A Lifetime of Firsts

The Marion County Black History Museum Hall of Fame recently inducted 10 new members into its ranks. The presentation celebrated a group of courageous African-American trailblazers who were the first to have a dream—and dared to live it.

If the brick and mortar that make up the Howard Academy Community Center could tell the story of its past, it would say it was born into a time when blacks and whites lived not only completely separate lives but lives that were steeped in social inequality and oppression.

It is most likely that those blocks were laid by calloused black hands, which, at the time, were only a few short generations away from slavery. We can be assured that each block was painstakingly laid in place with pride and a great sense of accomplishment. Because the Howard Center, which at the time was being built as Howard High School, was a first—it was the first black high school in Marion County. African-American children who had never known the freedom that comes through a quality education would now have the chance to attend school and begin the long climb toward equality that still continues today.

It is only fitting that the Marion County Black History Museum is housed in the Howard Academy Community Center. As one of the first and finest symbols of equal opportunity in the black community, what better home for a tribute to county African-Americans who walked a path no others dared walk?

This past February, the Black History Museum inducted 10 new members into their illustrious Hall of Fame, and the presentation was aptly titled “A Night of Firsts.” Ten local African-Americans who had the courage and drive to be the first blacks to work or hold a special office in their respective fields were duly honored. Their photographs have been placed on the wall of the Howard Center so that all who enter can remember and be inspired by the contributions these brave citizens made to their Marion County community.

The 10 inductees for 2014 are:

William James  (Lifetime Achievement Award)

As you drive around a gentle curve heading north from Ocala on Northwest 27th Avenue, you come to a small country church on your left, its twin spires topped with two white crosses. To William James the Mount Tabor A.M.E. Church is as much home as the small town of Kendrick where he was born 93 years ago.

“My faith in God has kept me strong my entire life,” he says. “Anything I’ve accomplished, it has been because of the blessings of the Lord.”

Those accomplishments are many, and he recounts them all with pride, but his voice takes on a decided edge of excitement when he begins to talk about his faith—and that faith had to be strong, because James’ life hasn’t been an easy one.

His father died in 1929, leaving his mother alone to raise him, his two brothers and his sister. They survived through his mother’s hard work and help from the close-knit community that stood by them.

James attended the segregated county school through the eighth grade and then quit to begin work to help his family. He worked long, hard hours as a laborer on area farms for 25 cents a day until he was 21 years old and then began work at a local brick factory. After 12 years of making concrete blocks, he became a custodian at Howard High School in 1954. In 1968, James was transferred to North Marion High School, which was closer to his home.

“I was at North Marion High School when the county schools were integrated,” he says. “It was something I had prayed for, and I thanked God that I was privileged to see it. It was just like Dr. King had dreamed… white children and black children were going to school together and playing together. It was wonderful to see.”

In 1970, the man who quit school at an early age to plow fields with mules and oxen was the first African-American man to be promoted to the job of custodian supervisor for Marion County schools. James oversaw 90 employees in 17 schools. In 27 years of service with the school system, he only missed 29 days of work due to illness, retiring in 1986. He was known countywide for his diligent work ethic and leadership abilities.

“I always treated my fellow workers with respect, and they always respected me. Another supervisor once asked me why I never had problems with my employees, and I told him I did as the Lord told us to do,” he explains. “I used the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Of all his achievements, James is proudest of the fact that he has missed less than five Sundays in church over the last 25 years. Since he was 19 years old, he has been a steward and class leader at Mount Tabor A.M.E.

Today, he spends his days counseling inmates at the Marion County jail (where he is a designated Honorary Deputy Sheriff) and giving money and time to help the poor and needy in his community and all around Central Florida.

Lois Miller
(Lifetime Achievement Award)

At 101 years old, Lois Miller has witnessed more change in the world than most people living. She was born in the town of Martin in 1913, the same year that Woodrow Wilson became president and the Panama Canal opened for business.

Lois’ father was a minister in the Union Baptist Church, and her mother was the “lady of the house,” taking care of the small family’s needs and managing the business of running both their household and church.

At her mother’s urging, the church was renamed the Progressive Union Baptist Church, and at 12 years of age on a cool fall day, Lois was baptized into the fold.

“I was just a little girl, and the thing I remember most is how cold the water was that day,” she says with a laugh.

Lois laughs easily. She says life has been great and God has blessed her at every turn.

“Life hasn‘t just been good for me—it has been great. My life has been a spiritual life, and it has always been centered around God,” she says. “In a way, I’ve lived my life in a goldfish bowl… the church and God have been my world and all the rest of the world out there hasn’t had any effect on me. God taught me to always see the best in every situation and every person.”

