This group of Black leaders helped shape Sonoma County. Here’s how their work lives on today.
Gloria Robinson, the co-founder of the decades-old organization Petaluma Blacks for Community Development, hasn’t always felt connection in a predominately white community, but she’s not shy about introducing herself to strangers.
One could see her doing just that in the early 1970s. That was when Robinson and her family opted to leave behind San Rafael, where they could only afford to rent, and move 21 miles north along Highway 101 to Petaluma. The city’s then-affordable home prices meant Robinson and her family would be able to own a home.
While her children quickly bonded with the other kids in their east Petaluma neighborhood, Robinson said her transition wasn’t as quick.
Petaluma, in 1970, had a population of about 24,870, according to U.S. Census data, and it was far from diverse. Robinson and the roughly 130 other Black people who lived there then made up just 0.5% of the community.
So, whether it was in line at the grocery store or walking down the street, Robinson would introduce herself to other Black residents in town whenever she saw them. She said she would also gauge their interest in joining a Petaluma-based community group for Black residents — an aspiration of hers.
“I felt isolated when I first moved here, not really having any real friends,” Robinson said. “(It was) connect with me so we could be a force in this community.”
That community group, Petaluma Blacks for Community Development, formed under that name in 1979 after an initial two-year run as the Black Caucus. It held its first Black History program in March 1978 at the present-day site of the Loma Vista Immersion Academy on Maria Drive.
The yearly program has remained a staple for the organization throughout its more than four decades, and at 6:30 p.m. Saturday will continue the tradition with a virtual event.
Robinson, now 80, said she has been blown away by the longevity of the group, which she believes still serves a purpose in the community.
“History is still happening, and if we don’t tell it, who else is going to tell it?” Robinson said. “It’s getting to know you. You inviting me to dinner, I invite you, and we talk about the community.”
Robinson, who still lives in Petaluma, is just one of several Black community figures from Sonoma County history whose endeavors and contributions have made a lasting impact on this region.
Creating a community of action
Her peers include Alice and Gilbert Gray, a Santa Rosa couple who helped start the local chapter of the NAACP at the start of the American civil rights movement, a group that in recent months has been vocal about issues regarding race, such as the make up of Sonoma County’s redistricting commission and what some members have called a pattern of racist and biased treatment against Black leaders.
The Grays also founded the Community Baptist Church, which became a gathering place for Black residents in Sonoma County soon after it opened in 1956 not long after the start of the civil rights movement.
There was also the Rev. James E. Coffee, who led Community Baptist from 1963 until 2010, when he died at the age of 76.
Among his greatest contributions to the community was his ability to unite people from diverse backgrounds through the “commonality of the human experience,” according to current Community Baptist pastor, the Rev. Homer Lee Turner, who added the church is still a community hub for Black residents even though the congregation is now much more diverse.
Eddie Mae Sloan also was a mobilizing force while she ran Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity, an organization that was part of a federal program aimed at ending poverty in the U.S., said Drake Sadler.
Sadler, a community activist and environmentalist who formerly worked with Sloan at Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity, went on to co-found the Rohnert Park-based Traditional Medicinals, a nationally known organic tea company.
Sloan continued to lead the organization from 1971 to 1989. It eventually morphed into the existing nonprofit Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County.
Under her leadership, the organization’s projects included the building of community food banks, head-start programs and family planning clinics, those who knew her say, and her work is recognized through the Santa Rosa women and children’s shelter that bears her name today.
“I’m really proud of the legacy she built and excited to see people who are equally involved in the community today because we have new challenges,” said Santa Rosa resident Janal Cruz, Sloan’s granddaughter. “I hope the work she and others did is still an inspiration to other people.”