Edna Webster Coleman’s remarkable life in the struggle for social justice
GLIDE’s Annual Fund manager Hallie Brignall spoke recently with Edna Webster, a longtime GLIDE community member and Bay Area educator and activist who has designated a portion of her estate for GLIDE and its work on behalf of the community. In the following account, Hallie offers a brief overview of Edna’s remarkable and very busy life, including her organizing with Rev. Cecil Williams and GLIDE as an extension of the civil rights efforts she pursued in the South. We are deeply grateful for Edna’s lifetime of commitment to justice and compassion for others, and we thank her for letting us share her inspiring story.
Edna Webster grew up in the projects of New Orleans. After graduating high school, she worked for a short while in her cousin’s restaurant and as a babysitter. Feeling unsatisfied, she yearned to do more. Unsure of what new direction to take, she walked down to the Custom House on Canal Street and exclaimed, “I think I want to join the Army.” She passed the test and found herself stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, near St. Louis, Missouri, where she exceled, eventually making Drill Sargent.
During her time in the army, Edna met her husband and earned enough money to pay for college. She enrolled in social studies and history at an historically black college, Southern University, in New Orleans. This led her to teaching in local schools, one of which was the William Frantz Elementary School, where Ruby Bridges integrated.
Beginning in the 1960s, while still in New Orleans, Edna became active in the Civil Rights Movement. She landed in jail three times due to protest actions for integration. At a young age, she and a group of friends participated in lunch-counter protests at Woolworth’s. They’d take their books down to do their homework, a very wholesome and innocent activity, but found themselves forcefully asked to move. They refused. Edna recalls what happened next.
“The server called us the ‘N’ word and threw lemon meringue pie at us before calling the police, who carted us off to jail.” The next day they were bailed out by the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE] and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]. That same day, they went back out on the street to protest for integration at a university in Baton Rouge. The governor shut down the school and the National Guard descended on the campus. The police used canines and water hoses on the protestors before taking them back to jail. Again, they were bailed out by various activist groups.
Edna also worked on voter education. She taught older people how to vote at a church located in Uptown, New Orleans. Voting was next to impossible for African Americans in her community and nationwide. “They’d ask us all kinds of crazy questions like, ‘How many jelly beans are in that jar,’ or they’d say, ‘Uh, well, you can’t vote because you haven’t been in your home for six months to a year.’”
At one voting location, she was rifling through her large purse for a pen when someone shouted, “She’s got a gun!” to which she replied, “What gun? What are you talking about?” Security came and searched her bag, but there was nothing there. They resorted to telling her, “Well, you can’t come today!” Edna points out that we’re seeing these types of tricks and intimidation again today when African American try to vote.
During this turbulent time, Edna remembers meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was a guest speaker at the Dr. Rev. Davis’s church in New Orleans. “He was a dynamite speaker and was very impressive, Edna remembers. “He spoke about continuing the fight against injustice. We were all students in our early 20s who were on the frontline, fighting for the cause.”
Edna’s family began putting down roots in San Francisco in the 1940s, when her grandparents and her aunt came out for jobs at the Hunter’s Point and Kaiser shipyards. Her family owned a home in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood and were doing well. After her father passed away in 1967, Edna and her mother moved to San Francisco. She recalls thinking, “Boy, I’m going to California.”
After she arrived, she found herself protesting again. “When is this going to stop? I thought I was coming to freedom and that it would be different out here. There were protests against the Vietnam War and protests at San Francisco State University [to create Ethnic Studies programs].” The SFSU Student Strike was especially violent. The president of SFSU, S. I. Hayakawa, called in the police to restore control. “The people got beaten up brutally by mounted police swinging their billy clubs.”
“And many jobs in San Francisco weren’t open to black people, not until the 1970s. I remember protesting MUNI for not hiring black drivers.”
As Edna found herself getting involved in local activism, one name came up repeatedly: Cecil Williams.
“When I got here, that’s when I heard a lot about Cecil because he was very active,” recalls Edna. “He led a lot of protests, would speak at a lot of different places and had a lot of good programs for the people. He got people to march against the Vietnam War.”
At one event, she remembers Cecil leading people to the Bill Graham Civic Center, where GLIDE’s Ensemble performed.
“When they wanted to close down the Charles Drew School in Bayview [Hunter’s Point],” she further recalls, “he got a group of his members and they came out there to protest.” The protests were successful, and the school is there to this day.
Edna not only attended Cecil’s protests, she also volunteered during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Sometimes, she would even bring her students and their parents. She also attended Celebration. GLIDE was Edna’s first church when she came out to California. “I went to the church and I really enjoyed the services. The choir, mingling with the people—everyone is very friendly.”
Edna was equally ambitious about her education and career. While serving in the Presidio military reserves and working at Head Start, she was also busy earning her California credentials as a teaching and reading specialist along with a master’s degree. She then embarked on a 50-year career in the San Francisco public school system.
Eventually, Edna decided that she wanted to visit the places she’d been teaching about. As a result, she has traveled all over the United States and to several countries. She fondly remembers visiting Nubian villages in Ethiopia; Archbishop Tutu’s church in South Africa; Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell on Robben Island; Gorée Island in Senegal, which was a major slave-trading location; the village of Juffure in Gambia, featured in Alex Haley’s famous novel Roots, where she met an ancestor of Kunte Kinte named Binte Kunte; a Malawi village in South Africa, where she volunteered as an English teacher; W.E.B. Du Bois’s burial site in Ghana; and Cuba to tour their public-school system.
In the early 1980s, the San Francisco Unified School District laid off 500 teachers. Edna was one of the first teachers to be let go. She went down to the Federal building on Golden Gate Avenue and filled out an application to be an Educational Specialist. She was hired as the director of a school at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Eventually, San Francisco Unified rehired most of the teachers and she returned to San Francisco.
In 2002, Edna retired—sort of. Over the following decade or more, she worked for the San Francisco Unified School District’s after-school program; at City College, in their GED program; and as a consultant for new teachers. As you might imagine, Edna has received many awards for her stellar career, including “Teacher of the Year” and “Unsung Hero.” She continues to volunteer in after-school programs in Richmond to help kids excel.
Edna admires the variety of GLIDE’s programs helping homeless individuals and low-income families—programs offering housing assistance, support for women who have survived abuse, and for children in need of daycare and after-school programming. “Cecil did a lot to help the community,” says Edna. “That’s what you really have to look at. Somebody that’s doing something positive.”
In 2018, Edna committed to making a legacy gift to GLIDE in her estate plans.
“You never know where you’re going to need,” she explains. “I got help when I needed it, and I’m in a position now to give back. You give back because you want to see these young kids make it.”
In addition to her generous bequest, Edna offers future generations an inspiring example of a life lived in the service of social justice, education and solidarity with others. And for the younger generations of today, both activists and those who haven’t joined them yet, Edna has this message:
“People ought to protest again, just like in the ’60s. They should keep it going. If you go to sleep on this and are passive, what’s going to happen? They are going to take away what you have gained. That’s the way it goes. We had to fight to get what we got. Young people are going to have to get out and keep it going. They need to keep things moving and not give up.”