She launched the area's first private African-American school system in the 1960s, served on the first City Council after East Palo Alto's incorporation in 1983 and used the power of prayer to push drug dealers off the streets in the early 1990s when the city experienced a spike in crime.
On Sunday, Jan. 20, the city lost this long-serving matriarch. Wilks died in her East Palo Alto home on Saratoga Avenue, where she had lived since moving to the city with her husband, Otis, in 1956. She was 91 years old.
Her granddaughter LaPria Wilks described Wilks as a master at organizing willing hands and minds to make the community a better place.
"She spoke with such passion and influence, nobody would tell her no," she said. "And anything she was talking about, you wanted to listen to and you wanted to do because you knew it was important, and you knew you would be making history doing it."
Born on a plantation to Louisiana sharecroppers in 1927, Wilks learned quickly about hard work and "making a way out of no way."
She was determined to attend school even though education for African-Americans wasn't a priority at the time, LaPria said.
Her brothers would cover for her in the fields, doing her work, so she could attend elementary school. She became the first in her family to learn how to read and write.
Obtaining an eighth-grade education was pivotal in her life, LaPria said, recalling a story about how a plantation owner nearly shorted Wilks' family out of their pay after his daughter miscalculated the number of crops they had harvested for the season. Because Wilks was educated and could read, she knew what the count should be, but her dad did not.
"She spoke up and said, 'No, this is wrong.' Now mind you, this is the deep south back in the 1930s or '40s," LaPria said. "I think that moment sealed for her what education could do because that was her family's livelihood. It really sparked the fire and passion in her to continue to push for education throughout her life."
After moving to California to escape the violence and discrimination her family had experienced in the rural south, Wilks eventually found herself in the national spotlight when her own three children began experiencing educational injustices at Ravenswood High School in East Palo Alto, which was the only school in the Sequoia Union High School District to have virtually an all-black student body.
Wilks said at the time that her eldest son graduated with passing grades but couldn't read.
"The mindset was that kids in East Palo Alto couldn't learn," LaPria said. They told her grandmother, "They can't be taught, there's no reason to put money into the same level of books because they are not going to learn anyway."
Wilks, along with a handful of parents, founded Mothers for Equal Education, a group that pushed to open many educational doors for East Palo Alto youth. The group rallied for the desegregation of schools in the district. When that didn't work, they organized a "sneak out" program with white friends from neighboring Palo Alto to place local black children in their homes five days a week, so they could attend better-resourced schools.
The black students, however, didn't feel like they belonged in the mostly white schools, so the group, with Wilks as the lead, decided to launch its own school in 1966 to give black students in the community equal educational opportunities.
In her memoir, "Gathering Together: Born to be a Leader," Wilks wrote: "We decided that if our kids were going to be educated, we had to do the educating ourselves. Many of us were afraid of it because we'd always believed that we knew nothing, but we knew that we had to take on this responsibility."
The Nairobi School initially opened as a supplementary program providing tutoring to local black public school students. The program quickly evolved into the Nairobi Day and High School offering students in grades K-12 math, reading and other basic classes, as well as lessons geared toward black history, music, art and culture taught by black doctors, engineers and lawyers from within the community who were unable to find work elsewhere due to discrimination.
In the school, which became the Gertrude Wilks Academy before its closure in the 1980s, Wilks tried to instill in young kids that they could and that they would succeed.
She even offered a guarantee that children would learn to read within one year or she would give parents a full refund.
Wilks and the school began attracting national attention as word of this unique educational program spread. The school would receive applications from as far as Mississippi and New York.
"She was always gentle and soft-spoken, but when she talked — at school board meetings or in a classroom — you listened," said Bill Shilstone, who met Wilks in the mid-1960s while covering the desegregation of local schools as a reporter for the Redwood City Tribune and Palo Alto Times. He said some of the more liberal-minded teachers at the white schools began inviting her to speak to their students about civil rights.
Wilks' influence didn't end with education. She publicly broke ranks with other community leaders in the early 1980s over the question of whether East Palo Alto should incorporate as an independent city. The tax base to launch and sustain a city, she argued, simply wasn't there.
When the move to incorporate won by a razor-thin victory in 1983, Wilks and other opponents challenged the results in court. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it. Even with her well-known opposition, Wilks was the top vote-getter in elections for the brand new East Palo Alto City Council.
"At the end of the day, this was still her community and she was there to support it," LaPria explained.
Wilks took another bold stand when she and a group of citizens decided to help drive drugs out of their city. That led to the birth of the "Prayer Warriors."
"In the '90s, we started praying on the streets at noon because we were having a lot of problems and it was our young people mostly who were being killed," she told the Weekly in 2002.
Wilks also was involved in a range of seminars and workshops across the country, including the League of Cities workshop in San Diego, the Black Child Development Institute and the National Black Women's Caucus — both in Washington, D.C. — the San Mateo Commission on Aging and the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment in New Orleans.
"I believe she was born to do all the things that she did and served her life's purpose," LaPria said. "Even those who opposed her, showed respect because she was passionate about what she was doing. It was never selfish, it was never about her. ... She was 100 percent about the community, and we were all part of that community."
Looking forward, LaPria, who lived with her grandmother since she was 11 and became the first in her family to graduate from college and now serves as president of Mothers for Equal Education, said her grandmother's legacy will live on.
"Her work doesn't stop, it doesn't end," she said. "We're making sure we carry forward that spirit and essence, but it's like 'Wow, how do you step into those shoes?'"
A home-going celebration will be held at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 30, at Abundant Life Christian Ministries, 2440 Leghorn St., Mountain View. (Visitation will be the previous day on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 6-9 p.m., at Faith Missionary Baptist Church, 835 Runnymede St., East Palo Alto.)
The Mothers for Equal Education will host a memorial celebration on what would have been Wilks' 92nd birthday on March 9. For more information, email Lapria.email@example.com.
This story contains 1364 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.