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A Focus on History, Long Before February

We are entering the second week of national Black History Month, a recognition that began in 1976 thanks to then-President Gerald R. Ford who said to his fellow Americans at the time to “honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

His push followed Negro History Week, which began in 1925 thanks to Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a son of two former slaves who would go on to earn a doctorate in history in 1912 from Harvard University. The historian and author chose the second week in February because it was the birthday week of two men whose work Dr. Woodson felt had been crucial to the achievement of his people: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

The Man Behind Black History Month.

February is indeed about national black history but, thanks to Debrah S. Hall-McCullon, this month is also about Riviera Beach. That’s because the third edition of her all-things-Riviera Beach book, Riviera Beach Moments, has just published. What began in 2017 as periodic posts on social media has now become a best-selling book series. And underneath it all: her love—and knowledge—of her city. The longtime City employee was born and raised in the coastal community, which is where the knowledge comes from of telling the stories of the city’s people, places and history. The books contain all aspects of the city, including both its east- and west-side communities, but it also highlights those who live primarily on the west: the people of color.

Her city, its story, their book.

The books are being sold on Amazon; click here to check them out. Mrs. McCullon’s work was also highlighted in WPEC Channel 12’s Faces of Black History series—check it out here—and she was the featured guest last week on our 30-minute, every-Wednesday talk show, cocochats, on the young, Caribbean-themed radio station, SupaJamz 103.7 FM. Click here to listen.

“It is important for people to know and preserve history because it gives them a better understanding of the world, and the city, in which they live,” Mrs. McCullon said, “And not just in February.”

To learn more about Black History Month from the government that created it, click here. And, in Palm Beach County (PBC), the PBC Historical Society has a few pages on its website with lots of information about people of color locally. Click here to check it out. Before the end of this month, we’ll have someone on cocochats from the historical society to share.

As for Mrs. McCullon, one big question. Why?

“It was important to me to tell my City’s story,” she said, “and it was fun!”

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It’s Annual Meeting is Tonight. On Palm Beach.

The Annual Meeting of the BBIC is this evening, when attendees will learn what the nonprofit has accomplished in the last year and what its goals are for 2020.

Ever heard of it? The Palm Beach County (PBC) BBIC—Black Business Investment Corporation—is one of eight nonprofit investment corporations that was created as a result of the state of Florida’s Small and Minority Business Act of 1985, which sought to ensure the achievement of those types of businesses around the Sunshine State. Each of the BBICs have a sole, distinct responsibility: underwriting loans and investments and providing other services to qualified businesses that are at least 51 percent owned by people of color—African Americans, Caribbeans and native Africans.

Since its founding in 1987, the Riviera Beach-based PBC BBIC has provided more than $30 million to those targeted businesses countywide. It works with member banks in Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties to provide loan guarantees of up to 90 percent to eligible businesses.  It partners with PBC’s Department of Housing and Economic Sustainability to provide business loan guarantees, yes, but also bonding, equity capital and other types of assistance. And it also  provides training and educational programs through partnerships with other organizations, including business plan preparation, marketing strategies and management and accounting training.

The current BBIC President Marlon D. White, left, and former President and Founder John Howard.

Marlon White, the local BBIC’s president, has had a long career in banking and had sat on the BBIC’s executive board for 31 years—while John Howard, its founder in 1987, was president. Mr. Howard, by the way, had been president of Palm Beach Lakes Bank, PBC’s first and only black-owned bank, which had been located at Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard and Australian Avenue in West Palm Beach until it closed in the 1980s. When Mr. Howard retired in 2018 at age 78, Mr. White took the reins.

And he’ll be at the head of the table this evening at the Annual Meeting, which will be held at the U.S. Trust Bank on Palm Beach. Visit its website here to learn more about its work and how it can help.

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…that the PBC school district headquarters is named for a black man who sued it repeatedly for racism?

The School District of Palm Beach County (PBCSD) named its West Palm Beach headquarters the Fulton-Holland Educational Services Center in 1996. It was also the first time a public building in Palm Beach County (PBC) was named for a person of color. (Fulton refers to former District Superintendent Robert Fulton.

