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
86, was one of Tallahassee's
most active neighborhood activists.
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.
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.
state Rep. Alan Williams put it best:
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.' "
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
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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
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'?"
question. But there are plenty of examples throughout Bond showing the
difference that one woman made.
— Contact Associate Editor Byron
Dobson at email@example.com or call him at (850) 599-2258.