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Florida Icon: Annetta Wilson

I’m a Florida girl, born and raised in Panama City. My earliest memories of childhood were in church and playing on a street full of girls — we were tomboys. I had that safe cocoon with my family, my grandparents and three of my great grandparents. Not many people can say they have that kind of generational nurturing.

In my teen years, I was aware of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and segregation. I have very vivid memories of that and have seen things change, and unfortunately some have kind of gone backward.

Going shopping with my mom for school clothes at Sears, we were not allowed — we being Black people — to use the restroom on the sales floor. So, we had to go down to the basement where the boxes and mannequins were stored, even though the restroom on the sales floor was just 20 feet away. At movie theaters, there was a white entrance and a ‘colored’ entrance. At doctors’ offices, you went in the back door, and everywhere there were white and colored water fountains and all this craziness. There were even separate entrances to the beach, as if there was a dividing line in the Gulf of Mexico.

I’ve always been inquisitive and remember watching the news every night with my dad. That was our thing, and I thought that all these places the reporters went to were amazing and they got to meet these interesting people. So, I thought: I want to do that someday.

I became the first Black evening news anchor in Central Florida just by being bold enough to ask for it. The first night I went on, I was petrified because I realized what a big deal it was. But there was something that felt right about it, that validated the choice I made on how I wanted to contribute to the world. As a television journalist, I was always aware that eyes were on me, but I wanted to make people proud because I knew I was the first to do this.

You could count on one hand the number of Black reporters in Orlando in the 1970s. But I understood the game. If someone being interviewed talked to the (white) videographer instead of me, I was fine with that — as long as we got the story.

I’m an off-the-charts extrovert, but whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, the main thing you need in front of a camera every night is confidence.

Professionally, my proudest moment, and it still happens, is when young people come up to me and say they became a reporter because they saw me on television or because I talked to their high school class. There is nothing better than that. I don’t care how many luminaries I had the privilege to interview; it’s the kids who were impacted, who said ‘I can do this.’ I’m also proud to have interviewed the late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. I thought this was pretty cool because I wouldn’t have gotten within five feet of him any other way. That press badge gives you access.

When people see you on television in their homes every night, there’s this weird psychological thing that happens. They feel they know you, and sometimes when they see you in person, they want to hug you and talk like they know you. So, you have to understand the power of that box. Because people recognize you, it means you’re always on, always aware of how you’re being perceived when you’re in public. It’s a big responsibility and it’s an honor.

I also hosted a public affairs program for Channel 6 in Orlando, called Black Awareness. We sometimes hosted a few celebrities — James Earl Jones and Della Reese — when they were in town. What I found to be important about the show was providing a different perspective on the issues that were affecting society at that time. It helped provide a forum for conversations that may otherwise have only happened in local communities. The media have always been powerful in that way.

Journalism today and when I started is a world of difference. The techniques for gathering news may be different, but the things that make something news are the same. What saddens me is people can pick their news based on their ideologies, but you are not the story. With the internet, we forget that so much information is opinion. But there are reporters who still care and just want to give you the facts.

When someone says journalism is fake news, it makes me curious as to why they feel that way, because it’s not about me. My attitude is let’s be curious rather than combative because you get more information by being curious.

Everybody’s favorite subject is themselves, so if you get people to talk about themselves, you’ll get all the information you need for a great story.

Public speaking is not about you. It’s about serving the people in the room. It’s you volunteering to help them. When we volunteer, we aren’t thinking about ourselves — we’re in a place of giving and of service. You are giving these people something they didn’t have before they walked into the room.

There is nothing we do that doesn’t involve communication. As we use technology more and more, our soft skills are going to come into play even more. There’s only so much you can do without interfacing with another person at some point, so people need the skills to be eyeball-to-eyeball with someone.

It’s a privilege to be in the presence of another human being who gives you their time. Time is precious and can’t be replaced. When a person says they want to spend a few minutes with you, that’s a gift. That never ceases to put me in a place of awe and wonder.