The History Keepers | Davida Randolph

Meet the new program manager for the Howard Academy Community Center and the Black History Museum of Marion County.

Davida Randolph glows while describing the offerings at Howard Academy Community Center (HACC). As she should, because  her efforts, along with the help of strategic partnerships, have brought new life to a historic building and Black history. She is on a mission to meet the mandate of this critical role.

The center, located at 306 NW 7th Ave., a few blocks north of State Road 40, was built in 1888 after a fire destroyed the original school, Howard Academy, which was the first of its kind in Florida to educate African-American children. In 1927, it became a high school and one of only two schools in the state to award high school diplomas to Black students. 

In 1955, the high school moved to what is now Howard Middle School and Howard Academy officially closed. Today, it is a community center and the home of Marion County Public School (MCPS) District’s Title I offices. According to Kevin Christian, MCPS Director of Public Relations, HACC “was closed for an extended period of time in the last couple of years to allow for bathroom remodeling. Our crews discovered issues with the floor joists and other concerns that forced the closure.”

When the remodeling and repairs were complete, leadership was needed. Randolph recalls seeing the job description and thinking, “What a great opportunity.” In her youth, she had been a part of Ajahu, a dance group that practiced and performed in the center.

“If given the opportunity to bring things like that to the community,” she promised she would. But not until she received input from community members.

“The most important thing is what’s best for our community,” says Randolph, who is always thinking on a collective level. When offered the position, she kept her word. Together, she and the committee prioritized the need for the Black History Museum of Marion County.

“So, our community could know our history,” she says.

In 2004, Hubert Dupree spearheaded the opening of The Black Archives of Marion County. The archives could be viewed in a small room outside his office at that time. The collection has since expanded into a museum, with a larger area for viewing and seating during presentations. The museum contains relics of Ocala and Marion County’s past, including photographs and books chronicling prominent Blacks and their struggle and progress from the 1800s to the present.

Three months after the museum reopened in 2021, Olympian Erin Jackson, a native of Ocala, became the first Black female to win a gold medal in speed skating. The recently hired Randolph had three weeks to assemble a community celebration for the hometown heroine, along with her fellow Olympian medalists and area natives Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia.

“The kids there were so amazed to see an Olympic gold medal,” she recalls.

The celebratory event held in the HACC cafetorium accommodated 300 people. Jackson later donated her practice skates to the museum and in March of 2022 was inducted into the Archives.

Visitors tour the exhibits during the museum’s reopening, photo by Bruce Ackerman
Randolph with Olympians Erin Jackson, Joey Mantia, Brittany Bowe and others in 2021, photo by Bruce Ackerman
Items and historic photographs relating to local history on display at the museum, photo by Bruce Ackerman

Jackson joins the 144 members on the Archives’ plaque that hangs on the interior wall outside the museum. In the past, inductees would participate in an intimate gathering when receiving recognition. Randolph had bigger plans for a larger purpose. This year, she revamped the criteria for the Archives and organized a Black History Gala on February 24th to acknowledge the largest number of inductees yet.

“We got a chance to not only honor 13 people that have poured so much into our community to help others, but it also gave the community an opportunity to see this is what Howard Academy is all about,” she shares. “We have this little museum back here that holds so much history.”

For the first time in the museum’s history, it also celebrated the Divine 9 (the National Panhellenic group of historically African American fraternities and sororities).

“Nobody realizes the contributions our sororities and fraternities put into our community” through their scholarships, workshops and service, explains Randolph.

The museum also hosted Lizzie Jenkins’ Rosewood Foundation and an exhibit about the Groveland Four. The chair that Thurgood Marshall (before he was the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice) sat in during the trials in the Ocala courthouse is now on display in the museum—a donation from the Marion County Clerk’s Office. The museum saw the most attendance during Black History Month. Randolph gives her faithful volunteers, Brenda Vereen and Cynthia Wilson Graham, much credit for pulling her vision together. Randolph would like more exhibits, and so would Wilson Graham, but space is limited. For now, the idea is to rotate displays monthly based on a theme.

“My goal is to expand that museum,” states Randolph. “I want our kids to come and see. This is history.”

As far as donations, the museum has instituted a vetting system. Once the process is complete, eligible items will be displayed for a specific time.

Besides the museum, she believes the area surrounding HACC is ripe with development opportunities supported by various programs.

“Bringing programs that will help the people in our community, like financial literacy, getting them on track, budgeting, preparing yourself for homeownership,”  are some of the topics that are most important to Randolph.

Each month the center offers either financial literacy or homeownership courses. The programs are made possible through partnerships with Realtors, banks and other community stakeholders.

The Marion County Hospital District provides courses centered on health, fitness and nutrition, including diabetes classes and registration for the dental bus, to name a few. They also offer ancillary services for employment and GED courses.

Randolph likes to bring all the agencies and programs together for Community Days. The first event was last summer and included a job fair.

“This is your community center, and this is what we have going on,” she explains. The next Community Day is scheduled for the fall.

HACC also provides tutoring for elementary school students in collaboration with R.A.M.A.L. Educational Services, Inc.

“That was the very first thing that I initiated,” Randolph says with pride.

Additionally, the Community Homes Project, located onsite, partners with the male mentoring organization Kut Different.

She beams when she talks about her first year, with no plans for stopping. One highlight is the Dare 2 B Great mentoring program. Since December 2022, 15 middle school girls have gathered to learn life skills, including how to interact with the police and etiquette. In February, the mentees used their etiquette training to serve as hosts for February’s gala.

The participants in Dare 2 B Great volunteer and learn how to cook the food from their onsite garden. They participate in beautification projects to enhance the HACC grounds. On August 26th, the girls will have a graduation cotillion at the College of Central Florida. Then another group will begin in September.

This summer, will mark the revitalization of one of Jade Hagans’ traditions—a summer enrichment program. Many people will remember Principal Hagans, who died suddenly in 2003, for her gracious ability to implement dynamic educational programs at HACC. Randolph is reviving the practice. When summer school hours end at noon, the county’s school buses will transport elementary school students enrolled in the enrichment program to HACC, where Randolph has collaborated with entities like Arts in Health and the Boys & Girls Club of Marion County to offer art, music, movies and fitness, along with teacher-led tutoring, from 1 to 5:30pm.

“I’m so excited,” she asserts. “They will get to enjoy being kids while learning new things.”

Randolph recognizes that her propensity to serve the community is a large part of her agency and career choices. She notes that she is a product of good parenting and the Poinciana Heights neighborhood, where she was reared amongst many trailblazers in Ocala.

“These people made me who I am today. I am standing on strong shoulders,” she remarks. “I still reach out to my community mentors for guidance.”

With the community’s support, Randolph envisions more mentoring services, tutoring for secondary students and adult vocational training. She also promises to keep the doors open for organizations to meet and provide services to the community. And she is starting a computer-101 class for senior citizens.

“Something for everyone,” Randolph offers. “Because all are welcome.” OS

For more information, find the Howard Academy Community Center on Facebook.

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