Lois attended school at all-black Fessenden Academy, graduating at 18 years old. She also received training in clerical work at a church training school.

“I was always good with numbers and organizing, and it came in handy in my life. My mother did all the cooking at home, and as a young woman, I didn’t learn to cook,” Lois says. “Many of the jobs for young black women in this area during that time involved cooking for others, so I needed to look for work elsewhere.”

Lois had relatives living in the neighborhood of Harlem in New York City, and she visited there as a young girl. Later, she moved to the town of Hempstead just outside the city and was recommended for a job at Best & Co. retail women’s and children’s apparel store by a deacon from the Union Baptist Church where she attended. She was the first black woman to be hired at the exclusive Fifth Avenue shop. Lois worked in various areas of the fashionable department store for the next 35 years.

From there, she moved to Ft. Lauderdale in 1970 where she lived for the next 15 years. Lois was a vital part of the Mt. Olive A.M.E. church there, where, as a volunteer, she managed the Sail Boat Bend Food Service Center for seniors that fed several hundred people each day. At this time, she also operated her own successful dressmaking shop from her home.

“I have always felt that we should never waste our time here on Earth. My goal has been to always stay active and help others in some way,” she says.

Lois moved to Ocala in 1985 and immediately became active in church and volunteer work. She wrote her autobiography, Down Memory Lane, in the mid-‘90s and later penned her second book, Walk Through the Pines. Lois was instrumental in establishing the Federated Women’s Club in Ocala, where she was elected president in 1998 at 85 years of age. She was also president of the Florida Association of Women and Youth for six years.

“If I could give anyone advice on how to live a good life, it would be to stay busy, help others any way you can and live a spiritual life,” Lois says. “Love God and others, and don’t just say you’ll help somebody—reach out and help them.”

Bobby James

When Bobby James was in the third grade his father died, and the prodigious job of raising 11 children fell squarely on the shoulders of his mother, Minnie.

“My mother washed dishes and waited tables in a restaurant on weekdays and ironed clothes on the weekends to support our family,” James says. “She never remarried, and nine of us ended up going to college. She did more than just get us started on the right track, she was an example to us that with hard work anything is possible.”

James’ was born in Ocala, and his family has called Marion County home for several generations. Following his graduation from Howard High School in 1966, he attended Central Florida Community College and Paul Quinn College in Waco, Texas, where he played basketball while majoring in history and physical education.

Following graduation from college, James returned home to Ocala and began teaching history and social studies at Forest High School in 1971. While at Forest High, he became the first African-American to hold the position of head coach in any major sport in Marion County’s integrated school system when he coached both basketball and football.

James has diligently worked in the field of education his entire life—teaching, coaching and holding administrative positions at schools in Fernandina Beach, Dunnellon and Ocala. He has been vice principal or principal at Forest and Dunnellon High Schools, Fessenden Elementary School and Northwood Central Alternative School.

In 2007, he was appointed to a vacant Marion County School Board position by then-Governor Charlie Crist. He held the appointed seat until 2010 when he campaigned and became the first African-American to be elected in a countywide election in Marion County history.

“Being elected in a countywide vote was a milestone for me in my life, and it was a milestone for Marion County,” James says. “It was a tremendous feeling to know that people voted for me because they looked at me simply as the best candidate for the job.”

Milestones seem to be a way of life for James, and in 2012, he became the first African-American to be elected chairman of the Central Florida Public School Boards Coalition, an alliance of 10 local county school boards.

What does James see when he looks at the educational opportunities today for minority students in Marion County?

“I would like to see more minority students, both African-American and Hispanic, in the honors programs,” he says. “The programs are open to them, but it’s going to take more than just being average. In the school system, we need to go as far back as kindergarten and begin to really motivate them to want to excel in these upper level classes. At home, minority parents are going to have to instill in their children the desire to take their lives to the next level. To succeed in today’s marketplace, a young person cannot be average anymore; they need to have something that sets them apart from the crowd. Our job as a community is to instill in them a desire to succeed.”

Presently, James is chairman of the Marion County School Board and owns his own company, James Development and Investment. He will be campaigning to retain his school board seat in the upcoming 2014 election.

Mary Sue Rich

Mary Sue Rich has served on the Ocala City Council for almost 20 years. She was the first female African-American to be elected to the council and has faithfully served the residents of District 2 since 1995.

Rich is the chairwoman of the Racial Harmony Task Force and is active in many community service projects. In 2005, she received the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the United Way.

