Howard Academy Community Center Black History Museum Archives Awards Gala honors Ocalans

Event honors local leaders

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Posted February 26, 2023 | By Andy Fillmore/Special To The Ocala Gazette
Photos By Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette

It was a night to remember.


The first Howard Academy Community Center Black History Museum Archives Awards Gala was held at the Mary Sue Rich Community Center at Reed Place on Friday, Feb.24. The event saw 13 people inducted into the archives for their unique contributions to the community and the announcement of the museum’s Unsung Hero, Beacon of Light and Honorary Inductee for 2023.


Archives inductee Regas Woods, a two-time international Paralympian whose legs were amputated in his childhood, said before the gala that it was “beautiful to be recognized.”


“I thought of our community when I ran overseas,” Woods said.


Woods is co-founder of Never Say Never, a foundation supporting youth and adults with disabilities.


Thelma Wright Edwards, this year’s Honorary Inductee, is the eldest living relative of Emmett Till, a teen who died in a racially motivated killing in Mississippi in 1955. Till’s death has been credited with igniting the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.


About 300 guests enjoyed dinner and musical and historical performances, along with the awards presentations, at the formal event. The Howard Academy Community Center (HACC) is part of the Marion County Public Schools system.


HACC Program Manager Davida Randolph was a primary organizer of the awards gala. She called the gala “amazing” and an excellent opportunity to acknowledge “those who have given so much to our community.”


County Judge LeAnn Mackey Barnes and her husband Troy Barnes attended the gala.

She said the event was “awesome.”


“It’s important to remember history and build a future,” she said.


Mistress of Ceremonies Lena Hopkins opened the inaugural gala. She said the awards spotlighted people who “used the tools God gave them to make the community better.”


Ocala City Councilman Ire Bethea said before the award presentations that the recipients make the community “a better place to live.” He cited the work by Unsung Hero Award recipient Drayton Florence, in working with youth in numerous athletic programs for more than 10 years.


“We need more people to step up to help young people develop,” Bethea said.


The 2023 inductees announced by Theresa Brooks and Randolph were:


  • Carolyn Adams and her late husband, Arthur Adams: The two became the “voice for the Estella Byrd Whitman Clinic” now operating in northwest Ocala, according to the induction citation. The Estella Byrd Whitman Wellness Center provides “care for low-income citizens and a range of other services for the purpose of improving the quality of their lives so they can (and will) become self-sufficient, without regard to health insurance status or ability to pay” according com.


  • Barbara Brooks: Brooks was recognized for her hard work in contributing to the community through HACC and R.A.M.A.L. (Reach, Aim, Motivate and Lead) Educational and Social Services, which provides tutoring, mental health counseling, social work and outreach to needy families. Brooks, founder and CEO of R.A.M.A.L., is an author and community activity, the induction citation notes.


  • Theresa Boston-Ellis: The Chief Financial Officer of Marion County Public Schools was recognized for her leadership and knowledge in public education and finance. She is the “first African American woman to serve in a leadership capacity such as this in the history of the Marion County Public Schools,” which has a $899 million budget, according to the induction citation. Boston-Ellis has been recognized for her leadership by the Ocala Chapter of the NAACP and is president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority/Ocala Alumnae Chapter.


  • Cynthia Wilson-Graham: Wilson-Graham is known for her work in documenting the history and experience of the black community in Marion County. Her books include co-authoring “Remembering Paradise Park: Tourism: Segregation at Silver Spring,” “A Long Journey,” about well-known West Ocala businessman and community advocate Austin Long and “Walking by Faith,” about the late William James, an example of tolerance for youth during the early days of integration and a member of many community organizations and holder of community awards. Wilson-Graham operates Helping Hands photography and is co-founder of “Town Talk” magazine, the induction citation notes. “(The induction) is an honor and a privilege,” she said.


  • Brothers Jamie Gilmore Jr. and Eddie Rocker Sr., founders of Kut Different, Inc.: While volunteering, the two brothers “saw the lack of African American male representation” in the local public school setting, the induction citation indicates, which led to establishing Kut Different. The outreach serves more than 100 youth with in- school, after-school and summer programs. states the brothers “felt the young men had no one to relate to, no one that understood them, and no one to look to for G.A.M.E Guidance, Attention, Motivation, Education.” The website indicates the outreaches “school to career pipeline will  mentor and expose our (4th and 8th grade) youth to discover who they are, to learn their likes and dislikes, and to the endless possibilities of who they can become. From 9th to 12th grade, we will help our youth get working experience from jobs and internships in the fields that interest them,” the website states. Both men are Ocala natives and hold masters degrees, the induction citation notes.


  • Wantanisha Morant: Morant serves as Executive Director of Human Resources for Marion County Public Schools, “the largest employer in Marion County,” the induction citation reads. She has been active in working to decrease “the disparity gap of African Americans in the workforce” by partnering with local churches, offering career nights and working with applicants. Morant holds a master’s degree in business administration. She is a mother of three, vice president of the Eta Tau Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and is active with the Indigo 4-H Club.


  • Clyde Neasman: Neasman was recognized as a dedicated educator, youth swimming instructor and for his involvement in the community. Neasman taught at schools including Lake Weir High School and North Marion High School during a career that spanned at least 50 years. He taught swimming at the E.D. Croskey Recreation Center (once known as War Memorial), the induction citation states. Neasman was a member of the Ocala Psi Chi Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and member of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church. He was known for spearheading an initiative each Thanksgiving to feed 10 families. The award was accepted for Neasman, who passed away in November 2022, by family members, including his son Thaddius Neasman.


