Dr. LaVon Bracy, Poet, Valada Flewellyn, And Dr. Leroy Pernell Take Center Stage At League Of Women Voters Orange County, “Hot Topics”

(L-R) Jasmine Burney-Clark (moderator), Tiffany Hughes (LWVOC president), Dr. Lavon W. Bracy (panelist), Valada Flewellyn (panelist), Dr. Leroy Pernell (panelist), Lee Rambeau Kemp (1st vice president) (Photo Credits: EYESEEIMAGES)
Valada Flewellyn (holding her book, “Poetically, Just Us) leads a follow-up discussion after the Hot Topics Program in the Winter Park Library. (Photo Credits: EYESEEIMAGES)
Desmond Reid, owner of Dare Books, Longwood and LWVOC “Hot Topics” guests (Photo Credits: EYESEEIMAGES)
“A Brave Little Cookie” written by Dr. Lavon Bracy (Photo Credits: EYESEEIMAGES)


WINTER PARK – On Valentine’s Day at the Community Center in Winter Park, The League of Women Voters (LWV) held its monthly, “Hot Topics” event.  The theme for Black History Month 2024 is:  “Lift Every Voice: The Fight for African American History and Culture”    The LWV collected and gave away banned books and  African American bookstore proprietor, Desmond Reid, owner of “Dare Books “ offered books for sale.

Lee Rambeau Kemp, vice president of League of Women Voters Orange County opened the program by recognizing the 104th anniversary of the LWV.   She praised the leadership of former National League President, Dr. Deborah A. Turner, who passed away on Jan 28, 2024. Dr. Turner was a fierce advocate of voting rights, women’s rights, and racial equity.

Kemp introduced moderator, Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder and executive director of Equal Ground, a community-centered organization engaging the rising American electorate through equal access to education about voting and empowerment.  Jasmine encouraged the audience to celebrate Black history every day, not just during Black History Month (BHM). She informed the audience that annually the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) selects a theme for BHM, the theme this year is “African Americans and The Arts”.

Soloist Dr. Ethel Wellington-Trawick (retired educator, administrator, and music director) laid the foundation for the hour with a lovely rendition of the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by Jacksonville native James Weldon Johnson.

Senator Geraldine Thompson joined by video as the Legislature is in session. Senator Thompson provided an overview of “troubling” legislation enacted and under discussion. She characterized the current legislative agenda as one that looks to shift the discussion away from matters of substance that would confront the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racist government policies. Our legislators favor a “whitewashing” of history and seek to protect white students from the discomfort of reckoning with our past.

The University of Florida, integrated in 1958, 100 years after its founding. Senator Thompson asked her audience to consider the systems that were in place to keep a publicly funded university all white for almost 100 years. As a former teacher, Senator Thompson is participating on a committee that is reviewing academic standards. She suggests that the Department of Education “go back to the drawing board” and develop standards that provide an historically accurate depiction of the African American experience in the US and honor the contributions made by African Americans. An unfortunate consequence of efforts to defund Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs in public colleges and universities and proposed rules around tenure is an exodus of academic talent and recruiting challenges.

After the airing of the video, moderator, Jasmine Burney-Clark introduced the panel and asked each panelist to describe how the manner in which Black history has been taught (or not taught) has shaped their lives and career choices. African American artists have used art to preserve history and community memory as well as for empowerment. Artistic and cultural movements such as the New Negro, Black Arts, Black Renaissance, Hip-Hop, and Afrofuturism, have been led by people of African descent and set the standard for popular trends around the world. Our panelists today are authors, poets, historians, and activists. Each brings rich lived and professional experiences to today’s discussion reclaiming the African American narrative.

Valada Flewellyn (poet, historian, storyteller) grew up during the Civil Rights era, during the Great Migration, her parents moved from Alabama to Ohio.  Valada was mentored by Icabod Flewellen (Father of the African American Museum).  Flewellen founded the first free standing African American museum in, Cleveland, Ohio, 1953.  At age 13, she realized how “Negro History” was not being taught at school.  Seeing how adults used protest… she turned her anger to activism and started a petition to require the teaching of “Negro” history in Cleveland schools.  Icabod Flewellen supported her campaign time. In time, Valada expressed her feelings through poetry.  Traveling the country as a published author, storyteller and poet she used her talents to ensure that the stories of African Americans are recognized as American stories.

Honoring ASALH’s 2024 Black History theme, “African American and the Arts”, Valada Flewellyn read several of her poems,   “I Love to Tell the Story” speaks to the importance of storytelling in understanding history.  Speaking to our collective responsibility to preserve history, she read her piercing poem, “Skin on the Rope”, and “You Push On” highlights the importance of voting.

Dr. LaVon Bracy (educator, civil rights champion, author) grew up in St. Augustine and didn’t realize the impact of history until, the white supremacist group, the ku klux klan (KKK) burned a cross in her yard. Her dad was president of the local NAACP. She described growing up in St Augustine as “horrible for us.” Yet, her parents stressed the importance of getting the best education possible and the importance of reading. She was instructed to “take what you have learned and help others”. Dr. Bracy spoke about her experience as the first Black student to graduate from Gainesville High School. Classmates beat her, called her slurs, put tacks on her seat and tried every way possible to prevent her from graduating. She persisted and met her graduation goal.

Dr. Bracy has told this story for many years to Florida schoolchildren. It is detailed in her book, “Brave Little Cookie”.  Her calendar during Black history month has always been filled. This year, she has had ZERO invitations. One teacher told her she was “afraid she would lose her job” if Dr. Bracy were invited.  Any presentation would need to be pre-approved by an attorney to ensure she met the conditions of the law”.

Dr. Leroy Pernell (educator, lawyer, former dean of FAMU College of Law) grew up in the 1950s and used the study of Black history to imagine who he could become. He remembered seeing a picture of Emmett Till in Jet magazine and was changed forever. He turned outrage into a lifelong fight for equality. Once told that “a child like you couldn’t have a perfect score” on an exam, he would refuse to let doubts about his intelligence define him. He became the first in his family to graduate from high school. When speaking about legislative constraints on what and how educators teach, Dr. Pernell remarked that “…attacks on education are nationwide and are an attempt to “prohibit” progress toward diversity and inclusion.”

Dr. Pernell reminded the audience that the “battle” isn’t against individuals who do racist things; the real battle is against systems that deny access to the truth, deny access to voting and work to marginalize people of color. These are not individual actions by individual states, but part of a broader plan to suppress some voices and privilege others. The courts can also be an effective tool.  Dr. Purnell is one of the plaintiffs challenging the “Stop WOKE Act” as a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments

Moderator, Jasmine Burney Clark mentioned the “permission slip” recently posted by a parent who had to grant “permission” for his child to be read a book by an African American author. She asked us to share these stories in our networks. “If we don’t scream loud enough and use the power of the ballot” it will get worse. Our panelists believe there is an urgent need to challenge the suppression of knowledge in our schools. States that suppress history also suppress voting. This is not an accident.

Valada Flewellyn shared, “Once during a poetry reading, a white man after hearing her poetry, asked “Who are your people?”, she then referenced what she describes as the shortest poem in her book, and answered him saying, “My people love”.