Civil rights

Santa Rosa civil rights leader Ann Gray Byrd dies at 86

Ann Gray Byrd, who as a teenager watched her parents become civil rights and equality pioneers in Santa Rosa and then molded herself into a formidable activist and lifelong minister, died July 7. She was 86 years old.

Byrd was a high school student when her family moved to Santa Rosa in 1952. She came to perceive that she and the very few other black people who lived there were largely free to live their lives as long as they knew their place and did not did not venture. where they were not welcome.

The teenager and her parents, Gilbert and Alice Gray, decided that would not be the case.

When Byrd died in her Santa Rosa home from a chronic illness exacerbated by a long COVID, she had dedicated most of her life to fighting for equal rights, access and opportunity for people of color and other marginalized people.

“We all have to do the work of change,” she said in 2014. “I’ve decided that part of my life purpose is to keep saying that.”

Byrd was for decades a force in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP branch that her late father co-founded in 1953. Although inspired to action by the leader of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., she declared she was not an “MLK pacifist” and made it clear that if she had to push, she would push back.

“Everyone knows my mom was a powerhouse,” her daughter Pamela Grandy said. “Everyone knows she would go to the nth degree to do what’s right, what’s right.”

“I called her Donna Quixote,” added Grandy, who lives in Vallejo. “She was always there to fight something.”

One of Byrd’s favorite appeals to others: “You don’t have to stand up straight, but you have to stand up.”

She also often repeated one of her father’s main exhortations: “Each one, teach one”. She would explain: “It means that each of us has a responsibility to bring someone else, to give others the same opportunities that we seek for ourselves.”

Byrd was active in early efforts to monitor the behavior toward minorities of law enforcement officers in Sonoma County and in the establishment of the County Commission on the Status of Women and the nonprofit organization nonprofit Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity, now Community Action Partnership. .

An ordained minister, Byrd has encouraged and championed members of the LGBTQ+ community and other vulnerable people. His pro-justice work included leadership roles in the Sonoma County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

For decades, Byrd led the Gray Charitable Foundation, founded by his parents in 1992 to help low-income Sonoma County students attend college. Over approximately a quarter century, the Gray Foundation has awarded scholarships totaling more than $180,000.

Byrd “was very proud of her blackness,” said her longtime friend Sheri Graves of Santa Rosa. “She was a brave, courageous woman at a time when women, and especially black women, were going through a tough time.”

Graves, a retired Democratic newspaper reporter, co-authored a 2011 book with Byrd, “Glimpses: A Story of African Americans in Santa Rosa.”

Byrd, she said, “had a profound impact on this community, and certainly on me.”

Byrd was born on March 30, 1936 in Tatum, Texas. She was the first of Alice and Gilbert Gray’s nine children.

The couple moved in 1945 to a predominantly black community in Marin City, and in 1952 to Santa Rosa. The Grays’ eldest daughter will recount that around this time, African Americans wanting to live in Santa Rosa learned their options were the South Park neighborhood near the county fairgrounds or rural areas outside the city limits. the city.

The Grays settled in the countryside near Petaluma Hill Road. Ann Gray Byrd will recall that when she was studying at Santa Rosa High in the early 1950s, the only two other black students enrolled were one of her brothers, William, and a sister, Dorothy.

She once said of her experience at what was then Santa Rosa’s only high school, “Thank God it wasn’t so bad. We didn’t have too many problems. »

According to her, African Americans living in Santa Rosa 70 years ago would be fine if they followed the racist rules, far more subtle than those imposed by Jim Crow laws in the South, which dictated where they could live. and do business.

“Everyone seemed to know their place,” Byrd told an interviewer several years ago, “until the sit-ins.”

One of Santa Rosa’s best-known acts of defiance of segregation occurred on a Sunday afternoon in May 1962 at the Silver Dollar Saloon in what is now Railroad Square.

Gilbert Gray and Platt Williams, who had founded the Santa Rosa chapter of the NAACP nearly a decade earlier, walked into the Silver Dollar with four other black men after church and sat at the bar. They had been told that the saloon would not serve people like them.