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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 poses with a large portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during Black History month.

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.

Edna teaches 5th graders in San Francisco public schools.

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.

Edna on the Island of Gorée in Senegal, which was one of the key stopovers in the slave trade since the 15th Century. It is now a world heritage site and pilgrimage destination for the African diaspora.

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 surrounded by her 5th grade students from Commodore Sloat School.

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.”

 

Cape of Good Hope, Capetown, South Africa.

On the first day of Black History Month, we are delighted to feature and honor Ernestine Nettles, who this Christmas celebrated 50 years of service—not only to GLIDE, but to her community in Oakland, the Civil Rights Movement, gender equality and voting rights.

Ernestine Nettles with Rev. Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani
Ernestine Nettles with Rev. Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani.

Ernestine is a beloved pillar of the holiday feasts GLIDE organizes for its community. In fact, Ernestine is well known among holiday volunteers for being the first person to arrive on Thanksgiving morning, usually around 5:30 am. A couple of years ago she discovered that some of the younger volunteers had started a competition among themselves to see who could beat Ernestine to GLIDE on Thanksgiving Day!

Jennifer Gentile, a Holiday Volunteer Captain for 16 years, has many fond memories of working with Ernestine.

“I have extraordinarily strong feelings about Ernestine as a person, as my friend, and as the first person I see every Thanksgiving morning because she is our team’s early bird anchor. She is a phenomenal woman who truly has dedicated her life to serving others and fighting for civil rights, racial justice and gender equality.”

Jennifer mentioned that despite Ernestine’s years of working at GLIDE, this was the first holiday that she had her photo taken with Jan and Cecil.

“She’s very humble, and generally avoids any attention and certainly the spotlight, but 50 years of volunteering? That’s something!” says Jennifer.

A local justice hero

A committed activist and changemaker immersed in the Civil Rights Movement, Ernestine began volunteering with GLIDE in 1968 after meeting Janice Mirikitani and Rev. Cecil Williams while they were campaigning for the right to vote for 18-year-old Americans, and for girls’ and women’s right to wear pants to public school.

To have a cause that has stood the test of time and remained true to the initial dream is truly a blessing in these days.

“Cecil worked vigorously with the youth. Of course, he himself was young at the time! We got the legislation passed for the 18-year-olds’ right to vote, and we also went through the school boards and got the girls’ right to wear pants,” she says.

Due to their overlapping work, Ernestine has many recollections of Janice and Cecil over the years, and great insight into the trajectory of GLIDE’s programs.

“One day, Cecil and Jan were at my parents’ house and my dad said to Cecil, ‘Young man what is it you really want to do?’

“Cecil’s response was that he wanted GLIDE to be a place where anyone in San Francisco could come and get a decent meal and not have to go to bed hungry. That was his dream. And needless to say, the dream has come true.”

“In his quest to do that, everything else has happened—all the social services developed—and that was because of his ability to use funds for what they were meant for. To have a cause that has stood the test of time and remained true to the initial dream is truly a blessing in these days. I think that everyone has gravitated to GLIDE because it has always done what it said it would do and it was always a welcoming community.”

GLIDE Co-Founder Janice Mirikitani recalls working alongside Ernestine during pivotal social justice campaigns.

“I remember her having an enormous amount of energy. She was a firecracker! And very committed to justice issues. It wasn’t enough for her to just talk about it. She did a lot of work around the causes that she believed in. I’m really happy that she believed in GLIDE,” Janice said. “She put so much energy and time into volunteering for us. She is a very compassionate and giving individual.”

One of the things I tell young people is that when you’re looking at the issues and you’re looking at those candidates, make sure they have the right consciousness.

Besides her consistent volunteer work with GLIDE, Ernestine is highly involved in her local community. She is currently a Contract Compliance Officer with the City of Oakland, where she works to make opportunities available to small and very small local businesses. But creating opportunities and paving the way for others is not just her profession; it is truly her life’s work.

“I’ve always been a part of social justice movements; back then we called it civil rights! I’ve always worked in equal opportunity programs.”

She is one of the Vice Presidents of the Oakland League of Women Voters; one of the largest leagues in the country. Ernestine registered voters at the Women’s March and is passionate about transparency and responsibility when it comes to political fundraising.