  • Bishop James Stockton: Stockton is president of the Marion County chapter of the NAACP and pastor of Greater New Hope Church of Ocala. He has “worked tirelessly to meet the needs of the community” in areas including voting, education and low-income housing, the induction citation states. Stockton’s church is partnering with the Marion County Health Department to establish an HIV/AIDS support location and has been a Toys for Tots location for four years.


  • Rose Thomas: Thomas, holder of a master’s degree, served as an educator for 45 years and was a dean of students with Marion County Public Schools. Her career included service at Osceola Middle, Dunnellon Elementary and Dunnellon High schools, where she served as a JV basketball coach. After retirement, she remains on the Student Advisory Council for Dunnellon Middle and Dunnellon High schools. Thomas has been involved in Girl Scouting, and efforts to open the Dunnellon branch of the Boys & Girls Club of Marion County to the needs of residents in west Marion County. She has been involved in homeless and family outreach with several churches. Thomas was hailed as a wife, mother, community advisor, friend, neighbor, Christian and spiritual advisor in her induction citation


  • Regas Woods: The two-time international Paralympic ( 2016, 2020) competitor lost both legs at age 2 due to a “congenital  anomaly” the induction citation states. Woods is co-founder of the Never Say Never foundation, which supports children and young adults with disabilities in sports, attending events and camps, according to org. Woods was hailed as an “inspiration to all” by a presenter. Woods won a bronze medal in the 2015 Para Pan Am games and is an eight time national long jump champ in 100 and 200 meters. Woods said he serves as a sprint coach and is preparing for a grappling match.


The Awards Gala included special recognition by presenter Rev. Eric Cummings of the late Dr. N.H. Jones, a medical doctor and the namesake of Dr. N. H. Jones Elementary and the late Edmond Fordham. Fordham, a longtime local educator, Army Air Corps and Air Force veteran in the time of segregation and integration, was a member of Mount Moriah Missionary Church and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. He passed away July 19, 2022. The Marion County Public Schools Fordham Early Learning Center, named in honor of Fordham, opened in 2022 and serves VPK and kindergarten students. Krista Fordham accepted on her father’s behalf.


Three inductees were given special awards.


  • Monica Bryant – Beacon of Light Award. Bryant, who has a “heart to serve,” joined the Marion County Children’s Alliance in 2006 and is the Family Violence Prevention Coordinator for MCCA and chairs the local Domestic Violence Taskforce, working with community leaders and individuals to educate and increase awareness on resources available to victims of domestic violence, according to the award citation. She has been involved in a recent community initiative to address gun violence. Bryant is the co-founder of “Town Talk Magazine” and a mother and grandmother. Bryant said receiving the award was a “humbling” experience and “others have done so much” to deserve recognition.


  • Drayton Florence Jr.- Unsung Hero Award. Florence, an Ocala native and NFL veteran, established the Drayton Florence Foundation in 2005 to “motivate, educate and stimulate” youth and in 2010 the outreach was expanded to include military families, the award citation reads. Florence was honored for community service through the foundation, including at least 20 youth football camps, Thanksgiving meal giveaways and “shop with a jock “Christmas shopping programs. Florence’s mission is to remain a “dedicated leader to Marion County youth” the citation states.


  • Honorary Inductee -Thelma Wright Edwards: Edwards, a cousin to Emmett Till and his eldest living relative, was born to sharecroppers in Mississippi and sent to “better schools” in Chicago at age 8. She lived in the same household as Till for 10 years and recalls him as “Bobo,” the recognition citation states. Edwards appeared in the 2022 documentary “Let the World See” and she chooses “rather to forgive and leave vengeance to the Lord,” the citation states. A presenter said Edwards is “dedicated to racial equality.” Edward said before the gala she hopes she “lives to see” changes.


The gala also honored the many community contributions of the Divine 9, a group of sororities and fraternities formed at historically black universities and colleges during times of racial segregation.

They are:


*Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity

*Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority/Eta Tau Omega Chapter, represented by President Harriet Daniels

*Delta Sigma Theta Sorority / Ocala Alumnae Chapter, represented by President Theresa Boston-Ellis

*Zeta Phi Beta Sorority

*Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity

*Omega Psi Phi / Psi Chi Chapter, represented by current Basileus Rev. Eric Cummings

*Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority

*Iota Phi Theta Fraternity

*Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity


Rose Jenkins sang the Black National Anthem and Danika Florence-Cook sang a rousing rendition of “Rise Up.”


Eric Tarver recited a poem about the Divine 9 and Brenda Croskey provided a history of the Black Museum archives.


Marion County Public Schools Superintendent Diane Gullett addressed the group by video and said in part the honors were “truly well deserved.”


School Board Chair Allison Campbell spoke about the accomplishments of each award recipient and later called each “amazing people (and) friends.”


GAP (Greenwood /Archer/Pine) Productions featured 14-year-old middle school students Thomiyah Thagard, Aaliyah Finn and Nazariuz Allen in a dramatic spoken presentation and the Dare 2 Be Great youth group, accompanied by etiquette mentor Charlene Robinson, served as hosts and servers for the event.


To learn more about the HACC and the museum, go to


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