In 1956, William ‘Bill’ Holland took his six-year-old son to enroll at all-white Northboro Elementary in West Palm Beach, two years after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that outlawed segregated schools. The son was turned away.

Mr. Holland—the county’s first black attorney and first black municipal judge—fought the matter for years, returning to court time and time again.

To comply with one ruling in 1961, for example, the PBCSD offered a plan that resulted in four black students transferring to all-white high schools. By 1965, only 137 of the county’s 15,000 minority students attended predominantly white schools. And by 1967, only Jupiter High School had achieved full desegregation, while all segregated black schools remained open.

On July 9, 1973, a U.S. District Court judge issued the final ruling in the Holland case and declared PBCSD to be officially integrated. The federal Office for Civil Rights, however, monitored the county’s schools until 1999—three years after the District named its headquarters for Bill Holland. Attorney Bill Holland.

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He’s making movies–and history

He has written and produced six movies so far and the latest one, ‘Until the Last Breath,’ will play at Boynton Beach High School on Sunday, March 17. His name is Mora Junior Etienne and he is Haitian.

Mr. Etienne, 48, is a trained actor, writer and producer who lives in West Palm Beach. He moved to Palm Beach County (PBC) from Anse-a-Veau  in the Nippes of Haiti in 2004 and, in that time, has done three movies; In Haiti, he’d also done three.

He will appear on X102.3 FM’s ‘South Florida Sunday’ community news radio show at 6:30 a.m. on this Sunday, where he’ll talk about his career, his focus and what he wants to accomplish. The name of his production company: Mojueti Entertainment.

Mr. Etienne is making history. He is young, hardworking and focused on the larger picture. That image: us.

“These movies are our stories, they are about our lives, our culture, what we’re doing, what we’re thinking,” Mr. Etienne said. “But it’s Palm Beach they will see. I’m not just making movies to promote me and my community, I’m promoting our home, Palm Beach. That’s what they call me: ‘Mora Palm Beach.'”

He has been an actor and theatre performer since age 15 and won a leading role in the Haitian movie ‘Affair Interne’ in 1995. That experience led to his interest in being behind the camera too. He started doing his own productions in 1998 and the list has grown ever since.

See it in Boynton Beach on March 17.

His six movies:

  • ‘Au Coeu Du Danger’ (‘In the Heart of the Danger,’ 1998), his directorial debut in Haiti;
  • Le Choi De Ma Vie (‘The Choice of My Life,’ 2001);
  • “Profonds Regret (‘Deep Regrets,’ 2005), in which he stars with actress Fabienne Colas, who won Best Actress in 2003 from Ticket magazine in Haiti. It was his first film in the U.S.;
  • ‘Choc Terrible’ (‘Terrible Shock,’ 2007), which featured Haitian-Canadian Actress Tetchena Ellange, who also performed with Dennis Quaid in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ in 2004. It also featured Tiffany Richardson, an African-American performer who was also a finalist in ‘America’s Next Top Model’;
  • ‘Le Prix A Payer’ (‘The Price to Pay,’ 2010), which was about domestic violence and had the support and involvement of the West Palm Beach Police Department. It won the ‘Peoples Choice Award’ from the Motion Picture Association of Haiti (MPAH) in 2011; and
  • ‘Until the Last Breath,’ in 2018.

His movies are in Creole with English subtitles and are a mix of drama and comedy. That’s because, he says, “it’s good therapy when people laugh and think and feel,” he said. “I want to see kids loving their parents, more husbands and wives loving each other, I want to see us not work against each other. I just want to see people laugh and love each other. I want to bring hope, change lives, impact people positively.”

‘Until the Last Breath’ had a black-tie premiere in Boca Raton in December 2018, then went to Port-au-Prince for a second opening later that month, which attracted more than 800 people. It also played locally, at Assemblee De Dieu, a church in Greenacres.

To attend the first showing in PBC since, at 5 p.m. on March 17, click here for tickets. For more information on the film and Mr. Etienne, click here to visit the film site. Tickets are $20 each.

“I love what I am doing,” Mr. Etienne said. “It’s not easy, it costs money, but I have to go through all this to get to where I want to be. I want to tell our stories.”

