Gainesville Resident Melia Speed Spotlights Local Black Leaders

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Last year, Carmelia “Melia” Speed, 46, discussed with her mom the possibility of creating a “who’s who” pamphlet to highlight different Black leaders within the Gainesville community.

Her mother had four words: “You should do it.”

The two brainstormed ways to recognize people the following year. Unfortunately, Speed’s mother passed before seeing the passion project come to life.

To honor her conversation with her mother, Speed decided to elevate her usual celebration of Black History Month on Facebook. Almost each day in February this year, Speed spotlighted one Black leader in the local area.

“It’s a bunch of people that don’t know the value that we have right here in Gainesville,” Speed said. “I feel there’s a lot of people that don’t know the history of how much we have accomplished.”

Speed has created commemorative posts on Facebook for Black History Month since 2016, but this year, she gained more attention than before. In prior years, she simply listed names of people with their profession and picture in a threaded post.

This year, however, she researched different groundbreaking community leaders from both the past and present. In individual posts, she provided a brief biography of each person, including their place of birth, accomplishments and connection to the community. Some of her most popular spotlights received hundreds of likes.

“Every day is a learnable moment. I just wanted to dedicate this time to Gainesville,” Speed said. “People are doing so many great things here in the now that they should be celebrated.”

Some of the people she recognized include Dr. Cullen W. Banks, the first Black doctor to receive full privileges at local hospitals; Cornelia Jones Smith, the first Black librarian in Alachua County; and Josiah Walls, the first Black congressman from Florida.

“It’s important because you’re not going to read about this stuff in the history books,” Speed said. “The history that we’re given is pretty much white history with a small chapter of Black history. Our chapter is so in depth that I think it deserves a little bit more conversation.”

Speed was born and raised in Gainesville and today calls the Seminary Lane area her home. She has lived in the community her entire life, and most of her family still resides in the city.

She stays active within the community through leading at Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church, participating in the neighborhood watch and engaging in local events. It pains her to see her neighborhood slowly become white-washed, she said.

Seminary Lane serves as Gainesville’s first and oldest historically Black neighborhood. Speed believes that the city needs to keep history at the forefront and remember the gamut of Black people and culture.

“This community was once the heartbeat for the Black community, and so many good things came from this community,” Speed said. “I think if we don’t highlight and we don’t let the younger generation know the value this community holds, then we won’t have a community to celebrate at all.”

Carmelia Speed currently lives on the same property her great-grandmother was raised. Her family has lived in Gainesville since the late 1800s when they migrated here from South Carolina. (Alexa Sauvagere/WUFT News)

Scherwin Henry, 68, could not agree more. A rare Gainesville native, Henry attended all levels of education in the city and embarked on a professional career within the community.

Henry remembers the celebration that came during senior graduation when he attended Lincoln High School, which formerly held grades seven to 12. Unfortunately, he transferred to a white high school during his senior year due to mass desegregation.

Though he missed out on the slew festivities, the pride that came from achieving a high school diploma as a Black person still filled him. He also credits his church’s holiday programs for serving as a training ground and giving him speaking experience.

“I think that’s something that is kind of missing these days,” Henry said. “Those little platforms that we had growing up during the time I was raised, they’re sort of missing right now, I feel, in the community.”

Henry retired in 2014 from work as a senior biological scientist at the University of Florida Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology. His research focused on monoclonal antibody production, which worked to find protein producing cells.

His proudest achievements, however, sprouted from his engagement within the local community. In 1997, he joined an organized task force created by the Gainesville Economic Development Office and the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce to address the economic development in East Gainesville.

“Growing up here, things have always kind of been one-sided, especially when it came to the Black community,” Henry said. “There was a point when we really, for decades, did not have someone on the city commission that represented the community.”

He served as Gainesville City Commissioner for the 1st District from 2006 to 2012. Prior to that, he also led on different boards and committees, including the Citizens Advisory Board for Community Development and the Metropolitan Transportation and Planning Organization.

Henry helped spearhead many development projects, such as building the Hampton Inn downtown, the library branch located near Cone Park, the Community Redevelopment Agency headquarters and the Walmart in northwest Gainesville.

