This post was originally published on Sacramento Observer

By Genoa Barrow

If they believe it, they can achieve it. Local educator Azikiwe C. Ayo dedicated his life to feeding pride and self-confidence into his students. Ayo passed away on December 1 at age 75.

Ayo was born on February 9, 1947. He spent decades in Sacramento, but previously lived in Los Angeles and had roots in Houma, Louisiana, where both his parents were from. His great-grandfather was a former school superintendent in Terrebonne Parish. 

Ayo moved to Sacramento in his late 20s, having transferred from Los Angeles Trade Tech to UC Davis, where he studied applied behavioral science. He’d also graduated from Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton and spent time at Sacramento State in the early 1970s.

As an area teacher, Ayo was particularly effective at reaching special needs children and students of color, many of whom went unencouraged by others. Ayo’s style was bolstered by a knowledge of self that he passed on to his students.  

“He had a lifelong desire to know his own history,” said son, Dr. Angelo Williams. “This is why he was a very strong advocate for African American history, Afrocentrism, and this was really the core of his classes.”

Ayo championed the work of educator Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu and furthered a lot of his teachings across the country on the lecture circuit. He centered seminars and workshops on Dr. Kunjufu’s 1985 book, “Countering The Conspiracy To Destroy Black Boys.”

“He used to talk about that all day, every day,” Dr. Williams said.

“He would get standing ovations to the point where it was like five minutes,” Naillah Williams said of her father.

“One of the reasons why I think he chose K-3 is because of Kunjufu,” Dr. Williams shared. “Kunjufu’s work basically says, ‘Hey, by the time a Black child is in third grade, their motivation, because of how they’ve been taught and how they’ve connected and lack of bright, African American instructors, they’re not only disincentivized to kind of show up, they don’t see themselves, they don’t get the positive reinforcement. 

“We know all of this now, but we didn’t know that back then. Our current consciousness around the importance of Black teachers and Afrocentric curriculum, that’s what he’s been doing his whole life,” Dr. Williams continued.

Being “woke” wasn’t always smiled upon. 

“From the first time he started to teach, he put his job at risk,” Dr. Williams said. “Because he wasn’t teaching in like 2020. He was teaching in the 1980s. I remember many occasions where principals, superintendents and others were pretty adamant about watching him and surveilling him, (wanting to know) ‘What is he really talking to these kids about?’”

Charter school co-founder Dr. Ramona Bishop worked with Ayo before the formation of the Twin Rivers School district in the early 2000s. 

“As the last superintendent of the Del Paso Heights School District, I had the pleasure of observing Mr. Ayo in action,” said Dr. Bishop, co-founder of Elite Public School in Vallejo. “Whether it was teaching his first graders to read, implementing his afterschool program, Afro Scouts, or leading our districtwide oratorical competition, Mr. Ayo did it with style and class. He was a culturally conscious educator before it was in style and he will surely be missed.” 

Former colleague Leigh Daniels says she learned a lot from Ayo.

“Prior to it being Twin Rivers, we were allowed to teach Afrocentrically by the superintendent at the time, Dr. Mack, and he did give us that power to do what we needed to do to support our students and to teach them well and a lot of us did that. He referred to some of us as ‘revolutionaries,’” Daniels continued.

She and others went on to be school principals.

“(Dr. Mack) allowed us to teach the way we knew students needed it. And Ayo kind of guided us because he had been doing it for a long time. He had the Black boys on lock in terms of behavior and expectation. When they left him, the following year we saw slippage, because that person who they may have gotten, wasn’t quite like Mr. Ayo,” Daniels said.

Daniels worked with Ayo from 2000-2005. He taught third grade and she taught fifth grade. Her son was also a student in Ayo’s class. He’s 30 years old now, but he and his friends still talk about all the things they learned back in Ayo’s third grade class and how that set them on a positive path. 

“Some of those boys, they’re just Black boys from the neighborhood who, along their journey, teachers were telling them things like, ‘you’ll never make it,’” Daniels said.  “Now, you look at some of them, they have their degrees, they’re doing really well overall, they’re sustaining themselves.”

It showed that an African American male teacher teaching from an Afrocentric perspective can get results that an entire school district and an entire city and state recognize.

Dr. Angelo Williams

Dr. Williams says parents in Del Paso Heights, regardless of ethnicity, supported his father in his efforts to expand their children’s knowledge.

“Right now in Del Paso Heights there are droves of young people who either their parents or somebody in their family were taught by him. And it’s not just African American kids. When Del Paso changed demographically and there were more Southeast Asian kids, he taught Black history to them.”

His style got results.

“His students always scored above the median in English, language arts and math, the most difficult measures, where African American children are always doing poorly and that makeup the achievement gap,” Dr. Williams said. “He had a very powerful method and it created outcomes. So at the end of the day, the superintendents and the rest were like ‘I get it. You might think he’s controversial, but the kids are doing exceedingly well.’”

Ayo earned a number of accolades over the years, but was particularly proud of Teacher of the Year honors bestowed upon him by his district three different times and also by the local television station, ABC10.

“It showed that an African American male teacher teaching from an Afrocentric perspective can get results that an entire school district and an entire city and state recognize,” Dr. Williams said.

While Ayo officially retired from Dry Creek Elementary in April 2010, he was still teaching at Morey Avenue Early Childhood Development Center in 2016 and Oakdale Elementary in 2018. He also served as a substitute teacher within the Fortune School charter system in recent years.

Naillah Williams remembers being a student in her father’s class in 1990 at Del Paso Elementary School.

“I was almost like a celebrity. They would be like, ‘Are you Mr. Ayo’s daughter?’ It was just like a whole big thing. And I was just like, ‘that’s me. That’s my dad’ because I didn’t know it was that big.”

She and her brother both recall the affirmations and mottos their father used to encourage and educate. 

“That’s who he was and that’s how people are going to remember him, from the things that he taught them,” Dr. Williams said. “He also just had a way of believing in his students. He made them believe that they were excellent.”

Ayo could have gone on to be an administrator, but chose not to.

“He would say, ‘That’s not my place. That’s not what I want to do. I need to spend my life here with these families,’” Dr. Williams said. 

Ayo is survived by his own loving family of children and grandchildren. Naillah Williams plans to honor Ayo’s legacy by releasing a children’s book her father didn’t have a chance to publish before his passing.

Gather Together In My Name

Azikiwe Ayo’s adult children are planning a celebration of his life to be held in February. They are also producing a documentary chronicling his life’s work and contributions. The family is looking to reach former students and colleagues to participate. They have established an email address where those who want to help organize the public event for Ayo can contact his son, Dr. Angelo Williams. The email address is Angelo.A.Williams@gmail.com.

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