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History is being made today

When Addie L. Greene launched the Palm Beach County Caucus of Black Elected Officials (PBCBEO) in 2003, there were 27 people of African descent in elective offices countywide. Indeed, Ms. Greene herself was sitting on the County Commission when she created the nonprofit after having served eight years in the State House.

Today, there are 45 African-Americans who have been elected to public office: in 16 of PBC’s 39 cities; on the boards of the Palm Beach County School District and the County Commission; five judges in the county’s 15th Judicial Circuit; and, in the State Legislature, two who represent large, diverse districts across PBC.

And at the Marina Event Center in Riviera Beach today, the newly re-created PBCBEO will swear in nine of them as newly elected board members at it’s first organizational event in years.

And as they gather, they will be the largest group of people of color in the history of PBC to be sitting on all those daises. Moreover, there are a few who are history-making in their own right. Consider that:

  • State Senator Bobby Powell (District 30) is the County’s highest-ranking African-American elected official ever and, of the 13 people in Tallahassee who, together, represent all of PBC, he is also the youngest;
  • County Commissioner Mack Bernard (District 7) was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2009. In 2016, he became the first Haitian-American to be elected to the County Commission and was also unanimously selected by his fellow Commissioners as County Mayor; and
  • Fifteenth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Bradley Harper is the youngest jurist in the County court system. He is also a descendant of one of PBC’s first documented residents of African descent.

“What we all do—well, they, since I’m no longer in elective office—is critical to the success of our communities,”  Ms. Greene said, ticking off programs she’d created, including Paragon Florida, launched in 2006 with $8 million she obtained to help establish minority businesses. “It is also critical that our communities understand the importance of their involvement in our democracy at all levels of government as voting, tax-paying citizens.”

Our top elected officials, left to right: state Senator Bobby Powell, state Representative Al Jacquet, County Commissioner Mack Bernard, school district boardmember Marcia Andrews, County Judge Bradley Harper, one of five on the 15th Judicial Circuit, and school district boardmember Debra Robinson.

That’s why Ms. Greene says she created the organization: as a platform to work to promote, support and train black leadership, award four-year college scholarships and help the people they represent understand they have vital, informed roles to play too.

And the BEO did much of that. There were some hiccups a couple of years ago that caused the organization to decline but, today, it’s back. Literally.

Ms. Greene, who has also served as a Town Councilwoman and Mayor in Mangonia Park over her public service career, is now the PBCBEO’s registered agent. She’s a bit in the background these days but maintains her laser focus on bringing the Caucus back to its earlier prestige and value.

“Democracy only works when the people and the public servants are informed and involved,” she said. “This organization led the way on that. We’re going to do it again.”

And wonder who all those community leaders are in the picture at top? It was taken at a PBCBEO meeting in South Bay; the exact date is unknown but believed to be some time in 2009-10. Click here for the list of names.

And to see a list of those 45 current elected officials of African descent, click here. To see those currently running for municipal office in the March 12, 2019, municipal elections, click here. Lastly, Visit the PBC Supervisor of Elections office here for any and all voting-related information. It will be historic.

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…there is only one place in the world where MLK and Obama meet?

 ‘Tis true, and it is in Riviera Beach. In December 2015, a year-long effort by Mayor Thomas A. Masters resulted in the renaming of the former north-south Old Dixie Highway to President Barack Obama Highway. ‘Obama Way,’ as residents call it, meets the east-west Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (MLK) at the corner just in front of an entrance to the Port of Palm Beach. MLK Boulevard became the new name for the former West 8th Street in 1994.

It is a historic corner.

Indeed, when U.S. Senator Corey Booker was visiting Palm Beach County in 2016, he heard about this singular location and took a drive there.  That is him, above, underneath the signs on the one-of-its-kind corner, which had been posted to his social media page. Senator Booker, by the way, is running for President in 2020.

“‘Old Dixie’ is a reminder of the Deep South and old, painful wounds of racial injustice,” Mayor Masters said at the time, “and it needs to go.”

Indeed, Old Dixie was famous in its own right: it became the first paved highway connecting states from north to south when it was created in 1915 by a group of state governors. According to historians, the governors wanted to spur tourism, especially with the arrival of the Model T car.

