NAACP Vice President Sabu Williams Discusses Black History in Okaloosa
Throughout my life, whenever we talk about black history, we always seem to focus on many of the same giants: Frederick DouglassMadam CJ Walker, George Washington Carver, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., etc. They were all great leaders and people I look up to, but it soon became clear to me that black history was happening right here in my own neighborhood every day.
These often unsung heroes weren’t trying to be anything other than their true selves, but their contributions to Okaloosa County should never be taken for granted as it is on their shoulders that we now stand.
“Education is above all else”:Graduates of the last segregated school for blacks in Crestview reflect on the past
I came to Okaloosa County as a young Airman to Eglin Air Force Base. Shortly after my arrival, I began to observe the works of those who had been here long before me – some who had lived here their whole lives, paving the way for others.
Such a person was Samuel Hayes, a retired Master Sergeant who, during his Army career, served as the personal chef to the President and Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Sam, as he was affectionately known, was not the county’s first African-American elected official, but he was the longest-serving African-American elected official as he served on Crestview City Council from 1978 to 1985 and again from 1987 to 2007. Crestview is home to the largest population of African Americans in the county and has had several blacks on its city council, including Samuel Allen, Grandma Joly, Lillie Conyers and currently Shannon Hayes.
Although we haven’t had many black elected officials in our other municipalities, we have had some successes like Charlie Hill, the county’s first black elected official. He served on the Fort Walton Beach City Council with Lee Bobo. Niceville had two black councillors, William Thomasand currently Carl Donahoo; and we even have a black council member on the Ocean City Council, Danny Dillard. Laurel Hill is the only municipality to have had an African-American mayor, Vizell Robbins Jr., and only two blacks were elected to office in the entire county. They are long jeanswho was elected to the School Board in the early 1980s and Marcus Chambers who has just been elected school principal.
We cannot begin to talk about local black history without mentioning the contributions of Gladys Milton. Milton earned her midwifery license in 1959 and delivered over 2,000 babies during her career. She established a clinic now known as the Eleanor Milton Memorial Birthing Center in Laurel Hill in 1976, but due to its visibility, her clinic and home were often targets of arson. Milton faced many challenges in her life, but she persevered and overcame every act of injustice inflicted on her. I knew her personally and she was a champion for women’s health and literacy. She spent years working to have a library built in northern Walton County and after her death in 1999 a branch of the Walton County Library was established and named in her honor at Flowersview. Milton has also authored two books and was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.
Another prominent African American was Caroline Allen. She and her husband Sam Allen, were passionate educators, activists and custodians of local history. They were solely responsible for ensuring that we celebrated and remembered May Day, because it was May 23, 1865, that Florida surrendered to the Union Army and black slaves were freed. Caroline Allen was also a businesswoman. She owned and operated a printing press where she published and distributed a monthly newsletter. The Allens worked tirelessly to establish the Carver Hill Museum in Crestview, which today is a testament to their dedication to our history. Caroline Allen was tragically killed in a car accident while attending a family reunion in Texas, but her spirit lives on in the hearts and minds of the many people who knew and loved her. Fairview Park in Crestview was renamed Allen Park in honor of the Allens.
Throughout this month, as we reflect on Black American history, we need only stop and look around for a moment. You will soon discover that you don’t have to do much to realize that we have extraordinary, ordinary people who have persevered to achieve extraordinary gains to make life better for all of us here in Okaloosa County.
There are so many unsung local warriors among educators, preachers, civic leaders, politicians, business leaders, etc., who have paved the way before us; so much so that the Okaloosa County branch of the NAACP took time in 2011 to identify and recognize 100 such individuals and organizations. We called them our Legacy 100 and inscribed their names in brick at Chester Pruitt Park in Fort Walton Beach. I invite you to stop one day and pay homage to our heritage. You will discover that we are proud of our heritage; you will discover that we are proud of those on whose shoulders we now stand.
Sabu Williams is the first vice president of the Okaloosa County branch of the NAACP, an Air Force veteran and retired public servant. He has lived in Okaloosa County since 1978.