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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.”

James “Jim” Gray, 77, of Santa Rosa said his parents, Alice and Gilbert, were part of a driving force behind the civil rights movement that played out in Santa Rosa, which happened in conjunction with similar activism taking shape in other parts of Sonoma County at the time.

In 1960, the two, along with local NAACP chapter founder Platt Williams, picketed a Santa Rosa F.W. Woolworth’s store because of the chain store’s policy of segregation at its lunch counters in the South.

His father was also part of a group of Black men who sued a Santa Rosa bar, the Silver Dollar Saloon, in May 1962 after the owner refused to serve them, Gray said.

The men organized the sit-in after the local NAACP chapter received multiple complaints that the bar’s owner was refusing to serve Black people. The suit eventually settled out of court.

When asked if his parents ever spoke to him about why they became so involved in the local civil rights movement, James Gray said, “We didn’t need to have a conversation, it became self evident given what was going on in the Deep South.”

Rubin Scott, a member and past president of the Sonoma County NAACP, said that while he didn’t know the Gray family personally, he sees their ability to coalesce community members around local civil rights issues as a show of strength and organization that has gone unmatched in Sonoma County.

Still, Scott, who revived the NAACP chapter in 2018 from near-extinction, believes there are parallels between the pair’s work and the activism that took place in Santa Rosa nearly two years ago amid other Black Lives Matter protests that took place nationally in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

During that time, several local politicians and law enforcement officials met with Scott to discuss practices he thought could lead to more equitable policing.

Black needs still overlooked

Though those conversations have opened the doors to more collaboration between police and the local Black community, there are other areas, such as education and housing, in which the needs of Black residents are still overlooked, Scott said.

The Black community’s small share of the county’s population, measured at 1.5% in the last census, is often used to justify the allocation of resources to other minority groups, he added.

“The NAACP is able to communicate with the community and see what the need is at a grassroots level, in real time,” Scott said. “We are able to … stand up and say ‘Hey, there are more of us here. We have a voice that is here and we need help.’”

Faith Ross, a co-founder of Petaluma Blacks for Community Development, said the organization has helped its members stay connected over the decades, though the group is now tackling new issues such as the underrepresentation of Black leadership for local youth.

With more than 40 years in existence, the group’s long history and involvement in the community means that city leaders look to its members for input when issues involving Black residents happen in the community, she added.

She said several of its members sat on the city’s ad hoc community advisory committee, which in December handed the Petaluma City Council a list of more than 30 recommendations as a result of its examination of race, diversity and equity issues in the city.

Among the recommendations were calls for police oversight and the creation of a multicultural center.

“You’re talking about these issues and trying to find solutions, versus letting everybody else do it,” Ross said of the group.

Robinson, who had the vision to create Petaluma Blacks for Community Development, said training through Eddie Mae Sloan’s organization, Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity, gave her a foundation for how to approach leadership as she expanded her participation in other local groups. She was also involved with the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women, the Sonoma County grand jury and the Sonoma County Black Forum.

Sadler, who worked for Sloan for about five years starting in 1970, said teaching others to be “good leaders in our communities” was among one of Sloan’s specialties. An important part of her approach was getting communities she worked with to buy-in when developing solutions to poverty, Sadler said.

“She taught us … how to engage with communities in a way that is mindful and respectful and supportive without imposing yourself upon them,” Sadler said.

Sloan’s granddaughter Cruz, who grew up living with Sloan in her Graton home, said her grandmother’s caring nature extended beyond her work hours.

It was common for Sloan to invite people she met through work to their home for dinner, or extend a helping hand to a stranger, Cruz said.

Sloan passed away in 1998. She died before the Sloan House, a local shelter for women and children, was named in her honor, Cruz said. Nevertheless, Cruz said such recognition of her grandmother, who was particularly committed to helping women and children in need, remains significant.

“I know that work was important to my grandmother, and to have her recognized all these years later, it felt amazing that her legacy lived on,” Cruz said.

Rev. Turner, the current Community Baptist Church pastor, remembered his predecessor and uncle, Rev. Coffee, as a conduit between the community and local leaders.

“If someone had a problem (with police), he would call the chief,” Turner said. “If someone had a political issue, he would call them.”

While the church has grown to be much more diverse than when it was first founded, Turner said the house of worship serves as a central hub for several new and existing Black residents in the city.

In recognition of the area’s Black residents, the church has its sights set on an African diaspora center, though efforts to get the project off the ground have stalled as he looks to secure funding, Turner said. He said no such space, one that specifically celebrates Black culture, exists in our area.

“It’s so people know the history here,” Turner said of the need for the center. “The history from our perspective.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   

 

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