“I always believed what my father taught us: Each One Teach One. It means each of us has a responsibility to bring someone else along, to give to others the same opportunities we seek for ourselves.” – Rev. Ann Gray Byrd
Ann Gray Byrd was a civil rights and social justice powerhouse in Santa Rosa for over 70 years. Born March 30, 1936, in Tatum, Texas, Ann was the daughter of Santa Rosa civil rights leaders Gilbert and Alice Gray. Moving to Santa Rosa in 1952 with her family, Ann helped to shape the political and social landscape in Santa Rosa through her work with various organizations over the years.
Ann’s story began at Santa Rosa High School, where at the time, there were only three Black students in the whole school. These three were herself, her brother William, and sister Dorothy. During her time at Santa Rosa High, Ann was the student body secretary and was also involved in speech and drama. She graduated from Santa Rosa High School in 1954.
Outside of school, Ann was actively involved in the newly formed Santa Rosa-Sonoma County Chapter of the NAACP. Formed by her father and Platt Williams, along with several other community members, Ann was asked to be the Chapter Secretary because of her typing skills. Ann also mentioned that at the time, women were not allowed to hold the president or vice president roles with the Chapter, but this would soon change.
Prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Ann stated that most folks in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County knew their place in the social hierarchy. This all changed when the NAACP began holding sit-ins and pickets. The first sit-ins and pickets began at Kress and Woolworth, but also included the sit-in at the Silver Dollar Saloon in downtown Santa Rosa. Ann said that not only did the picketing include members of the local Black community, but they were also joined by several Jewish and Quaker community members.
Ann continued her work with the NAACP, where the chapter worked to change local housing and infrastructure policies in Santa Rosa and other parts of Sonoma County. She stated that the group struggled to make inroads on housing, stating that the only place Black residents in Santa Rosa could live was in the South Park neighborhood. “We couldn’t live anywhere else – nobody would show us any other housing.” Ann says it took years to break down neighborhood segregation and the creation of the Highway 12 overpass dampened that progress. She also mentioned that South Park didn’t get sidewalks until the late 1980s. “There were supposed to be improvements, but it took a very long time to see anything change.”
Ann served as the Chapter’s president on several occasions, first from 1976-1980, then from 2002-2006 and then again from 2010-2017. When asked to describe herself and her leadership style, Ann said she was not a “MLK pacifist.” She cursed and fought and had a reputation of being militant. She didn’t care – she wanted everyone to know, “don’t mess with me and don’t mess with my children.” In 1976, Ann, along with other members of the NAACP, led one of the very first grassroots efforts to monitor police interactions with the community, called a watch-patrol program. “With the utmost respect, monitors will simply take notes to record the officers’ actions and behavior toward further documentation of our charges…The program is simply watch and record.”
In 1992, Ann became the founding Executive Director of the Gray Foundation, an organization established to provide funds to Sonoma County students for college. The scholarships were provided to students who demonstrated excellence in academics, leadership, athletics, vocational skills, and community service. Up until about 2016, the Gray Foundation awarded more than $180,000 to local high school students. The Foundation is currently inactive, although there has been talk about reviving it.
In addition to her work with the NAACP and the Gray Foundation, Ann also served as a Human Resources Consultant for 30 years and as Assistant Chief of Operations for California Human Development for four years. She also spent several years in the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chaplaincy. She was a founding member of the Commission on the Status of Women and the Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity. She also served as both the Chair and on the Board of Directors for the ACLU. Ann was also the Santa Rosa Interfaith Ministerial Association President from 2008-2012.
In 2011, Ann co-wrote and published Glimpses: A History of African Americans in Sonoma County. Not only was the goal of the book to tell the history of African Americans in Sonoma County, but it was also to make the history accessible to everyone in Sonoma County. The book includes a chronicle of the struggles of early freed slaves in Sonoma County, the history of the South Park neighborhood, information about local civil rights organizations and groups, and biographies of the many individuals who shaped Santa Rosa and Sonoma County into what it is today. Also included are snapshots of documents and newspaper articles that highlight the lives of African Americans from 1865 through 2010.
Ann was honored for her community by the State of California Legislative Women of the Year in 2005 and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 2015. She also received the American Society of Public Administrator’s Outstanding Professional Woman in 1972; the National Council of Negro Women’s Mary McLeod Bethune Community Service Award in 1980; and multiple awards from the NAACP, including the President’s Northern Area Conference NAACP Leadership Award (1982), the Unsung Heroine Award (1985 and 1986), the Civil Rights Pioneer Award (1997), and the Legacy Award. Ann was also awarded the ACLU’s Jack Green Award in 2016.
Ann Gray-Byrd passed away at home on July 7, 2022. She leaves behind several children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as a legacy of determination, persistence and a fierce passion for social justice. Before her passing, she spoke about the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and said she was so proud of all the young people who stepped up and are still stepping out in the community. She was full of emotion when she spoke of her great-granddaughter, Lillian, who led a march in Petaluma in the summer of 2020. Seeing her take the lead made everything Ann lived through, including all the pain and hurt she experienced over the decades doing this work, all worth it. It made her proud to know that there are young people today with the spirit of “I can make a change” and who will continue the work started in the not so distant past. Her legacy will live on.
Ann Gray-Byrd was interviewed by Danielle Garduno, Community Engagement Program Manager.
To learn more about Ann Gray-Byrd, please visit the links below:
ACLU Lunch 2016 Ann Gray Byrd: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlpXBqog9YY
Byrd, A. & Graves, S. (2011). Glimpses: A Story of African Americans in Santa Rosa, California.
Conservation Action. Ann Gray Byrd Interviewed by Michael Allen for SCCA’s 2020 GrassRoots Gala: https://www.conservationaction.org/ann-gray-byrd/