So, because the average person could now drive from, say, Chicago to Miami, they also needed motels, restaurants and gas stations along the way. That’s why the Dixie Highway System, as it was named at creation, helped changed the south: it brought folks down here from up north.

A traffic signal at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and President Barack Obama Highway in Riviera Beach. (Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

But by 1927, the bottom had fallen out as the federal government got involved in the highway business and created the numbered highway system. That killed the Dixie Highway system, but the roadway—and its name—remained.

Until August 2015, when the Riviera Beach City Council voted 4-1 in favor of the name change in their town, followed by the required approval of the Palm Beach County Commission, which owns the roadway. Those votes were a final death knell for Dixie Highway in, at least, Riviera Beach.

And at a Mayor Masters-led ceremony a few months later, city residents cheered as County workers in bucket trucks took down the old signs and put up the new ones. The newly famous intersection was borne.

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What will history show?

Philando Castile in Minnesota, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Eric Garner in New York City—and Corey Jones, above, in Palm Beach Gardens. All black men who were killed by white police officers, drew national attention—and made history.

Of the cases mentioned, only one officer was actually convicted—in the McDonald shooting in Chicago—and the Corey Jones case was scheduled to have yet another hearing today. It has been postponed until 1:30 p.m. on Friday, February 8, 2019, at the Palm Beach County Courthouse in West Palm Beach. Jury selection has been set to start February 21 and the trial sometime during the week of February 25.

Remember the story? At about 3 a.m. on October 18, 2015, Corey had been traveling southbound on I-95 through Palm Beach Gardens when he had car trouble and pulled off the freeway. He was awaiting a tow truck when a plainclothes officer who’d been in an unmarked van approached him and, after a brief exchange, shot Corey three times.  As Corey ran away. The defense has attempted several unsuccessful motions over the years to dismiss the case, including use of Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law, but thus far, judges have ruled against those efforts. The officer, Nouman Raja, is charged with manslaughter and attempted murder.

Still, it has been nearly four years since the shooting and his family still awaits justice for Corey who, at the time of his death, was just 31 years old. He was a college graduate, an assistant property manager for the Delray Beach Housing Authority and a skilled drummer, who played at Bible Church of God in Boynton Beach, where his grandfather is the Bishop, and with his band, the Future Prezidents. Indeed, he was returning from a band performance in Jupiter when his car failed on that fateful morning. In an exclusive opinion piece in cocowire, read here what his maternal aunt, Sheila Banks, recalls of her nephew.

She and her family are god-loving people who pray. And they pray that Corey Jones’ death will not go down in history without justice, as with those other black men before him and since. Join the family on Friday.

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No wife, no kids, no Corey: ‘his generation stopped’

Sunday, February 3 was the 35th birthday of my nephew, Corey Jones. But there will be no birthday celebration; just heartache. That’s because Corey’s generation has stopped.

It’s been more than three years since that dreadful night of October 18, 2015, and our hearts and minds have questions with no answers.

Corey was in his rightful place, waiting for towing assistance for his car along the side of I-95 in Palm Beach Gardens—help that was delayed. He had been on a phone call for more than 50 minutes with an AT&T roadside assistance representative.

When Corey’s mother passed away in 2006, I knew I needed to step up in my role as his Godmother — and that I did. He spent time with me in Georgia, where I lived; I remember our lunches and dinners. He was always very curious. He found music stores and would spend hours there while I was working. We chatted about life, but not much about his mom; it was too painful for both of us.

My last text to Corey was simple—I typed ‘how are you, I love you’—and sent just a few hours before he was shot and killed. Our last conversation was a week before his horrific death. We talked about his many friends from all around the world, friendships that developed over the last decade as he pursued his music career. He was so happy and full of joy about the life God had allowed him to “build”; he was looking forward to his future, as was I.

We spoke about him one day getting married and I told him that, while I could never replace his mom, I would be honored to sit where she would have sat—and we would honor her too on that special day. Suddenly, he stopped. “Auntie,” he said, “I’ll have time for that later.”