Scherwin Henry (far left) takes part in the Community Redevelopment Agency headquarters groundbreaking in February 2010. “The City of Gainesville’s City Commission felt the building would represent an investment in the community that could become a catalyst for economic development,” Henry said. (Courtesy of Scherwin Henry)

“You don’t have to allow others to set boundaries as to what can be achieved,” Henry said. “Because as a people, we have achieved much under very trying circumstances.”

Alachua County NAACP President Evelyn Foxx, 69, understands that Black history gets more attention in February, but she feels everyone should celebrate the culture and accomplishments each month.

In second grade, Foxx’s teacher saw something in her that she did not quite yet see in herself, and the woman took Foxx under her wing. From there, her journey with the NAACP began; she has been a part of the organization for over 60 years.

Originally from Riceboro, Georgia, Foxx became involved with the Alachua County branch when she moved to Gainesville in 2004. She was elected president of the chapter six years later. Along with leading the local chapter, she also serves on the organization’s state executive community.

“Its mission is to help fight discrimination and seek justice for everybody; it doesn’t matter who they are,” Foxx said. “From the ’60s until now, we are still fighting some of the same battles. Little has changed and little has not.”

Evelyn Foxx attends the Hats, Hearts and Handbags event in May 2016, having served on the board of directors for Girls Place Inc. The annual event helps raise funds to provide young girls with critical programming. (Courtesy of Evelyn Foxx)

The organization addresses issues many presented before them: recommending civil rights attorneys, filing claims against institutions and fighting against racial inequities. Last year, Foxx wrote an op-ed for the Gainesville Sun regarding pandemic-related racial disparities.

Currently, the local branch continues to reach out to the Black community about the importance of taking the vaccine. To hit higher numbers, the leaders educate about the vaccine’s safety on their radio show and plan on having a town hall to spread more awareness.

Foxx has been recognized as a Women of Distinction by Santa Fe College and a Women Who Make A Difference by The Girl Scouts of Gateway Council. She has also been honored by Rosa Parks Quiet Courage Committee for emulating Parks’ resilience through her service work,

“My motto has always been if I can help somebody along the way, then my living would not be in vain,” Foxx said. “If you don’t do it from the heart, then you don’t need to do it at all.”

For Bob Williams, 64, his work was also about serving his adopted community. Born and raised in Michigan, he moved to Gainesville with his two young daughters in November 1984.

Accepting a job at WCJB-TV provided Williams with benefits for his career and family. He worked at the station as a reporter for seven years before getting promoted to anchor and then news director.

Williams finds pride in having helped grow a news team of about 15 people to 50 people, making WCJB-TV a go-to television news station for the surrounding areas, rather than Orlando or Jacksonville stations. He assisted in adding a morning newscast and in starting the evening news at 5:30 p.m. rather than 6:00 p.m.

“Once I started working on the air, the community embraced me,” Williams said. “At that point, as I established roots in Gainesville, I made a commitment to let the people know how much I appreciated them and to embrace them back.”

Bob Williams receives a community service award from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office in 2000. (Courtesy of Bob Williams)

His roles as community manager and broadcast employment manager, allowed him to embed himself in the community. Over the years he served as president of the Volunteer Center and a member of a governor’s task force for pre-childhood education.

Partially through the TV station, he co-anchored the Children’s Miracle Network telethon for about 12 years to help children’s cancer. He also provided input as a member of the Cancer Center Community Advisory Board for UF Health Shands.

“The news part affected my personal life, but the news part did not affect my community life,” Williams said.

One of the very first events that Williams spoke at was at Duval Elementary school. The principal purposely chose him to show the students at the predominantly Black school that they can also set goals to achieve a professional career.

“The speech was themed ‘don’t be a chicken, be an eagle’ because eagles fly high, eagles soar and eagles reach their dreams,” Williams said. “I didn’t want them to be little chickens on the ground pecking for seeds.”

Now as an educator, Williams hopes to bring confidence to the students he teaches at Wiles Elementary. Because he works with children from low-income families and children who are underachieving, he sees a lot of doubt in their minds. Williams also teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of Florida.

Scherwin Henry, Evelynn Foxx and Bob Williams were included in Speed’s list of spotlights last month. Speed notes that people tend to focus on people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, but she wants to showcase people in Gainesville and Alachua County who also accomplished greatness.

“I think we all are Black History,” Speed said. “We all make history every day in everything we do.”

About Alexa Sauvagere

Alexa is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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