If history has taught us anything, it is that heroes can be ordinary people orchestrating extraordinary acts when the occasion calls for it.
Unlike the fictional characters found in comic books and Hollywood blockbusters, real heroes that dwell among us don’t rely on superpowers, gadgets or fat bank accounts to get things done. Instead, they arm themselves with their faith, strong commitment to community, access to resources and a steady resolve to make a difference for themselves, their children, and their neighbors.
Some of these everyday heroes are seen as trailblazers: those who light the match of change and help to pave the way by opening doors previously closed to them and others like them in the community. Others are torchbearers: those who’ve kept the fire for change burning through their own efforts to better their communities.
From the space industry to the boardrooms to classrooms, from the pulpits of churches to the small business owners to coaches and doctors and beyond, Brevard County has been blessed with plenty of trailblazers and torchbearers in every aspect of our community.
To commemorate Black History Month, we take a look at a few local, vocal and active African-American residents who’ve blazed trails and continued to shine the light on issues important to their communities and to the greater good of all the Space Coast.
While there simply is not enough room to profile all of the folks who’ve helped light the way, we do want to recognize some who’ve blazed trails on the Space Coast, including Joe Lee Smith, Dick Blake, Clara Smith, Theodis Ray, Leon & Jewel Collins, Robin Fisher, Eugene Johnson, Barbara Moore, Charles Jackson and Leon Tucker, Sr.
Likewise, torchbearers have included Rashad Wilson, Dedra Sibling, Alton Edmond, Michael Cadore, Alex Goins, Kenny Johnson, Vickey Mitchner, Kay Maragh, Sonya Mallard, Corey Williams, Kendall Moore, Rodney Edwards and Conrado Martinez.
Join us in acknowledging and thanking them in addition to our profile subjects for their tireless efforts to improve the lives of African Americans on the Space Coast.
William E. “Bill” Gary
Community Involvement: Gary is president of the Harry T. & Harriette V. Moore Cultural Center in Mims and is president of the Harry T. & Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex, Inc.’s board of directors, which helped secure $1.5 million to construct a replica of the Moore home, reflecting pools, brick walkway, and new Civil Rights trail around the perimeter of the park. He served as president of the North Brevard Branch of the NAACP for multiple two-year terms, some non-consecutive, totaling 24 years between 1980 and 2008. During that time, he led the chapter to win a national award in 1986 for voter registration and for working with Brevard Public Schools to seek and hire more black teachers. The chapter received another national award in 2003 in the area of civic engagement. He is a lifelong member of the NAACP; member, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity; past member, the Local Advocacy Council under the Florida Department of Children and Families; and member, St. James AME Church.
In 2009, Gary and his team made a presentation to Dr. Lonnie Bunch, then founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, to include The Moores in the facility once it was constructed. There story is in the museum, which opened in September 2016.
“We used to have a saying at work, that if you do good work, you get more good work. What people are generally looking for, even if they don’t know it or can’t articulate it, is for some kind of result. People look for people who have a track record of getting things done. There are some things you see and you know you can add some value to it, you know you have some experience, education or some wisdom about it, and you just don’t want to see it continue as is,” he said.
Aha! Moment: Gary said there’s been a number of Aha moments over the years. “I think that when we got the news that [the Moore’s] would be in a display in the Smithsonian African American Museum, I think that was an Aha-type moment in that it was very deeply satisfying because the effort for that to happen started in 2009. I felt that we had elevated their name and sacrifice to the highest pinnacle of history related to the Civil Rights Movement that could happen here in the U.S.
Community Involvement: Longtime member, League of Women Voters of the Space Coast; life member, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.; life member, NAACP; life member, National Congress of Black Women, Inc.; president, Cocoa-Rockledge Civic League (now defunct) for a decade where she started the Marian Davis Scholarship Fund, credited with assisting several academically-deserving minority students with getting funds to attend college; past president and current executive committee member, Central Brevard Branch of the NAACP; nominated by the Dr. Maxwell C. King, then president of Brevard Community College (BCC) and appointed by the late Gov. Lawton Childs and then Gov. Jeb Bush to serve on the State Board of Community Colleges for four years; appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to serve on BCC’s Board of Trustees for four terms, including board chairperson for two of them.
“I don’t know any other way, that’s who I am. I get joy out of helping people. I’ve done this since I was a teenager. I figured that if I’m going to be busy, I’m going to use [the time] to help someone.”
Aha! Moment: A couple of years ago, Wilson was driving in Rockledge and saw a young man on the corner of State Road 520 and Fiske. “He had on a t-shirt and nothing else against the cold weather,” she recalls. She told him that if he stayed at that corner, she would run home and get a coat for him. She drove back to the corner with her late husband’s leather jacket and a sweatshirt, only to find the man gone. After riding around for a while, she eventually caught up with him on another street, where she handed him the clothes. “That, to me , probably more than anything, that’s the one moment that stood out to me. He put on the sweatshirt right there. When I pulled away, I got emotional because then, more than ever, I realized that’s what I was here to do.”
Community Involvement: Member and Social Action chairperson, Melbourne-Palm Bay Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., where she also founded the Black Heritage Calendar Fest, an annual Black History Month event highlighting and celebrating year ‘round achievements of African Americans, as well as the Connecting Children with Reading program; founder and past president, Powell Subdivision Neighborhood Watch, an organization that worked with local police authorities to reduce crime and move drug activity out of the neighborhood. Sandra also started a Red Ribbon Week event to educate children about the dangers of bullying, alcohol use, and drug abuse; member, Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Palm Bay; founder, Community Read and Feed youth summer meal program.
“Giving back is something I like doing. I enjoy helping those in need, and you can really see how your efforts have made a difference in people’s lives. I wouldn’t give anything for this journey.”