That being said, because of the selfish decision by that police officer, Nouman Raja, on that dreadful night, Corey’s generation stopped. There will be no wedding. No children and no grandchildren. That all ended on that October night nearly four years ago. And as we continue to await his trial, we feel no better. Especially as we pass yet another birthday without justice for Corey.

Sheila Banks is the founder of Live To Serve, Live To Care Inc., a nonprofit focused on family support and community uplift. She grew up in Boynton Beach, attending the family church with her nephew, who played the drums. For more information on the trial, contact

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Books, no matter what

Whether it’s Michelle Obama’s new bestseller, Ziggy Marley’s cookbook or the autobiography of the first democratically elected president of Kenya—if it was written by a person of African descent, that book will be available for sale at Pyramid Books in Boynton Beach. Founded in 1993 by Akbar James Watson, Pyramid would have celebrated its 25th anniversary in June of 2018.

Instead, that month, it closed.

And that closure means there are only two African-American-owned and operated bookstores left in the entire state of Florida—and none in Palm Beach County. In fact, for most of the time Pyramid was open, it was alone here in that category.   

Inside Pyramid Books, 544-2 Gateway Blvd., Boynton Beach. The store is no more– except online.

In other words, it made history. Black history. It sold books, yes, but it also partnered with schools and educators to ensure children of African descent get exposed to age-specific works about their peoples and culture; it provided editing services for aspiring writers; and it hosted book signings, lectures and workshops. All that work continues, still, even though the store is no more.  

“It’s life: you live, you die,” said Akbar, pictured, about the closing. “No, I didn’t want to close. I’m still a bookseller, just not at that location. But I’m not dead, I’m still here and I’m looking for a new spot.”  

So why did it close? Pyramid outgrew its space, he said, yet the rent kept rising. Daily, in-store sales had become a challenge, too, he said, as people now get their information differently. Today’s bookstores also do more than sell books; they sell coffee, some sell cocktails, all provide spaces for people to, well, hang, while they read. Or look for something to read. Add to that giant bookstores and online sales. In other words, the game has changed.

Still, Akbar says Pyramid continues its partnerships with the school district and area businesses. It also is continuing to host the lectures, workshops and book signings it always did and it will also continue its weekly Sankofa Study Group, a book-reading club based at S.D. Spady Cultural Heritage Museum in Delray Beach. See the coco calendar for dates and times. It is still also selling books online–visit the website here--and continuing its skilled ability to locate out-of-print and hard-to-find books. And looking for a new location.

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There’s a park named for him

C. Spencer Pompey (1915-2001) was a longtime educator in the segregated schools of Palm Beach County who, in a calm, deliberative manner, made change in his community, the school district and the lives of black children.

He had been a sports coach and social studies teacher primarily at the then-all-black Carver High School in Delray Beach and would later become its principal before retiring in 1979. In his own way, reports say, Mr. Pompey used education and coaching to push for change. He would, for example, give his students extra credit if their parents voted on Election Day.

Originally from Suwanee County, Fla., he had been a longtime resident in Delray Beach and was a co-founder of the Palm Beach County Teachers’ Association for black teachers. He also was one of three black teachers behind a 1942 federal class-action lawsuit—one of the first in the country—against the county school board and its superintendent, protesting a $25-per-month pay disparity with white teachers. They won the case, thanks in part to a young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall. Attorney Marshall, of course, became in 1967 the first black man appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pompey Park, 1101 NW 2nd Street, Delray Beach

In the 1950’s, Mr. Pompey also calmly protested his hometown’s whites-only beach and, later, pushed for the first organized recreation programs for the city’s black children. He also pressed the city to install streetlights, sidewalks and paved streets in its black neighborhoods.

Over his 40-year career, Mr. Pompey would also be named president of the local NAACP, president of the teachers’ association, a board member of the Delray Beach Historical Society and honorary director of the Palm Beach Junior College Black History Archives.

Delray Beach’s Pompey Park was named in his honor in 1978; the 17.5-acre park serves about 150,000 people a year with dozens of clubs, organizations and civic groups using it monthly. It is not far from the S.D. Spady Cultural Heritage Museum–and is across the street from where the Pompey family had lived.

C. Spencer Pompey died in 2001 at age 85.