse M. Bethel and Ethel Williams. His father left the home when he was only six months old and his mother died when he was only three and a half years old. Being an orphan now, he was raised by his grandmother in Arkansas. He then moved to Oklahoma where his family sharecropped cotton and cornfields. Bethel attended elementary school while in Oklahoma and later graduated from Booker Washington High School there too. Bethel attended Tillotson College in Austin, Texas. He graduated there with a Bachelors of Science degree in chemistry. He later attended graduate school in 1944 at the University of California Berkley. Bethel’s life changed when he became only fourteen years old. At fourteen he watched 27-year-old attorney Thurgood Marshall defend a young black accused of murder in Hugo, Oklahoma. Marshall was able to reduce the young man’s sentence from death to life in prison. Marshall became Bethel’s idol. Marshall was a main reason Bethel dreamed on becoming a civil rights lawyer. Another reason for his dream was his son, Jesse Jr.. Bethel first began his college career at Tillotson College in Austin, Texas majoring in pre-law on a scholarship. This all changed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the United States entered World War II. Bethel read on a bulletin board that Mare Island needed chemists. This made Bethel switch his major from pre-law to chemistry. In 1944, one month after his college graduation, Bethel moved to Vallejo with his wife Claudia Nichols, who also was his college sweetheart. He moved to Vallejo in search of the chemist job at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard he learned about while attending college. A chemist vacancy at Mare Island available because another chemist left was given to Bethel. Bethel was now the first black chemist at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. For over thirty years Bethel worked on the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. One supervisor, on the grounds that his college wasn’t accredited (although it was) didn’t promote him. Bethel then made the choice of transferring to the nuclear power division. In the nuclear power division Bethel eventually became chief chemist. Bethel said, “I was discriminated against at the shipyard. I overcame it.”As chief chemist in the nuclear power division he analyzed material used in reactor plant construction, nuclear propulsion plant systems, and worked on radiochemistry on nuclear submarines. He later wrote that the most exciting and most dangerous part of his career was going on sea trials. Bethel received many commendations for his work on nuclear powered submarines. The interracial Citizens Political Action Committee formed to elect a black person to the school board in 1968. Bethel was among the dozen candidates the committed contacted. Bethel was not interested at first but told the chairman he would accept the job if no one else would. He was encouraged to run by his family, fellow employees and churchgoers. Bethel said, “I’ve always been interested in education. There had been two or three (black people) who had run for the board, but never elected. So I thought I would give it a try.” His try worked. Bethel won the election and became the first African – American elected to the Vallejo School Board. He served 16 years. In these 16 years was also the first black president of the California School Board Association and a delegate to the National School Boards Association. Jesse Bethel then worked as a State Farm Insurance Agent. He retired in 1989.
Bethel and his wife Claudia had three children. Marilyn who is an accounting cost engineer with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). Jesse Jr., an attorney – legal counsel to the governor of the Virgin Islands. The youngest is Veronica, who like her father once was, is a State Farm Insurance Agent.
The school district decided in October of 1991 to name a future high school after Bethel. Jesse M. Bethel High School was named in honor of him. Jesse Bethel was still alive when they made this decision. Unfortunately Jesse M. Bethel passed away only months before the grand opening of the school which would be held in the fall of 1998Jesse M. Bethel High School is solid evidence that anyone can do what he or she sets his or her mind on. Jesse M. Bethel High School is the outcome of hard work and many dedicated years to the youth of California. It is evidence that all people may succeed and achieve any goals they set for themselves in life. Jesse M. Bethel High School stands not only as a reminder to us that many people have worked hard to make this world the way it is now but that we can become apart of the making change process. I remember attending Jesse Bethel High on the first day of its first school year. I remember the unfinished building and bare grounds. But, most of all I remember the feeling of thanks for such a wonderful school. It was not for a couple of months I would know why we were given such a wonderful school and why Jesse Bethel was given the honor of being memorialized in it. I later learned what a great leader Jesse Bethel was. Although faced with many obstacles and racial discrimination, he was able to succeed and make a difference. Jesse M. Bethel was a great leader. He was a great leader because he had dreams, dreams that he worked hard to achieve. Those achievements can be seen all over the Jesse Bethel High campus. Leaders work hard to accomplish all they set out to do. They have open minds and warm hearts that allow them to help and lead all peoples. Being a leader is putting your ideas into action and working past any and all obstacles that may come in your way. Jesse M. Bethel is a fine example of what a leader should be.
I especially admire Jesse Bethel for his work with the community. Many leaders look for fame and glory, but Bethel worked to strengthen his community. He was a member of the Friendship Baptist Church, a 50-year member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, on the council of Navy League, Salvation Army Advisory Board Navy City Elks Lodge, Treasurer of the Vallejo NAACP, and a member of the Lofas- Lakeside Improvement Association. He was on the Vallejo City Unified School District Governing Board, California School Board Association, worked with the National School Board Association, and President of the California Coalition of Black School Board Member in 1982.
He also received over ten service and community awards. He receive the Theta Pi Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity’s Citizen of the ear in 1974, the National Fraternity of Alpha Phi Alpha Members’ document of Resolution of Appreciation for 1977, California Association of Colored Women’s Club Vallejo’s Community Service in 1978, the Vallejo NAACP Award of Dedication to Education in 1992, Vallejo School’s Manager’s Association’s Service to Education in 1983, Who’s Who in Black America in 1985, the Community Service Award from the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity in 1986, and the Houston- Tilloston College Alumni Association (National) Practical Endeavor Award in May of 1992. But the greatest award he ever received was the naming of Jesse M. Bethel High School in his honor. As long as Bethel High stands, Bethel’s legacy of hard work, leadership, and community service will not be forgotten or unappreciated.
Jesse Bethel’s life is proof that any goal can be achieved with self-determination and perseverance.