Samuel Williams

After a stellar career in law enforcement that saw Samuel Williams rise to the rank of public service director of Dade County, he came to Ocala with his wife, Mary, to retire and take life easy. Things didn’t quite work out as planned.

In 2003, Williams became Ocala’s first African American police chief, beating out more than 110 applicants. He held the position until his resignation in 2011. During his tenure as chief, he implemented many community programs that reached out to the poor and minorities.

Craig Damon

At just 45 years of age, Craig Damon feels privileged to be included with his fellow inductees into the Marion County Black History Museum Hall of Fame.

“What an honor this is for me,” he says. “To be inducted alongside people I have admired for so many years is tremendously fulfilling.”

Damon, who is a local sports star and legendary high school football coach at North Marion High School, has not only watched the lives of those pillars of the community with whom he now shares this great honor, he has listened to their words—and it has helped shape the direction of his life.

“Many years ago, Bobby James started to question me concerning how I could make an even bigger difference in the lives of young African-Americans in the community,” he says. “As a coach, I was making a difference in the lives of those who played sports, but Bobby told me that if I moved into administration I could touch the lives of so many more young boys and girls. I listened to his words, and it changed my life.”

Damon has spent virtually his entire life in his hometown of Sparr, leaving only to attend Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina. He attended on a football scholarship and was a star in both baseball and football. Damon majored in business administration and, following graduation, worked for two years in accounting at the Lowell Correctional Institution. At the urging of his former high school football coaches, he remained involved in sports activities, coaching football in the Marion County Youth Football League.

In the early ‘90s, he began his teaching career at North Marion High School, teaching keyboarding for two years before becoming certified to teach special education classes. He also started his coaching career and, three years later, became the offensive coordinator. In 2000, Damon became the first African-American head football coach at North Marion.

While coaching, he amassed the most playoff wins of any active head coach and had the third-best win-loss record in county history. While at North Marion, he also held the position of athletic director for six years.

“I loved coaching football, but realized that if I wanted to be taken seriously in my quest to become a school administrator that I needed to set coaching aside and pursue my future seriously. In 2012, I received my master’s degree, and last year, I passed the interviews necessary to enter the pool of candidates for administrative positions,” Damon says. “While doing some research online for dean’s training, I came across a job opening at the Florida High School Athletic Association. I applied and was hired.”

Damon calls the new job a blessing, as it allows him much more time at home with his wife and two children. He also likes the fact that his new position allows him to help many more young boys and girls while still maintaining contact with high school sports.

“Now I will be able to help enrich the lives of young people all across the state,” he says. “I want to make sure that the playing field is level for all schools no matter how much money is in their district. My job is to make sure every child has an equal chance, and I take that job seriously.”

Clifford Grier

In 1990, Clifford Grier became the first African-American firefighter hired by Marion County Fire Rescue. Grier was hired as an emergency medical technician in 1989, and, at the urging of his father-in-law, Elton Bellamy, attained his firefighter certification from the state of Florida. Grier has been a firefighter for the past 24 years and has worked his way up to district commander of the Southwest District.

Wendell Rora

After more than 27 years of loyal service, Wendell Rora retired from Ocala Fire Rescue in 2012 but not before reaching the rank of battalion commander. He worked his way up in the ranks and was the first African-American to hold this position. Rora was in charge of Ocala’s 911 emergency service at the time of his retirement.

Rora has called Ocala home his entire life. He is now “taking it easy” at home with his wife and three children.

Angela Boynton

Being an Ocala native and having received her education through the Marion County public school system, Angie Boynton was well-prepared for the job when she became the first elected African-American female school board member in 2010.

Boynton is active in politics and devotes her time to community service. She has been a longtime Girl Scout leader and developed the “Kids United to Succeed” program for at-risk students.

Sandra Edwards-Stevens

For 23 years, Sandra Edwards-Stevens was the county judge for the 5th Judicial Circuit. She retired in late 2013 after serving the citizens of Marion, Citrus, Hernando, Lake and Sumter counties since 1990. Judge Stevens was the first female and the first African American to be elected county judge in the circuit.

Posted in Ocala Style Features

Share this post


What's New at Ocala Style

Read These Writers

Our area has an abundance of authors. Check out some...

‘Water Shapes Florida’

The new exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History...

Mastering Your Garden

The dog days of summer can be a good time...

Alligator Allegory

My grandparents were the first to build a home along...

Making Moves

Meet the Ocala-based casting director who has steadily been building...

From France to Ocala

Dr. Jose Gaudier will lecture about the Olympic Games Paris...