“One of the things I tell young people is that when you’re looking at the issues and you’re looking at those candidates, make sure they have the right consciousness. Because doing the work that Cecil and Jan have done and that those at GLIDE do on a daily basis is a consciousness. It’s not something you do for money, per say, and I think everybody should make a decent living doing what they do, but you have to have the right consciousness.”

I think everybody should be responsible for some one who is less fortunate than them at some point along their journey. Like GLIDE and Cecil preach, we can’t be judgmental.

Additionally, Ernestine helped the late Mrs. Ethel Bradley, wife to Tom Bradley who was the first Black mayor of Los Angeles, build the Tom and Ethel Bradley Foundation. She works with Charles Blanchard in the National Association of Black Veterans, and she has worked closely with former Mayor of Oakland and House Representative the late Ron Dellums. In fact, Ernestine was Dellums’ very first intern in Washington D.C. She is also still connected with one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s aides, JT Johnson, of Atlanta, and this past summer she joined JT and his wife on a trip to Alabama.

“I had never walked across the bridge in Selma. It meant a lot to me to have that experience with JT. I flew into Atlanta, we went to Selma, and then to Montgomery, where we went to the lynching museum.”

Still more, she is involved with the MLK Jr. Freedom Center at Merritt College, and sponsors children to play Little League Baseball in Oakland. Ernestine at one point also took in a homeless couple, after seeing the numbers of unhoused people in Oakland rise year after year.

“I gave them a place to stay, I gave them a job. When they left my home, they went to another home, and now they’re sustaining themselves. I think everybody should be responsible for some one who is less fortunate than them at some point along their journey. Like GLIDE and Cecil preach, we can’t be judgmental. When I look at people who are homeless or who have substance use issues I always say, ‘Except for the grace of God, there could go I.’”

Ernestine speaking at GLIDE Church during Christmas Celebration.

Paving the way

When asked about her life of service, Ernestine emphasizes the knowledge that every-day people have the ability and the duty to challenge unjust laws, and her belief that “to whom much is given, much is expected and required by God.”

While her family was not wealthy, she says her parents taught her that you can make a difference by sharing what you have with those around you who are in need.

“When I was a child, there was a family that lived in our neighborhood that had just moved from Tennessee. The father was having trouble getting work. That Saturday my mother and I went shopping and my mother put two boxes in the trunk of the car. When we were going home we stopped at our neighbors’ house and asked the mother to send one of her sons out to get a box of groceries. The lady was standing on the porch crying, holding her youngest child in her arms. She called my mother later and thanked her and said, ‘You know, if it hadn’t been for you we didn’t know what we were going to feed our children tonight.’

“My parents taught me that every generation is there to make it easier for the next. I have no children, I’ve never been married, but I feel I have an obligation to do something to make it a little better for those who come behind me.”

Eric Tatum is a beloved long-time staff and community member at GLIDE. He has seen many changes over the decades, and has recently been collaborating with our Adult Education Specialist Stephanie McNally to record and archive his invaluable memories. We are grateful to Eric for recognizing the historical significance of his perspectives and experiences, and for sharing his personal truth with our community.

How did you end up knowing so many people?

Cecil gave me a job the first day he met me. Cecil asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I told him I don’t know. He told me there was a position open at GLIDE because someone was leaving the stockroom. I worked in the stockroom until December. There was many events coming up and Cecil asked me if I wanted to participate in the company events that were coming up.

So I went with him as a security guard and bodyguard. He liked how I worked and I became his bodyguard and security guard for 10 years. So everybody who he knew I met; anybody who met Cecil, I met, you know, being his top security guard.

Eric, Ricky and Ivan with Rev. Cecil Williams.

So that’s how I ended up meeting everybody—going to the games, going different places, going to the state capitol, going to the White House. I was right there with him. President Clinton came. I got to meet him, Hillary and their daughter. I went to the inauguration. I went to Washington for the first day that Clinton got in office.

What did it mean to you, that Cecil asked you to play this role in his work?

It changed my life dramatically because I had just got out of the penitentiary. I had never heard of GLIDE. The only place I heard of Cecil was on the news—the man with the Afro, the man who married gay couples. That’s all I knew of him. I’d never seen GLIDE.

