Tallahassee Trailblazers – Celebrating Black History Month
Special to the Outlook
Tallahassee is a city that remembers its past while focusing on the future, one that works to foster a strong sense of community and ensure economic opportunities for all its citizens. The Tallahassee of today was achieved by the hard work of those who set the groundwork for its success. In celebration of Black History Month, the City of Tallahassee salutes the achievements and contributions of four distinguished trailblazers who were elected to serve our community: the late James R. Ford Sr., Jack L. McLean, Dorothy Inman-Johnson and the late Charles E. Billings.
In 1972, the City of Tallahassee reached a significant milestone when it elected James R. Ford Sr. as the city’s first African American mayor, which also gave him the distinction of being the nation’s first African American mayor of a capital city. Ford was the first official to make City Proclamations to African Americans and the first to appoint African Americans to the Tallahassee Housing Authority. Throughout his 14 years on the Commission, he advocated for the elimination of segregation practices and pushed to establish the Minority Business Department, the Frenchtown Development Authority and the Affirmative Action Office. The first agreements between the City and Leon County for fire services and parks and recreation were drafted with the help of Ford, and the first community center on the south side (Walker-Ford) was created while he served. In addition to his many achievements while in office, Ford made many firsts during his professional life, such as being the first African American administrator at Leon High School and creating the first African American radio station, WANM.
“I was enthused about my husband’s accomplishments. His winning the election changed my life as a wife – I had to multitask working as a full-time professor at FAMU and taking care of our home and three children, but it was worth it all,” Clinita Ford said.
With his recent passing at the age of 91, James Ford’s lifetime of dedicated service will continue to shine through the vast legacy he left behind and those he influenced.
Among those motivated by Ford was Jack L. McLean.
As an African-American growing up during a time when equal opportunity was not available for all citizens, Jack McLean recalled that, despite the lack of African Americans serving as elected representatives when he was young, he found inspiration for his future career through the words of his mother and former President John F. Kennedy, who famously presented the challenge to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Crediting Ford for cutting the path, McLean served two consecutive terms on the City Commission, being elected in 1984 and 1988. During his time on the Commission, he also served as Mayor. To the next generation of leaders, McLean gives the following advice, “Be honest. Be fearless in the defense of what is right. Look out for the smallest among us. Count your public service as a blessing and a privilege.”
McLean’s commitment to Tallahassee resulted in many accomplishments, like bringing Amtrak to the city and the creation of the 52-acre southside park that bears his name.
Another leader who found inspiration at a young age is Dorothy “Dot” Inman-Johnson, who was a youth activist in the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. She continued her dedication to change in many ways, including when she made history in 1986 by becoming the first African American female elected to the Tallahassee City Commission. She served two terms as Mayor, in 1989 and 1993 respectively. During her tenure on the Commission, she aided in the successful acquisition of property to create Kleman Plaza, initiated funding to establish the Smith-Williams Neighborhood Center Annex and helped develop both the City’s Electric Utility Rate Stabilization fund and Mini-Pass program that provided sidewalks and street improvements for older neighborhoods.
“It was difficult for me and my family, long hours, challenging and often contentious issues, but in the end, I’m proud to have left a legacy of major accomplishment for my children and helped to make Tallahassee a wonderful place to live,” Inman-Johnson said.
Toward the end of the 20th century, the desire to make a difference in Tallahassee lead a brilliant, compassionate, caring, ethical and witty man to run for office. The late City Commissioner Charles E. Billings was successfully elected in 1998. He was the founding force behind the sister-city partnership with the Caribbean island nation of St. Maarten. A hallmark of his time in office was his keen and calm problem-solving abilities, which helped quell a chaotic disruption involving more than 4,000 college students at Governor’s Square Mall in the late 1990s. The positive way in which this crisis was handled put Tallahassee on the map as model for other college cities. Outside of his service on the Commission, Billings was a popular instructor at Florida State University who always encouraged people to get involved. In April 2003, Tallahassee re-dedicated the clubhouse at the City’s Jake Gaither Golf Course in honor of Billings.
Martha Billings said, “He loved the City of Tallahassee and was committed to making it the best it can be. It was an honor to be his wife, and I had the best husband ever!”
These Tallahassee Trailblazers demonstrate the immense impact individuals can have on a community. Through their public service, they have helped make Tallahassee a place that continues to make strides and provides opportunities for all.