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History of Cobb Elementary


Emerson School, as Cobb Elementary School was known until 1978, opened its doors on Pine Street near Divisadero in 1865. The school was named after famous American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. After the earthquake of 1906, Emerson also served as school district headquarters. The current building, designed by Architect John Reid Jr., a graduate from Lowell High School, was built in 1923, with the schoolyard replacing what was once the neighboring home of a windmill, chickens, and a cow. In the 1930s, Emerson became known for its language and bicultural programs, with newspapers in Tokyo writing about the Japanese students attending the school.


At a time when there was only one Black teacher in the district, William Lenox Cobb, then a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, became San Francisco’s first Black school principal in 1947. He was assigned to Emerson, a school where the vast majority of students were Black and all teachers were white. For 16 years, Dr. Cobb served as principal at Emerson before becoming Assistant Superintendent for Human Relations, focusing on desegregation and equality, until 1975. After his untimely death in 1976, students and faculty advocated for Emerson to be renamed Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary school in his honor.


Dr. Cobb was a writer, a scholar, a historian, and above all, a humanitarian. He came to San Francisco from rural eastern Texas, where he attended and taught in segregated public schools. Throughout his career, he was instrumental in the struggle for equal educational opportunity for all children in San Francisco. He was at the forefront of the district’s effort to bring about the desegregation of its schools--a struggle that seems all too familiar today.


Today, Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary School continues its long tradition of educating a diverse San Francisco. Generations of Emerson and Cobb graduates proudly send their own children to Cobb. Its campus, nestled in the Lower Pacific Height neighborhood, provides a haven of joyful learning for all its students. Like Dr. Cobb, we look to the future with confidence and optimism. We too see the needs and promises of public education in San Francisco.