Some homeless people told me about GLIDE, told me to come here on a Sunday for the pork chops—and that’s what I really came for, to eat the pork chops!

I didn’t know nothing about the volunteering. I didn’t know nothing about the activities here, you know. Only thing I knew about San Francisco was Powell Street. And the beach, because they had the museum back then.

That was the only thing I knew about San Francisco. I came here and started volunteering and everything started growing on me, you know. All the events, all the people started growing on me.

And people start treating me differently because I was with Cecil. People thought I was a big-time person now when I wasn’t. I was homeless at the time.

It was a big step for me because I learned a lot about diversity. I actually got in a lot of trouble back then because the gay guys would call me heterosexual. And I didn’t know what heterosexual meant and I would get mad at them and tell them, ‘Don’t call me that because I’m not gay!’

So one of the heterosexual guys pulled me to the side and told me what heterosexual meant, that you straight, and that’s what they were saying, that I was straight.

Eric Tatum at Grocery Bag Giveaway 2017.

I wasn’t into the gay population until Cecil put me in ‘Man Alive’. It was called ‘Man in Motion’ back then. I went to the ‘Man in Motion’ and learned the diversity of gay people and straight people. That taught me how to love and accept everybody. I learned that diversity.

Do you think in learning to love and accept everyone you also found more love for yourself?

Yes, I found a lot of love for myself because I seen a lot of people loving me. I didn’t love myself back then because I was on a lot of drugs back then, I was out of the penitentiary – and this was all stuff that was new to me, being on drugs and I had never been to the penitentiary a day in my life. They told me they were going to make an example out of me because I was a college student. They gave me 10 years, but I did five.

Coming to GLIDE really changed my life. Like I said, it gave me stability. It taught me who I was and it taught me how to love and accept other people, you know. It taught me that I’m powerless over people, places and things, so it brought me out of a dark closet.

So now I have light.

The book No Hiding Place really taught me, you know, because you can’t hide from yourself.

Back then, Cecil’s motto was, “Take your mask off.” You can walk around without a mask at GLIDE. You don’t need to wear a mask at GLIDE. You could be yourself, you know. People can accept you or reject you. I just learned how to have exceptions and those who didn’t want me I just learned how to deal with that. Basically that’s how I learned to have exceptions for myself, you know.

How to love and treat people as they are.

Iona Lewis is a Case Manager with GLIDE’s Men in Progress program. Thanks to her father, Iona has been a part of the GLIDE community her entire life. Now, she and her husband Raphael are both employees here and their son, Carlo, attends GLIDE’s Family, Youth and Childcare Center (FYCC) during the day. Iona and Raphael were part of the GLIDE contingent to the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, in April.

In the following lightly edited excerpts from a recent conversation, Iona shares some memories of her father and growing up near GLIDE. With this offering from Iona, we wish everyone everywhere a loving Father’s Day weekend. 
Continue reading “A Father’s Gift”

Karen Hanrahan on Warren Buffett, a unique GLIDE tradition, and the power of community

Tonight, we count down to one of the most unusual and powerful fundraisers any nonprofit might aspire to: the eBay for Charity Auction for Power Lunch with Warren Buffett. The story of how it came to be is often told and dear to us, since it starts with a much loved and missed member of GLIDE’s congregation and community named Susie Buffett, who took it upon herself to introduce a certain relation named Warren to the place that she had come to believe in so passionately. Her introduction worked. To the no-nonsense investor whose success has made him a household name, GLIDE was the real deal. And he has lent his name and time to the cause ever since. We asked GLIDE’s President and CEO Karen Hanrahan for her perspective on this singular tradition.
Continue reading “Pulling Together”

Laura Thompson, founding member of the GLIDE Legacy Committee, remembers her mother by living GLIDE’s values

GLIDE Church has a long-standing tradition of featuring voices from the community in a segment of Sunday Celebration called “I Am GLIDE.” Personal testimonies on the strength and power of unconditional love from our program participants, congregants, donors and volunteers provide what we often refer to as “the GLIDE sacred text.” We feature these inspiring stories here when we can. Recently, Laura Thompson, founding member of our wonderful GLIDE Legacy Committee, spoke to the congregation.

I was raised by a badass single mom.

