When longtime California educator and local civil rights pioneer Willie Garrett, 90, died Friday, he was in the Santa Rosa home that he loved — the same house in the foothills overlooking Rincon and Sonoma valleys where he and his wife, Ida Mae, were among the first black homeowners five decades ago.
Buying that property wasn’t easy for the Garretts. Choices were limited in the area for black people — a product of both overt racism and institutional discrimination legal before the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Though the couple had saved up to buy a property when they moved to Santa Rosa in 1956, they struggled to find a real estate agent who would work with them.
They had lived for years in Santa Rosa’s South Park neighborhood, home to much of the city’s small black population at that time, before finding the land they loved on Los Alamos Road and an owner who was willing to sell it to them — despite the objections of others to the deal. The Garretts went through with it and built their family home there.
“It was back in those days when a black man didn’t buy property on Los Alamos Road, so you can imagine,” said his longtime friend and local activist Mary Moore of Camp Meeker. “They had to go through hell to buy the place.”
It was an emblematic struggle for Garrett, a prominent leader in the civil rights movement in Sonoma County, where he served as president of the local NAACP chapter and helped start, with his friend Gilbert Gray and others, the Community Baptist Church — a landmark institution for Santa Rosa’s African American community.
Garrett, who later in life taught at Sonoma State University and co-founded its ethnic studies department, also helped stage the first sit-in held in Santa Rosa. In May 1962, he and about half a dozen other black men, including Gray, walked into the Silver Dollar Saloon on Fourth Street — in the present-day location of Jackson’s Bar and Oven. They had come after the Silver Dollar Saloon owner repeatedly refused to serve black men and women in the community. They sat down and were refused service.
But they filed a lawsuit against the bar that forced the end of its racial discrimination against customers, spawning a wider campaign to integrate local restaurants.
In 1964, Garrett also became the first black appointee to a Santa Rosa board or commission, when he was named to a four-year term on the city’s Recreation and Park Commission.
“He was the heart and soul of this community,” Moore said about Garrett’s work in civil rights. “He pretty much gave his life to the cause.”
He was a teacher and administrator for decades in the state school system for troubled youth, including the Los Guilicos School for Girls in Sonoma Valley, just a few miles south of his Los Alamos home.
Willie L. Garrett was born Sept. 10, 1928, in east Texas — in either the town of Carthage or San Augustine, family members said, noting that he did not have a birth certificate. He grew up in the segregated South, graduating from Carthage High School for Colored Children, where he met his future wife. They went on to Prairie View A&M University, a historically black public college outside of Houston.
Garrett put himself through college by working in the cafeteria and was part of the ROTC, later becoming an Army officer and serving in Korea as the head of an all-white platoon after the military had been desegregated. He left the Army as a captain.
He and Ida married in 1951 and moved to California, where Garrett took postgraduate classes at UC Berkeley. At night, he drove a bus from Richmond to San Francisco while his wife rode beside him, reading his assignments aloud to help him study.
“They were a team,” said Vivian Crawford of Buena Park, who later worked with the couple at Ventura School in Camarillo.
Struggling to find work as a teacher in the Bay Area, Garrett went to work for the state and was transferred to Los Guilicos School for Girls, a California Youth Authority school on Santa Rosa’s eastern outskirts. He and Ida both taught there for years and even lived on the campus before buying their first home in South Park. When the Los Guilicos school closed, they moved to Ventura School in Camarillo, another CYA campus, where Garrett eventually became the school’s principal.
He and his wife tutored children in their spare time and even prepared lunches for some of their students because they knew many didn’t have enough to eat at home, said Alicia Dassos, one of their four children.
“He was always very nurturing, supportive, always trying to help young people,” Crawford said. “He was an educator through and through.”
Dassos said her father’s deep legacy of activism led people to often share with her stories about him and his important role in the community.
The end of his workday did not curtail his giving. Dassos and her sister, Angela Glover, recalled that their father was a sharp dresser, but that he would often come home, change into a jumpsuit and head out to ask the neighbors if they needed help with anything. He was a dutiful dad, too, always on the sidelines for his children’s performances and games, they said.
His commitment to the community led to a common refrain in the family.
“Mom said he was off saving the world, and he was,” Dassos said. “He was … just a role model to everybody, really.”
Garrett retired in Santa Rosa in 1993 and became a “full-time” advocate, serving at the helm of the NAACP and giving his time to other local causes, family members said.
He was a man of good humor and positive attitude who could smile through tough times, friends and family said. He ran track in college, and he jogged into his mid-70s, frequently on the formidable hill leading up to the top of Los Alamos Road.
He suffered few ailments and only some mild dementia leading up to his death, which family members said came quickly from natural causes after a sudden turn in his health. Just five weeks earlier, he went to a jazz festival with friends.
“He’s one in a million,” said Gail Garrett Stinson, a sister who lives in Richmond. “I’m not saying it just because he’s my brother. Even if he wasn’t my brother, I would still want him to be somebody I know.”
When Willie and Ida Garrett got older, they sat their children down and made them promise to let them live the rest of their lives in the Los Alamos Road home they had fought so hard to make theirs. And they got their wish — Ida died there in September 2016.
“Despite the odds, they were able to (buy that property),” Dassos said. “It’s beautiful here. And every day (my dad) got to get out on his deck and see the amazing view, and that’s what he was able to do on the very last day of his life.”
In addition to his daughters, Dassos, of Madrid, and Glover, of Ventura, and his sister, Garrett Stinson, he is survived by his son, Adrian Garrett of Santa Barbara; his four other sisters, Ada Floyd Petitt of Burke, Virginia, Maynor Lois Green of Bakersfield, Ruth Ann Terry of Oakland and Sherel Garrett Jones of Lynwood, Washington; and his two grandchildren.
A celebration of life is planned for 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 22 at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country in the Dry Creek Valley Ballroom.
“We’re not calling it a memorial,” Dassos said. “It’s a celebration of life. Because that’s what he did every single day until his last breath.”