by Art Levy
I grew up in Tampa in the Jim Crow era, so I lived in a very segregated world. Even as children, we understood that. Our schoolbooks were hand-me-downs from the white schools. Back then, you got a book and there was a page in the front where everybody who used that book would write their name. By the time we got them, there was no space to write your name.
Even though there were three generations of educators in my family, it was actually my eighth-grade English teacher who inspired me to become a teacher. Her name was Mrs. Henri Fred, and she was just the epitome of poise. She was nononsense, but you could tell she cared about us. She was always well dressed, and I wanted to be just like her in every way.
George (Edgecomb) and I started dating in high school. We went to the prom together. He played baseball. He was president of the student body. He was very popular and smart. I was in the band, and we were both in the honor society. After high school, I went to Talladega College (in Alabama) because I got a scholarship, and he went to Clark College in Atlanta. He was going to become a pharmacist, but he saw what was happening in Atlanta, which was one of those cities where there were many civil rights protests, and that’s when he decided to become a lawyer.
Being a principal was the hardest job I ever had, but it was the most rewarding.
Alabama in the 1960s was a very ugly and hateful place. My friends and I were traveling to Talladega by bus, and we stopped at a bus depot in Alabama to wait for another bus. It was September, and it felt cold to us Floridians, so we walked inside, thinking we could wait for the bus. We were immediately called the n-word and were told to go outside. That was the first time that I really encountered in-your-face racism. That was the first time I realized how hateful the world could be just because of the color of my skin. I was 17.
During the time I was in Talladega, the laws were changed. Public facilities were to be integrated, and so one of the students tested it. He went and sat on the white side of the bus depot, and he was brutally beaten. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Talladega to speak. We were in awe of him. He was powerful in his words. He was inspiring and encouraging and motivating. He made us want to push to change the world. We decided to protest. And when we did, there were the typical police dogs, water hoses and name calling. I remember my parents calling just before the march, and they said that they didn’t want me to participate for fear that I would be hurt. Very obediently, I said, ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘yes sir,’ then hung up the phone and got in the line. This was our opportunity to say, ‘no more.’
My husband became the first African-American assistant state attorney in Tampa and headed the felony division. It was during that time — 1973 — that Gov. Reubin Askew tapped him to become the first African-American county court judge in Hillsborough. I got my master’s degree, and he got that judgeship the same year, and then a couple years later he was diagnosed with leukemia.
The things that they call change really don’t advance education. Education has become too political, too partial. I don’t think when the decisions are made it’s about the kids anymore. It’s more about the adults, and what they want. It’s about their political point of view, and that doesn’t advance education.
My husband was good friends with H. Lee Moffitt. They were both on the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa, and they developed a pretty close relationship. It was after George’s death — and Moffitt had two other friends who also died of cancer — that Moffitt really pushed for a cancer hospital. The only place that George could have gone to get treatment was in Texas. There wasn’t anywhere to get the treatment in Florida.
Watching the Today show is part of my daily routine. I saw an interview that Hoda Kotb and Maria Shriver did with Oprah last October about friendship, and it really touched me. I was so inspired by it that the same day I saw it I sent e-mails to my friends asking them to tell me a little bit about what it means to be a friend and what true friendship means to them. My goal is to take all of that information and write a book about friendship.
I was 31 years old when my husband died. There were times, of course, that I didn’t want to get up and do what I had to do, but I had a 5-year-old, and I had a job, so I pushed myself. I left the grief at the doorstep of my house, and when I walked into my workplace, I concentrated on work. When I went home, I had to be a mom to my daughter. I had to find a way to help her grow up without a father. I prayed a lot, had the support of my friends and did the best I could.
Even now, when I hear ‘We Shall Overcome,’ I still get goosebumps.
Our daughter was young when he passed, so her memories are vague, but seeing that the courthouse in Tampa was named after him helped her build a sense of who her dad was. Sometimes, I can drive by the George Edgecomb Courthouse and not give it a second thought, and other times I pass by and the tears flow.