If ever there was an educator in Santa Rosa whose students still benefit from as adults, it is Bea Harris, or as most adults remember her as, “Miss Bea.” A dedicated educator, Bea tried to make every moment a teachable moment while she worked to understand little ones and ensure that they all received the education and respect they deserved.
As one of 10 children, Miss Bea was born Beatrice Cooper in Pittsburgh, PA on March 24, 1926. She was two years old when her family moved to West Virginia to follow coal mining work and it was here she attended segregated schooling until the eighth grade. After, her father sent her back to Pittsburgh to live with his mother so she could attend an integrated school. Bea made money cleaning the bathrooms in the house, but at 16, she decided she needed to find a way to better support herself.
Beatrice found a job after school babysitting and housekeeping for a white couple with a preschooler. She was quick to find that she had a gift for working with children. The couple, an Army major and his wife, clearly appreciated her work. So much so, that they invited her to live with them. Bea became the only one of her siblings to complete high school in 1945 and was asked by the couple to move to California with them as their maid and nanny. She agreed and traveled from Pittsburgh to San Carlos, CA.
One Thursday after arriving in California, Bea ventured to San Mateo to visit a church. She felt right at home and decided to attend services on Sundays. Here she met the ordained Methodist pastor, Homer Harris. He was a reliably upbeat endearing, and a grateful man of God. The two dated for a time before marrying on June 30, 1946. Bea would find work cleaning houses and preparing dinner, while Homer worked in yards and gardens as a landscaper. They welcomed their first child, Homer Jr. in 1947, and their second child, Wanda Jean, in 1950. On one of their weekend drives across the Golden Gate Bridge into Sonoma County, they found a house that reminded Homer of his childhood home. Although Bea initially refused to move herself or her children into the rundown farmhouse, Homer fixed it up, and in 1953 the family moved in.
They soon found that they were among the very few Black families living in Santa Rosa in the 1950s and experienced both “in-your-face" and subtle discrimination. They were welcomed by the Methodist Church on Montgomery Drive as the only Black family, where Bea started teaching Sunday School in 1960. Later, she met the principal of Cook Junior High, who encouraged her to become a teacher’s aide. She worked at Lincoln and Burbank elementary schools for eight years before enrolling at Santa Rosa Junior College and becoming a certified nursery schoolteacher in the mid-1960s. Through her work, Bea taught children just as much as she taught their parents. She often reminded parents to practice patience and to say what they mean and mean what they say. “I’ll tell parents, please don’t tell your children you’ll throw them out of the window if they don’t behave, because you’re lying.”
Her talents were clear to all witnesses and in 1973, the founders of the Multi-Cultural Child Development Center asked her to be the director. Bea was honored and took the position to provide subsidized preschool to families that couldn’t afford full-priced preschool or qualify for the federally funded Head Start. Throughout her 16 years as Director, the school redefined as it grew. She received honors for her efforts to advance the education of many low-income and diverse children and retired from the Multi-Cultural Child Development Center at the age of 64 in 1990.
During her time with the Multi-Cultural Child Development Center, Bea accomplished another milestone in her journey as an educator. As told by her friend, Siegrid Smith, Bea attended Sonoma State University and obtained her Baccalaureate Degree at the age of 65, a significant accomplishment for someone leading an organization and caring for so many children and their families at the same time.
Immediately after her retirement, she was asked to become the director of the preschool at her church. She decided to serve in the role for 2 months until they found someone else, and then agreed to come in to teach from time to time. As Bea tried to make every moment a teaching moment, she found herself at the preschool full-time. When she finally retired for good, Bea was 80 years old.
Bea and her husband lived in the old farmhouse for six decades and when Homer passed away in 1999, Bea moved into a mobile home with a friend and then later, a retirement residence. Her dedication to the youth of our community will live on through the lives of those she worked with and their future generations. Bea’s teaching style shaped many institutions into what they are today. During her birthday last month, her friend Siegrid stated that the cards, gifts and phone calls kept her busy all day. At 95 years old, Miss Bea’s generosity and loving nature continues to impact so many in Santa Rosa.
Smith, C., 2016. Santa Rosa's 'Miss Bea' nears 90. Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Available online at: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/santa-rosas-miss-bea-taught-lessons-to-kids-and-their-parents/
YouTube. 2016. Bea Harris Talks about her Home of 65 Years. Available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQGWiCkTk-M&t=3s