Aha! Moment: One Thanksgiving, the local police and members of the Melbourne-Palm Bay Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., gave Pelham a total of forty $50 gift cards to distribute to families in the Community Read and Feed program so they could purchase meals for the holiday. “More than 10 people actually broke down as they thanked us for the cards,” she says. One woman came by Pelham’s house and said, “You will never know how much you have blessed me.” Pelham says that’s what giving is all about. “I know people are having a hard time, it’s a lot of folks out here who have been laid off because of the pandemic. They don’t know how they are going to make ends meet. We’ve got to be here for each other and help our neighbors through these difficult times. That’s what we are here for, to help others along the way.”
Coach Willie J. Taylor
Community Involvement: Founder and head coach of Fighting Edge Gym, a USA Boxing and mixed martial arts gymnasium that mentors young men and women in leadership, community service, and job placement; full-time employee of PCM Products in Titusville but also recently enrolled in the Seminole County Police Academy in pursuit of being a Titusville police officer, leaving his job of 20 years to be an example of the gym’s motto, “Don’t talk about it, be about it”; member, North Brevard Branch of the NAACP; occasional speaker and mentor, Magnus mentoring group for young Black men; advisory board member, North Brevard Parks and Recreation; youth minister, New Life Space Coast Church in Titusville; father of nine in a blended family.
The Calling: A Titusville native, Taylor is a former middle- and welterweight boxer and Christian who believes in helping others “because it is what we are instructed to do.” He credits his father, Willie James, with teaching him to help people who can’t help themselves, to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, and to fight for them.
“This was instilled in me from birth. My father was an awesome guy, a standup guy of few words but a lot of action.” Taylor said the No. 1 lesson his father taught him was to be a man of his word. “At Fighting Edge, we have a huge accountability code that doesn’t just stay in the gym, we also go out in the community, we check with all of the kids that have come through and ensure they are doing OK. These are all my children and I take that responsibility to heart.”
Aha! Moment: “I have a young man that was incarcerated for 13 years of his life as a young adult. He came to Fighting Edge a year and a half after he was let out of prison. His name is Robert Brothers and he is now a pro boxer in heavyweight division. He was raised up in Fighting Edge and became this beautiful man who gives back to the community. Now, he has taken over Fighting Edge and is leading the younger generation and raising them up. I get to listen to him talk and see how God has blessed his life since he’s been here and I think this is what it is about. It is about redemption. He allowed me to mentor him and all I can say is, look at what God has done in our lives. That’s the only way I can explain.”
Community Involvement: Secretary, Whispering Pines Lakeview and Catalina Neighborhood Association, of which she also helps plan the organization’s backpack school giveaway with Cocoa Parks and Recreation; member, Space Coast Chapter of the National Congress of Black Women; member, Cocoa-Brevard Chapter of the Top Ladies of Distinction, of which she received the Lady of the Year award in 2019 and Mentor of the Year in 2020; member, Fiske Boulevard Church of Christ in Rockledge; and volunteer, Brevard Dems.
Why she does it?
“I volunteer because I love helping people. Every day is another opportunity to try to make someone happy or to help them get what they need, even if it is something others would consider a small gesture. Helping is helping. In my neighborhood, there are a lot of senior citizens who may not be computer savvy or are staying in homes because of the pandemic. I help them by bringing them information they may need to know, such as making them aware of food banks and church giveaways. I do it all out of love.”
Aha! Moment: Spikes said her homeowners’ association has a lot of history behind it. “The West Cocoa Community Center used to be the county dump. We still have some neighbors living in the community who fought to get that spot cleaned and transformed into the community center because the children in West Cocoa didn’t have any place to go. They fought to get basketball goals and a track and field. I think about that history every time I drive by the community center, how they sacrificed back then to get that. It makes you realize how important it is to help your community. That is why I try to strive to continue the work they started. It is about staying involved because of that struggle to have somewhere for the children.”
Affiliations: Member, Eugene C. Johnson Masonic Lodge (both Scottish and York Rite) in Melbourne; president, Concerned Citizens of Brevard, a community committee handling various issues affecting the community, especially in the South County area, by going before the Melbourne City Council to be “a voice for those in the community who are unable to speak for themselves”; president, South Brevard County Task Force, Inc., a non-profit organization that grew out of the Melbourne Police Community Relations Council, where he was president for several years. The task force creates seminars and opportunities ex- pose youth to positive developmental opportunities leading to them becoming productive citizens. Co-coordinator, the “Souls to the Polls” community event in Melbourne, organized through the Push Back Community Alliance; life member, NAACP; member, Melbourne City Advisory Board; and member, American Legion Post 191 in Melbourne for 37 years.
“This is my community, I was born and raised here. The more I’ve matured, I see things that are not being done and I think I can make a difference in turning things around.” McNeil says he is comfortable going before Melbourne City Council as well as various boards and leaders to bring citizen concerns to their attention. “I think everybody in Melbourne City Hall knows who I am by now.”
Aha! Moment: “I was speaking up even before I graduated from high school. As a high school sophomore growing up during the Civil Rights Movement, I remember when we started picketing in Melbourne as part of the NAACP Youth Council. We would picket restaurants where they wouldn’t let us sit at the lunch counters. One day, a man came and snatched a picket sign out of my hand. There were eight of us on the picket line but he came to me. That was a moment that I felt I was doing the right thing.”
Rolanda is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer/editor, media relations specialist, and community organizer specializing in strategic messaging for non-profit organizations. She is a full-time communication instructor at Florida Institute of Technology and the university’s 2020 Student Organization Advisor of the Year for her work as faculty advisor for the school's Black Student Union (BSU). As a journalist for nearly three decades, her work has appeared in numerous publications and international lifestyle magazines including Essence and Signature Bride.