Ford gets grand 90th birthday serenade
[subtitle]Large crowd turns out for first Black mayor’s celebration[/subtitle]
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
He didn’t attend the meeting inside a church more than 40 years ago not knowing that the agenda was to drum up support for the first Black candidate seeking a seat on the Tallahassee City Commission.
James Ford went with a major concern, though. He wanted to know why the candidate’s name wasn’t being disclosed, with just a few days before such a disclosure had to be officially made public.
He got no answers, instead being informed that the Black community would be encouraged to support the unnamed candidate. The idea didn’t sit well with Ford.
Neither with some of the other folks in attendance, although organizers of the meeting didn’t expect any opposition.
“When we left that meeting,” said former state senator Al Lawson, “we knew that James Ford not only was going to run but he was going to get elected.”
Indeed. And, Ford became the first Black member of the City Commission. He also eventually became the first Black mayor of Tallahassee, a distinction that also was a first in any capital city in the country.
On Saturday, Lawson, several other friends of Ford and his family threw a huge birthday get-together for the former mayor. His birthday is actually Dec. 1, when he will turn 90 years old.
They packed into the club house at Golden Eagle Country Club, sharing stories and bringing gifts.
Ford was praised for overcoming segregation, which had been abolished just a few years before his election. But his fingerprints were on several acts by the City Commission that improved the quality of life for Blacks.
“Can you imagine being the first elected mayor of this great city, what it took to lead this city and the names he was probably called, but when you’re a child of destiny you pursue your dreams,” said Rev. RB Holmes, describing Ford as a loyal member of his Bethel Missionary Baptist congregation. “You rise above the peanut gallery because you know that God has ordained you for such a season. We thank God for a giant in our midst.”
More than one speaker mentioned how Ford established several businesses that provided jobs for Blacks. He also was an educator and administrator in the school system.
“I never would have dreamed that some of you that I see could have ever gotten here,” Ford told his audience, including astronaut Winston Scott, who sat in the crowded room.
Among the gifts that Ford was presented was an electric guitar crafted by his son, James Ford, Jr.
Current Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gilliam read a proclamation declaring Saturday James Ford’s Day and presented him with an honorary medallion.
Ford also was hailed for his military service in the Navy and the Army. Retired Colonel Ronald Joe described Ford as a pioneer who cleared a part for other Blacks to see they could have a career in the military.
Almost every speaker during the three and a half hour event touched on Ford’s accomplishments on the city commission.
But the night he left that meeting where a candidate was being decided on, he said he wasn’t sure he’d run. However, the way the candidate was being pushed bothered him enough for him to decide hours later while having dinner at a nearby restaurant that he will make a run for the commission seat, Ford said.
Within 48 hours, he put together a campaign committee in time to file documents to make the run. Ford ended up spending 14 years in office, three of them as mayor before the position required a separate election to get in office.
“I’m sure that his election gave hope to a lot of people but more than that; it gave them a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishment,” said former Mayor John Marks, who was the first elected Black mayor in Tallahassee. “It gave a sense that we can; we can be certain things.”
“We can be a part of this community and thrive in this community. That wasn’t there at a certain point.”
Ford’s children took turns telling how their father taught them life lessons when they were growing up on the family’s farm. They told serious and humorous stories about how their father’s way of teaching them help to mold a sense of independence in their personal and professional lives.
“He liked to put you in situations and see what you’re going to do and make you grow from it, as opposed to giving you the answer,” said Jakathryn Ford Ross, Ford’s youngest daughter.
She brought the crowd to laughter when she told about the disappearance of her pet cow. It
took several years for her to figure out that the content of wrapped butcher paper was her pet cow’s flesh.
Before the curtain came down on the event, Ford took time to acknowledge popular radio personality Joe Bullard. Ford referred to Bullard as his son and praised him for helping to launch WANM, the city’s first Black radio station that Ford owned.
Ford was a visionary, who wouldn’t be deterred from his dreams, Bullard said.
“He never accepted the word no,” he said. “His foundation was built on helping others. You couldn’t find anybody that didn’t know him and at the same time you couldn’t find anybody that he didn’t try to help.”