Recognizing Benicia’s First Black Elected Officials, Andre Stewart, M.B.A. & Dr. Gethsemane Moss, Ed.D.
The late Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) was instrumental in ensuring that the accomplishments of African Americans were made public and celebrated. Dr. Woodson published stories about the achievements of African Americans because of the omission of African American history in textbooks. As a co-founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, he later named the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Dr. Woodson made it his mission to document the contributions and accomplishments of African American people. Woodson chose February because the month celebrates the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, February 14th, and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12th, both instrumental in making decisions that changed the trajectory of the lives of African American people. President Gerald Ford decreed Black History Month a national observance in 1976.
Ralph Ellison’s book, Invisible Man, and the writings of author and activist James Baldwin were two of many that were instrumental in developing social awareness of the African American experience. Some scholars cite the intentional omission of African American history as an effort to erase, dehumanize and desensitize the truth about the African American experience.
Many “firsts” have stepped into the light, not necessarily to change history but in the hope of leaving this world a better place. Going first can be met with significant opposition, but that should not be a reason not to take a step forward to create change.
The city of Benicia acknowledges Black History Month and has made efforts over the years. In 2021, Mayor Young and council members attended and presented a Proclamation and raised the Juneteenth flag at city hall recognizing Juneteenth (19) Freedom Day, designating this day an annual event for the city of Benicia.
The ending of slavery and the reconstruction era presented other challenges for the formerly enslaved, such as Jim Crow Laws. The residue of Jim Crow has infected our systems and presented challenges to gain economic freedom and sustainability because of the state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation.
In 2006, Andre Stewart, M.B.A., was the first Black American man to be appointed and elected to public office in Benicia, California. In 2019 Dr. Gethsemane Moss, Ed.D., was the second Black American and the first Black American woman to be appointed and later elected in 2020 into public office in Benicia, California. Both Stewart and Moss made history by becoming the first Black man and Black woman to serve on the Benicia Unified School District Board. Stewart and Moss were also the first Black Americans in Benicia to be appointed to office before later being elected into their school board trustee positions.
Stewart and Moss have students who attended and graduated from Benicia Schools and were then driven to become a part of the school board to make a difference and contribute their areas of expertise. Stewart stated, “We transferred our kids to Mills school because of the diversity of economics, and once the school closed, I served on a committee to help determine what needed to be done with the property after the closure.” Stewart went on to state, “I felt I could help with bringing a corporate mindset and financial sustainability to our school district.” Stewart also had goals of helping the district create more vocational options for students. Stewart shared that when he became a part of the board, the school district faced many budget challenges, program cuts, and layoffs. Stewart holds a Bachelor of Science degree in finance, with minors in economics and sociology, and an M.B.A. with an emphasis in finance.
Stewart’s advice to anyone wanting to become politically engaged in the community is to remain focused on what is right.
Stewart stated, “Do it and be transparent, stay above board.” Stewart went on to say, “It’s not about medals and pictures; it’s about doing the things that are going to benefit the people down the road and stopping bad things from happening.” Stewart shared his thoughts about what we can do as a community to better engage our youth. “We need to give our youth a chance to explore their interests and hobbies and make our schools more exciting. We must give our youth a voice and listen to them, and also have them be responsible and accountable because there is no respect without accountability and engagement; they go hand in hand.”
While Stewart may not consider running for any future office, he is still actively involved in the Benicia community. Mayor Young and members of City Council unanimously appointed Stewart to serve on a standing City Council subcommittee, CURE (Committee United for Racial Equity). Stewart also serves as a patient family advocate with Sutter Hospital, serves on the Human Services Board for the city of Benicia, serves as a member of the bond oversight committee for Solano Community College, and is an executive for a Silicon Valley startup company.
Moss was inspired to run for office, having served as a classroom teacher, school site administrator, and senior director at the county office of education level. Moss stated, “Serving on the school board was a natural transition for me given my years of experience in the system.” Moss went on to state, “I felt like my expertise would contribute to positive experiences for students and families.”
Moss’s two children graduated from Benicia High School. Moss also served for eight years on the Benicia Arts and Culture Commission. Moss shared her ideas that were a part of her initial desire to serve, stating, “I believe that students should be able to graduate from school with a plan; all students.” Moss went on to state, “Life after graduation should not be a mystery for students. Every student deserves to have a plan upon graduation, whether to start a business, learn a trade, go to college, go into the military, etc.”
When asked about being the first African American appointed and elected to office in Benicia, Moss and Stewart were surprised.
Stewart stated, “I wasn’t aware until people kept saying it. “It shocked me,” stated Stewart. Moss recalls running for office and only having one encounter that caused her to pay closer attention to the dynamics. Moss stated, “I remember having a conversation with someone representing an entity in Benicia who asked me why I was running for office in Benicia and not Vallejo.” While Moss stated, she wasn’t sure why this person would ask such a question. Still, she says she politely reminded this individual that she has been a Benicia resident for several years and owns Benicia property. “I live here, so why would I run for office in Vallejo when I live in Benicia?” questioned Moss.
Moss is open to seeking other opportunities in public office but is committed to serving as a school board trustee at this time. Moss also works as a Field Representative for Senator Bill Dodd, works part-time as a personal assistant to musician Juan Escovedo and serves as an adjunct professor. Moss is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA), and other domestic and international public service organizations. Moss holds a Bachelor of Arts from Howard University, a Masters of Education from Chapman University, and a Doctorate of Education from Grand Canyon University and received her teaching credential from Dominican University.