BY TRISH MARTIN, GUEST WRITER TO THE TIMES
SANFORD – While Dr. Velma H. Williams has achieved many ‘firsts’ in her lifetime, she says, “I’d rather make a difference than make history.” It is a conversation she has had with people who wanted to see her run for mayor after her first term as City Commissioner. They would say, “You would become Sanford’s first Black mayor.” She said in a recent interview: “Sanford has four districts and to be mayor you would have to address the needs of residents in all four districts. I was concerned about people in communities that were depressed and disadvantaged.”
She went on to serve a total of 21 years on the city commission (extra year was due to rezoning in which she served Goldsboro and Georgetown), helping to get sidewalks where there were none, paved streets, better stormwater systems and brighter streetlights, for instance. The aim: to get more services for the people who needed them most.
Her push for a new community center came, in a way, through a major renovation of what was once the Westside Community Center and a police substation, which came as the new police headquarters located at the edge of the Black community of Goldsboro on Historic Goldsboro Boulevard (formerly 13th Street).
The community center, recently renamed in Dr. Williams’ honor (the Dr. Velma H. Williams Westside Community Center), is home to the Boys and Girls Club. The community center has a large multi-purpose area, fitness center and computer lab. Residents gather there all of the time for important community meetings, activities for seniors, birthday parties and family reunions.
“Before it was only 7,000 square feet, the multi-purpose area. There is an entirely new section, and the building is 17,000 square feet. It took nine years to get it done but I developed the relationships and got it done,” said Dr. Williams.
There’s not enough space here to talk about all of Dr. Williams’ accomplishments and challenges throughout her lifetime as an educator mostly in Seminole County (retired from Seminole Community College – now Seminole State College – in 1996), community leader and long-term city commissioner (retired in 2019).
One thing is for sure: She has served decades as a community “mother” and is still working on behalf of young people on a voluntary basis. (She has taught a bunch of children over decades mostly primary education but also how to navigate in the business world – namely, to have self-respect and how to speak and dress correctly. Dr. Williams pushed for youth to engage in the local community and speak up for equality.
In fact, from another building named in her honor – the Dr. Velma Williams Community Resource Center off Historic Goldsboro Boulevard – she founded the Goldsboro Front Porch Council, Inc.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush designated the City of Sanford as a Front Porch community in 2001 and the city is one of only four remaining in the state, Dr. Williams said. “We still exist because of the relationship we have with the city.” She says it is a trailer and there, residents have access to a library, mentoring program, and computer room. The popular summer program – Youth Empowerment Leadership Development Academy (Y.E.L.D.A.) – operates from the resource center also. Thanks to the City of Sanford, Career Source, and area businesses, 50 students have the opportunity each summer to work and develop new job skills.
Dr. Williams is also chair of the city’s Race, Equality, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee.
She said of all that has happened in her life over the past two years, she is most proud of receiving the Sanford-Seminole County Lifetime Achievement Award, having the Westside Community Center named after her and reaching a milestone for developing youth and future generations. She beams when talking about volunteering and using her own resources over the years to expose 2,500-3,000 students to government and higher education by taking them to Tallahassee (to visit the state capitol and to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University mostly). She did this while working at the college and for the first 10 years while working at City Hall.
Dr. Williams said she will continue her service until she cannot. “I have always lived by the question: Am I my brother’s keeper? I am my brother’s keeper.”
Dr. Williams is married to retired United States Air Force Master Sergeant Edgar Williams and she is the mother of two adult sons, Eric and Vashaun (wife, Erica). She is the grandmother of two: Alexis and Vashaun Jr. More legacy: Her children and grandchildren are all graduates of her undergraduate alma mater, FAM-U and they all work in some aspect of the medical field.
Sidebar: Dr. Williams, and the late Mr. Edward Blacksheare, Sr. who passed in 2020, and others are credited for relentlessly working with the Seminole County Public School System and the United States Justice Department for 25 years to get the school system in compliance with a key court decree and clear of the department’s oversight. This allowed for transformation of the schools that “nobody wanted to go to” into magnet schools for example: Midway Elementary, Goldsboro Elementary, Crooms Academy of Information Technology and Seminole High School.