10:45 PM / Thursday March 30, 2023

10 Mar 2023

Obituary:  Educator and cultural leader Laura Fernandez Garrett, also known as Iya Omowunmi Ogundaisi, 82

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March 10, 2023 Category: Oasis Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Iya Omowunmi Ogundaisi

Laura Fernandez Garrett, also known as Iya Omowunmi Ogundaisi, made transition on February 20, 2023, at the age of 82.

 Iya, as she was affectionately known by many, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 8, 1940, to Ebenezer Fernandez and Melissa White Fernandez. She was the third youngest of 12 children. A proud South Philadelphian, Iya was born at 631 Mercy Street and moved with her family to 2036 South 6th Street. She was  educated in Philadelphia public schools and attended Southwark Elementary School, Furness Junior High School, and South Philadelphia High School, where she graduated in 1958. 

 Iya was the first of her siblings to attend college at Cheyney University, where she received a bachelor’s  degree in education. Upon graduating she began her long and illustrious career in education. She went on to  earn a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1964 and a second master’s degree from Antioch University in 1981. 

 Her first teaching position was at Landreth Middle School in South Philadelphia. She subsequently taught at George W. Childs and McCall Elementary Schools in the early 1960s. She also taught at Bache-Martin Elementary School and PAS School in North Philadelphia from 1972 to 1982. 

In the early 1960s, Iya became a cultural trailblazer of the natural hair movement when she cut off her  straightened hair and went completely natural.  

Although she was born into a Christian family, it was also in the early 1960s that she began to embrace Afrikan spirituality and culture. She attended a lecture with her sister Lois and longtime friend Playthell Benjamin that was given by, unbeknownst to her at the time, her future husband, Chief Obalumi Ogunseye, one of the early leaders of the African American Yoruba Movement that was born in Harlem, New York. In 1962, after having met Chief Obalumi and joining the movement, Laura received the Yoruba name Omowunmi Ogundaisi from HRH Oba Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I, the leader of the Yoruba Temple of Harlem.  

On New Year’s Day 1965, Iya and Chief Obalumi were married in South Philadelphia and embarked on  building a life and family together that was centered around Yoruba culture, education, and social activism.  Seven children were born to that union and raised in the culture. The following year, both Chief Obalumi and Iya were initiated into the Yoruba priesthood in August 1967, where Iya received the spiritual name Apoto.  Crowned as an Iyalorisha (female priest) of Oshun, Iya was the second African American priestess in the nation  to be initiated into the Yoruba religious tradition of Ifa. Over the course of her life, she provided spiritual  consultation and support to hundreds of clients. 

Together, Iya and the Chief increased the collective consciousness and awareness of Afrikan spirituality  throughout Philadelphia. Alongside her sister, Lois and friend Ruth Arthur, Iya and Chief Obalumi co-founded  the ODUNDE Festival in 1975, which remains the longest standing one-day Afrikan cultural celebration in the  nation. 

In conjunction with her spiritual orientation, Iya was also a staunch community activist in Philadelphia. In the late 1970s, she joined other Black women in the Parents Union for Better Education in Philadelphia that held weekly vigils at the Liberty Bell to bring awareness and spark political action to stop the murder of Black children in Atlanta, Georgia. The vigils that were held every Sunday for months made both local and national news. 

In 1982, she and her sister Lois became consultants for the Philadelphia Art Museum’s groundbreaking “Treasures of Ancient Nigeria,” a first-of-its-kind exhibit in partnership with the Nigerian National Museum. The exhibit lasted for over four months and consisted of Nigerian art, performances, speakers and an Afrikan marketplace. 

In 1987, after having spent three years teaching at A.S. Jenks Elementary School, Iya decided to retire  temporarily to focus on raising her children. However, she remained involved in the community as a co-founder  of Women Gather, and co-founder of Yoruba Egbe which was established in 1985. Yoruba Egbe not only  served as a temple for spiritual practice, but also served as a place for academic tutoring and GED preparation.  It was during this time that Iya authored, and her husband illustrated, “Baba Speaks of the Gods,” a children’s  book about the Yoruba Orishas (deities). 

It wasn’t until 1990 that Iya decided to return to the Philadelphia public school system, this time as an English teacher at Barrett Middle School. While at Barrett, she garnered the reputation of being a “tough, but fair and caring” teacher among her students. She taught at Barrett for over 10 years before retiring again. 

 Iya joined the board of Point Breeze Civic Association, a South Philadelphia community-based organization founded by her older sister, Sylvia Green. She became the board chair for the organization and led the growth in organizational funding and community programming in the Point Breeze section of Philadelphia. Iya also led the organization’s launch of the Junkanoo Festival, an annual Bahamian/Caribbean-themed street festival held on Point Breeze Avenue, as well as the development of the association’s building located at 1517 S. 22nd Street.  

In 2002, Iya was asked to consult with the newly formed Germantown Settlement Charter School, where she trained new teachers on everything from curriculum and classroom setup, to student engagement. During her tenure at Germantown Settlement, the school was divided into a middle and high school, at which point Iya was asked to take the position of assistant principal. It was only a short time before being asked to take on the assistant principal position that Iya had received her third master’s degree in educational administration and principalship from Cheyney University. 

In 2005, Iya co-founded Ijoba Shule (Sovereignty School), an Afrikan-centered educational institution alongside her son, Sekou Olayinka. She served as the school’s principal and lead instructor until 2015, when she retired permanently at the age of 75. Family members remember Iya saying from time to time, “I wish I would’ve done this sooner.” 

Throughout her life, Iya touched an innumerable amount of people through her educational, spiritual, and social activist work. Without a doubt, she left an indelible legacy in the City of Philadelphia. However, her greatest accomplishment, as told by Iya, are the seven children she was blessed to birth and raise. She was a dedicated and tireless parent that took a very active role in the upbringing and maturation of her children and grandchildren. Iya seldom missed an activity or event that her children or grandchildren took part in. Being present and engaged were two of her many parental superpowers, said her son Akinwole. 

Iya was preceded in death by her son Omorishanla Olayinka and by her sister Lois Fernandez. She is survived by her children Sekou, Iyatunde, Obawajumi, Adejola, Akanke, Akinwole; 19 grandchildren and great-grandchildren; sisters Sylvia Green, Madeline Shikomba, Victoria Fernandez; her ex-husband Chief Obalumi Ogunseye; countless nieces and nephews, as well as many close friends and members of the African American Yoruba and traditional Afrikan community.

 Services were held March 4, 2023. Iya was interred in Historic Eden Cemetery. 

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