She survived an abusive childhood at the hands of a schizophrenic mother and alcoholic father, and escaped to San Francisco in the 1960s as a young adult, where she found GLIDE.
Continue reading “A Family Affair”

Rev. Dr. Jay Williams on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “Urgency of Now”

This weekend San Francisco, the Bay Area and the country will honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through acts of solidarity, resistance and celebration. We sat down with GLIDE’s Lead Pastor Rev. Dr. Jay Williams to talk about this weekend’s events as well as their significance for our moment.
Continue reading “"We Will Get There"”

“I’m not a professional photographer, I’m a political organizer. I happen to use the camera to tell the story of the work I do.”
—Bob Fitch, Civil Rights photographer, former GLIDE seminary intern, and                               author of Hippie Is Necessary

From the nostalgic perspective of this year’s 50th anniversary, San Francisco’s Summer of Love in 1967 can seem like a harmonious celebration of youth culture and creative alternative lifestyles. But the great influx of young people, popularly labeled hippies, from around the country that summer was controversial from the start.

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GLIDE welcomed the hippies and, indeed, championed them as early as June 1967, when San Francisco city officials released a statement declaring their rejection of the youthful visitors, who had already begun congregating in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. In a press release, GLIDE’s Rev. Cecil Williams responded on behalf of GLIDE, defending the youthful arrivals and chastising the City for its unwelcoming response.

“We are very disturbed about the statement by the city officials which in essence rejected the pilgrims,” read the statement from Rev. Williams, “the Flower Children, who are coming to San Francisco this summer. As members of the Christian community, we are committed to the acceptance of all men whether they are on vacation, attending conventions, or seeking a new community.”

As the hippies gained prominence in the Haight-Ashbury and throughout the city, GLIDE saw an opportunity to celebrate “the beautiful people” by publishing a look into their lives. The Glide Urban Center, which was then a center for GLIDE’s advocacy work on a range of pressing social issues, commissioned Bob Fitch, a GLIDE seminary intern and later a major civil rights photographer, to create a photo essay about the hippies, which was eventually published under the title Hippie Is Necessary. The introduction to the essay explains further:

“In the last few years, Glide has intentionally gravitated toward cultural movements with major ramifications for the people—present and future. In the last year, the people who have caught Glide’s attention have been “the hippies”—as branded by the popular press. During the year the hippies have captured international interest—and have regularly confounded Glide. Glide believes that hippie developments in the Bay Area may have long range ramifications for everyone. As another step in making current trends and history self-conscious, we invited Bob Fitch to engage the new community and say in photos and text what he wants to say. His conclusion is that ‘hippie is necessary’.”

To further protest the city’s rejection of the hippies, GLIDE hosted a special Sunday Celebration entitled “Born Free.” The service featured radical poet Lenore Kandel, who read her banned poem “Circus,” and nightclub singer Ann Weldon singing “Born Free.”

In his sermon that day, Rev. Williams urged that hippies be accepted as they are, even if they looked different than what GLIDE members were used to at the time, because “the meaning of being a free man is that we no longer have to worry about how men look.”

Hippie Is Necessary is archived at Stanford University Libraries along with Bob Fitch’s other work. Fitch photographed a number of other programs related to GLIDE, including the Black People’s Free Store, and Huckleberry House for Runawaysboth projects that were sponsored by the Glide Urban Center.
13 wedding in the park
14 mantra of love

More of Bob Fitch’s work with Glide’s early programs, along with a diverse selection of other photos and artifacts from the Summer of Love, are now displayed in GLIDE’s Creative Space at our 330 Ellis Street location. This exhibit is, as always, free and open to the public.

In August of 1967, GLIDE’s monthly publication, Venture, was entirely devoted to the Black People’s Free Store. The letter that went out with the publication explained briefly, “The Black People’s Free Store was established in the Spring of 1967 by young black militants in the Fillmore ghetto. Since then the store has been distributing free food, clothing, appliances, and furniture to the poor.”
Venture went on to tell the story of how the store began, and what it did in the community. We offer the following excerpts from the issue in honor of the history of struggle by African Americans and their allies for self-determination, equality and a society grounded in mutual respect and aid.
Continue reading “Summer of Love Flashback: The Black People’s Free Store”