Former Tallahassee Mayor Ford remembered for more than politics


Many who knew James Ford called him a visionary and trailblazer.
Photo special to the Outlook

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

James Ford’s political career began unsuspectingly and when it was over he had established several firsts as a Black leader in Tallahassee.
On Monday, following his death five days earlier at age 91, Ford’s family, friends and several government officials eulogized the city’s first Black mayor. In addition to being the first Black city commissioner in 1971, who was appointed mayor a year later, he was remembered as a businessman and one who mentored many who would follow him.
His wife, Clinita, their son and two daughters sat solemnly during the hour-long service at Bethel Baptist Church.
Rev. R.B. Holmes eulogized Ford, using a topic of “The Blessing of a Gift.”
Ford’s gift was being a leader who wasn’t shy about taking on the responsibilities of doing so.
“He didn’t allow his background, his race or his critics to dampen his spirit of being a man of faith and vision,” Holmes said. “He had a divine gift to be a change agent, a bridge builder, a doer and not simply a talker.”
Before his eulogy, Holmes called Ford an engaging, enriching and encouraging person.
“His legacy is one of expanding opportunities for minorities and the underprivileged,” Holmes said. “He was a loving and involved father, husband, grandfather and church member. He has left a positive impact on a  countless number of people.”
Not only in politics.
When Ford launched WANM as the first Black radio station, he called on Joe Bullard, now a popular radio personality, to help start up the station. He also was successful in several other business ventures.
“He never accepted the word no,” Bullard said two years ago at a birthday celebration for Ford. “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.”
Congressman Al Lawson, then a 22-year old fresh out of college, recalled being at a meeting where Ford was nominated by a group of community leaders to run for office. He was unaware he would be the choice, attending the meeting only to find out why there has been a hush-hush over which Black candidate the leaders would support.
Right after becoming mayor, Ford accompanied the FSU men’s basketball team to the NCAA national championship tournament. The Seminoles finished second and Ford returned to Tallahassee early in time to greet the team at the airport.
“That was a great revelation  to come back to Tallahassee and have the first African American mayor greet the team that finished second place for the national championship,” Lawson said.
The experience was in part the impetus for him getting into politics, Lawson said.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I wasn’t aware of the significance but then it had tremendous impact on me when we came back from playing for the national championship.”
Lawson wasn’t the only aspiring Black politician that Ford impressed. Dorothy Inman Johnson had just moved from Birmingham, Ala., to Tallahassee when Ford was elected just a few years after segregation ended in the South.
She was eventually appointed to serve the last three months of Ford’s term when he left the city commission to make his third run for a county commission seat in 1984. That Ford managed to get elected in his first try for city commission, left an indelible impression on Johnson.
“It was astounding to me,” she said. “I never got over the pride that I felt and the respect I had for him because of the way he was a trailblazer for all of us.”
That includes former Mayor John Marks, who served 12 years. Ford would call, listen and give him advice, Marks said.
“He gave me so many good words of wisdom,” Marks said. “It’s hard to remember any specific one, but he would always say, ‘John if you ever need me; anything you want to talk about, if I could ever help you call.
“He was truly an icon. He would call me and say, ‘mayor let me tell you something about what you need to do.’ Mayor Ford knew how to listen. That is one of the faults I find in most people, they don’t know how to listen. Mayor Ford knew how to listen and after he listened he knew how to impart wisdom.”