OAKLAND -- Velma Ewing played many roles in life. Included among them were military wife (her late husband was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen), mother and grandmother. Those closest to Ewing also knew her as an excellent cook. But the broader community perhaps best recognizes her as a longtime advocate for education.
Ewing, the first African-American hired by the Solano County Office of Education and the first to get elected to the Governing Board of the Travis Unified School District, died Dec. 20, 2012, at the age of 88. On Feb. 19, the Solano County board of supervisors issued a resolution honoring Ewing for her years of service.
"My mom was always concerned about the quality of our education," said Oakland resident Janice Ewing, Velma's daughter and herself a longtime Bay Area teacher. "That's how she got involved with the office of education and school board. That inspired me to get into education, too."
Velma Ewing -- who was fluent in French and could speak basic Spanish -- ingrained the value of education in all of her children
Ewing began working as a clerical secretary for the Solano County Office of Education in 1966 and remained on the job until retiring in 1994 at age 70. In addition, she served 16 years on the Travis board (1967-1983), including five years as president, three as vice president and six as clerk.
A mother of five children (three still living), she also served three years on the Travis PTA
Beyond education, Ewing took an interest in broader civil rights issues.
"She felt good about being able to help me become an Alameda County homeowner in 1980 after her and my father's failed attempts to buy homes in San Mateo and Hayward in the late '40s due to the racial discrimination of that era," Janice Ewing said.
Through the years, Velma Ewing became a frequent visitor to Oakland, especially after the deaths of her husband, retired U.S. Air Force Major James Ewing Jr. in 1977, and son, Oakland police officer Michael Ewing in 1979. Her commitment to education took root many years earlier. Though never officially a teacher herself, Ewing took an interest in helping others learn at an early age. At 14, she took part in an "Opportunity School" in Arkansas, where she helped 30 African-American adults learn to read and write. For Ewing, though, completing her own education was a mission in itself.
Born Sept. 10, 1924 in Minter, Miss., Velma Jean Brown was just 6 weeks old when her family moved to Helena, Ark. At 16, she eloped to marry James Ewing Jr. Nonetheless, Velma graduated as valedictorian from Helena's Eliza Miller High School in 1942 and went on to Philander Smith College in Little Rock and Henderson Business College in Memphis, where she received her business credentials.
With the nation at war, James Ewing became part of the Tuskegee Airmen. This Army Air Corps program -- based in Tuskegee, Ala. -- trained African-Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft (they previously had been barred from becoming military aviators). Ultimately, James Ewing made a career of serving in what became the Air Force. And through the years, the Ewings lived in a variety of places, including France and Japan. While in Japan, the family followed Velma's lead in learning basic Japanese. In France some years earlier, Velma sought the best possible education for her three daughters, ultimately enrolling them in French Catholic schools.
"In France, the only time I heard English was in the house," Janice Ewing said. "When we came back to the United States, my siblings and I spoke French."
James Ewing became permanently assigned to Travis Air Force Base in 1964, and Velma's community involvement soon began. Those commitments continued in retirement, as she served with on the Solano County Equal Employment Opportunity Committee, the Solano Arts Alliance Board and the Solano County Safety and Personal Growth committees. In addition, she volunteered as a reading aide for Travis Unified and as a surrogate parent for African-American students through the Fairfield-Suisun district's Individual Educational Program for Special Education.
Services for Velma Ewing were held Jan. 4. In addition to her husband and son, a daughter, Velma Gardner, died before her. She is survived by Janice Ewing, daughter Cassandra Lloyd of Maryland, son James Ewing of Modesto, five grandchildren, seven great grandchildren, three brothers and two sisters.