2016 Jake Gaither / Edwina Stephens Community Leaders Golf Tournament

Tallahassee Democrat
Friday, June 10, 2011

Byron Dobson: How one woman's passion brought about change

Only a few hours after it had been confirmed that Tallahassee's Edwina Stephens had been killed in a car crash the tributes started coming in.

Stephens, 86, was one of Tallahassee's most active neighborhood activists.

What a tragedy for someone who had retired from a career in nursing, someone who had played a role in improving the health of others, and someone who surely had helped save lives.

Statements from Tallahassee Mayor John Marks, City Commissioner Andrew Gillum and even a response from Tallahassee Police Chief Dennis Jones were included in the news release on the fatal crash.

But perhaps state Rep. Alan Williams put it best:

"Edwina Stephens will be remembered as the community voice of justice that she was," he wrote. "She devoted her life to those struggling for equality. She has been a great inspiration to many over the years, and she will rest as an important icon to the civil rights movement in Florida's history. I will miss Mother Stephens dearly; she remained a friend and never hesitated to tell me or anyone when she thought we weren't fighting hard enough for justice. She will be forever known as the 'Mother of the South Side.' "

Williams really captured it.

I had known Stephens for years. During our earlier conversations when I worked on the Democrat's metro desk, she told me of the history of the civil rights movement in Tallahassee, the influence of her beloved place of worship, St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church, the history of the former FAMU Hospital and the subsequent integration of employees at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. She had lived through this and spoke with authority. She was schooling this newcomer. I always saw her as a proud woman who was confident in herself and in her actions.

I came to know her not only as a passionate voice for the south side, but also as an active member of the Council of Neighborhood Associations. Stephens really was a role model for neighborhood activism throughout Tallahassee. But her passion was making sure that the voiceless of Bond and other south-side neighborhoods were heard, and she answered the call.

What struck me is that she didn't need an army of followers by her side to get her point across. In fact, I found her to be fiercely independent, but not overbearing. She usually arrived alone, taking her seat and waiting her turn to speak before the City Commission. She was revered at community forums because others respected the fact that, at her age, she remained concerned about what impact a commission decision would have on seniors in her community. And she cared about what message cracked sidewalks, improper lighting and a dearth of beautification projects on the south 0side was sending to the younger families about self-respect.

She backed up her plea for neighborhood improvements with personal anecdotes, facts and the ability to call elected officials on promises made on the campaign trail. She looked you in the eye when she talked, a symbolic reminder that she grew up in a generation when your word was your bond. She called you on it (as Williams suggested in his tribute) if she felt you weren't sharing her passion on a particular subject or possible news item.

I found it best to be straight up and tell her that I didn't think a certain issue she was describing warranted a news story. Maybe later.

But she was always cordial. I'd answer the phone to hear, "Mr. Dobson. This is your friend Edwina Stephens. Do you remember me?" Of course. We'd run into each other at Publix, where I'd wait to chat with her after she'd parked her Camry.

Over the years, she jump-started a host of improvements for the south side, leading to better sidewalks, repaving of roads and better lighting. There's the College Terrace neighborhood marker at the corner of Orange Avenue and Pasco Street.

But she didn't stop there. In May 2009, she participated in a protest "walk" to bring attention to the escalation of crime following a fatal shooting in the McDonald's parking lot on Lake Bradford Road. Not letting the 90-degree temperature deter her participation, she told a reporter, "The cause is greater than the sunshine and hot weather."

Fortunately, Stephens was able to enjoy the many tributes given to her by civic and neighborhood organizations. She was very proud of the city's decision to spend the money to turn an eyesore of a holding pond into a community park, know as Speed-Spencer-Stephens Park, complete with benches and a fountain.

On the same afternoon of her death, a former colleague told me in an e-mail that she'd heard about Stephens' death. She asked, "Is there any woman like her, with the same drive and influence, to advocate for the 'black community'?"

Good question. But there are plenty of examples throughout Bond showing the difference that one woman made.

— Contact Associate Editor Byron Dobson at bdobson@tallahassee.com or call him at (850) 599-2258.