Community

09/30/2022 12:41 AM By Lisa Anderson
History of Us
Whitfield Jenkins
Whitfield Jenkins
Story by Taylor Strickland • Photos by Joshua Jacobs

Community

Civil Rights Activist Recalls a Life of Service

Born in 1940, civil rights activist Whitfield Jenkins understood the value of community from a young age. He was raised on a 40-acre homestead in rural Florida in a town called Bethlehem, which consisted of little more than a small wooden home, a church, and a two-room schoolhouse that most children were too busy laboring on the surrounding farms to attend. His mother died when he was 5, so Whitfield and his four brothers were forced to grow up quickly. 

Despite the adversity, Whitfield and his family found succor among their friends and neighbors. “People had a lifestyle of supporting each other,” he explains. “People looked out for each other. When someone was ill, the community would reach out. If someone butchered a cow or a pig, they would share the meat with everyone.” 

Building Foundations

Not every issue could be solved with a few donations and free dinner. Black communities faced extreme discrimination—a problem that became hard to ignore once Whitfield started his own family and began teaching in Ocala. “Unlike in Bethlehem, there were no places for Black children to congregate in Ocala. For many of our kids, you had to travel 10 to 15 miles from home. White kids from the city only had to go four or five blocks.” 

Around 1968, the Marion County Board of Education was pressured by the Department of Justice to integrate. “[Integration] was such an undesirable task that the Marion County School Board asked teachers to take integration into their own hands.”

One such early volunteer was Rudy Bedford, a man who would eventually become the first white principal of Howard Middle School. Bedford was in need of a physical education teacher, so he contacted Whitfield to leave his post at Osceola to join the faculty at Howard. Whitfield agreed.

“He became one of my best friends,” Whitfield reminisces. “He was a very positive influence in my life.” Though the value of his experience at Howard was incalculable, Whitfield left teaching in favor of other pursuits, but eventually came back to work in the Florida Department of Corrections. It was during this time Whitfield became more concerned with the persistent inequities that repressed the Black community in Ocala.

“There were several incidents that occurred with local government and law enforcement in which I felt compelled to speak up,” declares Whitfield. “That led to my involvement with the NAACP. In 1980, then-president Vera Alexander approached me to lead the Marion County Branch, and I very reluctantly agreed, because I was young and only wanted to do what Whitfield wanted to do.”

As to why Whitfield struggled to refuse the former president, she was a beloved former teacher of his from Fessenden High School. “She used to comb my hair, wash my face, and make me straighten my clothes. It was obvious she loved me in the way she cared for me.” For a boy who grew up without a mother, Vera had been a rock in fast water, and Whitfield was loathe to disappoint her. 

“The election took place in 1983, and my first day as president of the NAACP was January 1, 1984. I stayed in that position for approximately 11 years.” 

Whitfield’s responsibilities as NAACP president were related to monitoring the relationship between the county and recently annexed West Ocala, a historic Black community that struggled with low civic and political engagement. 

“My greatest accomplishment came as a result of collaborative work to increase voter registration and voter education and to provide transportation to the polls in the Black community. That project will be the bellwether of my success,” affirms Whitfield. 
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Spirit of Community

In his later years, Whitfield has found that no one is above the need for community support. He was convicted of grand theft, in 2007, for using his non-profit’s debit card for personal expenses and received a DUI in 2015. “I felt that I had disappointed so many people,” Whitfield recalls solemnly. 

“Those things weighed on me, but the amount of people that surrounded to support me…It shocked me. Looking back, I felt that needed to happen. I was headed down the wrong road, and that led me to the help I needed. I entered several good counseling programs and got a new lease on life.”

In what he refers to as the spirit of community, Whitfield turned this experience into a force for good. “I reached out to prisoners to offer support. It’s easy to work with people doing well, but there are a lot of people in tough situations who truly need help. Now, I have positioned myself where I don’t give up on people.”

Lessons for the Future

At 82, Whitfield acknowledges it is time to pass on the mantle and put faith in the leaders of tomorrow. Thankfully, Whitfield believes that Ocala is in good hands. Community members, such as Manal Fakhoury, Jerry Lourenco, George Albright, and Craig Curry, bolster his hopes for a brighter, more diverse future.

“I would have liked to have seen it happen in my lifetime, but the only way to measure success in this work is 10 to 20 years from now. I no longer have the anxiety that [change] has to happen now. When I go out and engage with the community, I recognize that it’s a work in progress.”
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