2009 Jack Green Civil Liberties Award Honoree
When local columnist and historian Gaye LeBaron wrote about the local Civil Rights Movement, much of her column told the story of Willie Garrett and his family. Born in St. Augustine, east Texas, Willie was raised on a farm near the Louisiana border by his grandparents after his mother passed away as a young child. This rural up bring where they had no electricity and raised their own food created a deep sense of the need for planning ones future and a strong work ethic.
Rural Texas had no high schools so Willie had to move in with his uncle and aunt in Carthage, Texas to attend high school. It was in high school where he met his future wife Ida. Going to high school, African-American students had to walk on the opposite side of the street from the white kids and they were subjected to taunts and insults as they walked to get an education. He remembers walking to school one winter day and being pelted with snowballs thrown by white students. After he started throwing snowballs back and chased after the attackers, his uncle received a “warning” from a group of white citizens that he better explain to Willie his “place” in the segregated south. His uncle told him he was “too young to develop an attitude” not to waste his time and emotions hating and fighting the whites, but instead get an education and “use his time and energy to do my best to compete instead of hating them. The name of the game is survival.” Willie took this advice and spent his time in the library when he wasn’t at school or doing chores. He an Ida graduated co-valedictorians of the class.
Both Willie and Ida went to college at Prairie View College in Texas, a college for blacks that whites could attend (African-Americans could not attend colleges for whites), where he majored in science. To pay for college he worked digging ditches and enrolled in the ROTC program. Graduating in 1950, as a Second Lieutenant in the Army with orders to go to Korea. Prior to be “shipped out” he married Ida. In the army he lead an integrated National Guard unit from Oklahoma. On his first day he was told by a group of those under his command that they “ain’t taking no orders from some nigger.” His response was to tell them that “if we are going to survive, we were all going to have to protect each other backs.” When the unit was caught in ambush, and the unit was forced to look to him to survive, the unit coalesced and there was “no longer talk of racism.”
After returning from the war and assignment at Fort Ord, Willie resigned his commission and went to U.C. Berkeley, taking classes by day and driving a Key Bus at night with Ida sitting behind him reading his lessons to him.
In 1953 Ida started teaching home economics at the California Youth Authority’s Los Guilicos School for Girls. Willie obtained his teaching credential moved to Santa Rosa in 1954 to join his wife and taught Science, English, Social Science and Mathematics at the school. Counseling “delinquent” girls, he worked to instill a belief in themselves and instill a work ethic. He arranged for students to be able to take classes at Santa Rosa Junior College and obtained a bus from the state so students could attend.
He soon ran into the inequality that African-Americans faced here when he tried to purchase a home and found that blacks were only supposed to buy in South Park. When he went to purchase property elsewhere, both the seller and the title company that prepared the paperwork were inundated with phone calls from people trying to stop the sale.
In 1959 Willie started going to NAACP meetings and was soon recruited by the Sonoma County Chapter co-founder Gilbert Gray to accompany him to meetings with employers, supporters, attorneys and others as they worked to bring racial justice to Sonoma County.
Willie was not a believer in marches and demonstrations and much preferred to meet and discuss problems as they came up to understand the opposing side’s concerns and try to reach a solution. But on Sunday, May 20, 1962 he, Gray and five other black men walked from church to the Silver Dollar Saloon on Fourth Street in Railroad Square. They sat down at the bar and ordered drinks. Although they had had nothing to drink, the bartender old them: “I’m sorry boys, you’ve already had too much.” Refused service, they held Santa Rosa’s first sit-in. Afterwards they sued the tavern and won.
In 1964, Willie became the first African-American to be appointed by the City of Santa Rosa to be appointed to a city commission.
Willie Garrett along with Dr. James Gray and Dr. Lavell Holmes taught at Sonoma State University and co-founded the Ethnic Studies Department.
When the state closed the school at Los Guilicos in 1970 and gave it to the county, Willie and Ida moved to Ventura to teach at the CYA high school there for seventeen years before returning to Santa Rosa.
Willie has spent many years volunteering at junior high and high schools in Sonoma County. He talks to students encouraging them to stay in school and organizes mentors and tutors to help them succeed. He established a scholarship fund The Garrett Enterprise to help students.
In the 1990’s Willie served president of the NAACP’s Sonoma Chapter for 10 years and held numerous events that increased the chapter’s membership and influence. He brought such figures as the President of the national NAACP, baseball great Hank Aaron and others to increase the membership and draw people to NAACP events. “It is important for people to know that there is a local group of people that care for those in the community.”
In 1997 Willie Garrett received the City of Santa Rosa Merit Award for his “tireless work in the area of human relations.” In 2001 the Council on Aging honored him for his “contributions to seniors.” In 2003 he and his wife Ida were inducted into the Sonoma Chapter of the NAACP’s Freedom Hall of Fame.