Women’s History Month is often celebrated in March to commemorate the vital role of women in American history. Women like Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt are some of the few who will be mentioned in the coming weeks, but Santa Monica residents believe the name Thelma Terry should be among them when locals discuss the most prominent figures of the past.
Born in 1907, Terry became a prominent basketball player at Santa Monica High School and Santa Monica College before she used her love of sports to foster recreation and arts education programs throughout the Westside prior to her death in 1979.
Today, the Thelma Terry building is nestled in the Pico neighborhood she once called home. The facility regularly allowed residents opportunities to enjoy everything from baile folklorico rehearsals to rent control information sessions prior to the pandemic. And while the essence of these activities is in line with the legacy of Terry, only a few know about her influence.
Luckily, the beloved figure has The Terryettes, a handful of local residents who served on a drill team that was supervised by Terry in the 1950s, to sing her praises and detail why she should be considered one of Santa Monica’s greatest historical figures.
There are only a handful of the original 20 Terryettes alive today, but LaRita Brown and Sharidan Sims-Dixon can clearly recall their adventures with Ms. Terry even though they occurred nearly 70 years ago.
Everybody in the community knew they could trust Terry with their teenagers, Brown said when she and Dorothy Fuller-Dudley recently remembered the times they found themselves sitting in Terry’s living room, crowded around one of the block’s first television sets. They weren’t alone either.
Terry used to work at The Recreation Center, which was known as The Rec at the time but is now Memorial Park. For African-Americans who were coming of age in the 1940s and 50s, The Rec was the place to be.
“We used to go down and she would always supervise our dances and all the games,” Brown said. And Mrs. Terry, which she is still commonly referred to, used to host checker and chess games when the group wasn’t heading to places like Garfield Elementary School to learn to square dance.
“She even had a toy loan where she would let us check out books and games. We just always had a good time with her and she was an excellent supervisor,” Brown added as she detailed the trips to the famous Red Cars and other activities.
Since Sims-Dixon was nearly half the age of her fellow Terryettes, she doesn’t remember the Red Car trips as clearly as her peers, but she did get quite the thrill when she’d hang out with the older kids at the dances that were chaperoned by Terry.
“The main thing about Ms. Terry that I remember was she always made sure that we were safe, so our parents and the older adults trusted her,” Brown said.
This wasn’t a common phenomenon back in the era, especially when you consider the racial tension and segregation that was prominent in Santa Monica and surrounding beach cities. And while The Terryettes said they are glad their parents trusted Terry, they weren’t surprised she was able to negotiate for their trust.
Sims-Dixon said Terry was a woman of few words because she didn’t have to say too much to gain respect.
“Just her presence was enough to let us know that we better straighten up and fly right,” she said.
Brown added Terry exuded confidence whether she was marching The Terryettes across town to practice with a group of prejudice people or found herself talking to older men who didn’t believe she should be in the position of power.
“She was very patient and all that but she was so business-like because she had to be able to negotiate with these folks.” Brown said. “She fought for us.”
But the community also fought for her.
Carolyne Edwards recently began an effort to create a timeline of Terry’s life. While conducting research, she stumbled upon a front page news article that detailed how Terry had been dismissed from her position with the Parks and Recreation Department in Santa Monica but the community demanded she be reinstated.
“That’s how much respect they had for her. That was how powerful she was,” Edwards said. “You see, she was small in stature, but she carried a lot of weight in the community.”
Brown said, “We just felt that she was like a mother. She was very quiet natured but she got things done. She was a hard worker and just a genuine human being. I would say she is a woman for all seasons. That’s my opinion.”
Brown, Edwards and Sims-Dixon all shared they were ecstatic to see Terry honored with a building at Virginia Avenue Park. After all, It was not common for African-Americans, much less an African-American woman, to be in a position of power back then.
“And that goes back to talking about the way that she carried herself and her demeanor,” Sims-Dixon said. “She was the kind of person whose personality just rubbed off on you; you couldn’t help but like her. We all just loved her so much… She did so much for us and our development.”
“And it’s just so amazing that all of us still remember her,” she added. “You know, there are a lot of people in my past that I have forgotten… but the people that I’ve talked to people will always remember Thelma Terry — as they should.”