By SHELDON BERMONT/ Towns Correspondent
Gloria Faye Robinson, “a proud 70 years old,” has spent the better part of the past 40 years sharing black history and culture with her community. She is the heart and soul of Petaluma Blacks for Community Development, a Petaluma organization that still flies under the average citizen’s radar.
The group is dedicated to bridging the racial gaps that separate Petaluma’s population and convincing people of all races to become more involved in local government.
Her most recent challenge is finding a way to keep the group’s tradition and mission alive.
“The original membership, with just a few exceptions, is still doing the lion’s share of the work,” she said. “The next generation is not stepping up to take our place.
“They seem to be more interested in careers and furthering individual family goals. We are still trying to figure out what to do about it.”
Robinson grew up in Florida in the ‘40s and ‘50s, when separatism, if not outright racism, was the norm, even in cities like her Miami hometown.
She was 20 when she and her husband, Herbert, came to San Francisco to start a new life, part of an influx of people seeking jobs and the California lifestyle. They were attracted to Petaluma by the affordable real estate.
Robinson quickly got busy helping other black residents get involved, working with the NAACP and Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity. Both groups were promoting racial interaction by getting out the vote.
Robinson credits Joe Rappaport, a white chicken rancher and community activist, with motivating her to get involved. During those years it wasn’t uncommon for white people to attend NAACP meetings, and that’s where she met him.
“He’s the one who told me, ‘If not you, then who?’ I’ve always gone back to that saying for my motivation,” she said.
With Rappaport’s words looming large in her mind, Robinson started a local group to address the same issues.
Black caucuses had been around since 1967 in California, working to create job opportunities, assure equal access for education and social/health services, lobby for protection against hate crimes and increase the ratio of African-Americans in all levels of government.
In 1977, Robinson borrowed the name of Santa Rosa’s Black Caucus and got busy.
“Being as my two oldest were students (at Casa Grande High School) at the time, I was able to request the use of the multi-purpose room,” she said. Thirty people showed up for the first meeting.
“Also in attendance were representatives from the Black Elks of Santa Rosa, the NAACP, Negro Business and Professional Women, the Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity, the Blacks Student Unions from Sonoma State and Casa Grande High, and the mayor at the time, Helen Putnam.”
At the close of the meeting, Robinson said, “I felt positive about being able to start some community awareness to get Petaluma’s Black History Month off the ground.”
Carl G. Wooden started Negro History Week in 1926, and it grew to become national Black History Month in 1976.
“At the time we had no representation in any part of Petaluma’s city government, and we were fairly invisible in the eyes of the community,” Robinson said. And, as a parent of four children in the Petaluma school system, she was able to see firsthand how much work was needed to bridge the racial gaps that existed then and those she still observes today.
In March 1978, the group met at the Bernard Elderly Elementary school. “Various community leaders spoke, and we got two people to vote,” she said. “We thought that was great! If we hadn’t had that gathering, we wouldn’t have known those two existed. And that’s the way it has gone, little by little, getting the word out.”
In April 1978, the group had its first annual picnic.
“That day will always stick in my mind for two reasons,” Robinson said. “One, it was the windiest day in Petaluma’s history, and the second reason, we all got a laugh out of watching the reactions of the people driving by. They had never seen that many African-Americans in one place at one time.”
In 1979, the name was changed to Petaluma Blacks for Community Development and officers were selected: Gloria Robinson, chairman; Faith Ross, vice chair; Ted Morris, treasurer; and Nadine Lawson, secretary.
Over the years they accomplished:
* A census workshop. “We trained citizens in how to correctly answer the questions on the forms and advised and instructed new voters in the process. Our intent was to make sure there was an accurate head count so that the county would be made aware of our presence.”
* Community productions, including oratorical contests, jazz and gospel concerts, prayer recitations, stories, skits, discussion groups and documentary film screenings.
* Tutoring programs. Parents donated their time and expertise, but the programs lasted only five years in the ‘80s. Robinson says she would love to see them restarted.
* The Heritage Festival Celebration, a day for every culture in the community, sponsored by the Petaluma Valley Rotary Club. “People are begging for that to happen again, but no one has picked up the financial baton,” she said.
Robinson said it gets tougher every year to make programs like these happen.
“Every year fees to use the community center for our mission have gone up. It seems that gatherings that can only help the city should be given a break, as far as costs.”
The group’s get-out-the-vote drive “has seen some results,” she said. “I feel there are many families now who will vote without being dragged to the polls. Many people call me at voting time to get my opinion, because they know I keep up with the issues and the viability of the candidates running.”
For two years, Robinson served as vice president of the Petaluma Democrats, and for five she met monthly as part of Dialogue on Race, sponsored by Healthy Community Consortium.
Her home is filled with framed awards given over the years by organizations such as The Recreation, Music and Park Commission, the National Association of Negro Professional Business Women’s Club, and the Petaluma Business and Professional Women’s Club.
She also received the prestigious Sojourner Truth Meritorious Service Award in 2001.
And her children are grown, with Eugene now living in Sonoma, Ron Herbert in Santa Rosa, Angela in Petaluma, and Derrick in Vallejo.
But Gloria Robinson said she is not in it for the accolades. She is just working to share her dream of an undivided Petaluma.