Honoring Black History: Vanessa Echols discusses her interviews with Central Florida’s trailblazers

February is Black History Month

Honoring Black History: Vanessa Echols discusses her interviews with Central Florida’s trailblazers
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings spoke with WFTV about Black History Month. (Alex Blankenship /Alex Blankenship)

Orlando, FLA. — The first Black History Month was in February 1970 at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Six years later, U.S. President Gerald Ford recognized it during the celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial, saying "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.

WFTV anchor Vanessa Echols and 9 Family Connection decided to honor Black History Month in Central Florida by bringing attention to the stories of leaders in our communities.

1. What does Black History Month mean to you?

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Black History is American History. So for me, it means taking a moment to remember the contributions that African Americans made in the vast story of America. I think it’s a month when we should all celebrate those contributions. This is not just a month for Black people to celebrate. One of my favorite things about the month is attending Black History Month events and seeing people of all races celebrating together. That’s the real story of what Black History should be.

Belvin Perry was born in 1949 in Orlando. After graduating from Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law, he served as a state prosecutor in Florida. He later became the Chief Judge of Florida's Ninth Judicial Circuit before retiring from the bench in 2014.

2. You interviewed several people for Black History Month. What touched you about their stories?

These are all local people who have a PERSONAL story to tell about Black history. I think most of us know the usual stories we hear during Black History Month: Dr. King, Rosa Parks. But there are people right here in our community who have made significant contributions to Central Florida. For example, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings has a long list of firsts. First Black Orlando Police Chief, first Black Orange County Public Safety Director, first Black Orange County Sheriff, first Black Orange County Mayor. There’s a lot of local history right there.

I think one of the most profound stories is from Dr. LaVon Bracy, who lives in Orlando, but was also the first Black graduate of Gainesville High School. Not only did she endure emotional abuse from students, but she was also the victim of a violent beating by a group of students. She had to get stitches in her head and still bears the scars today. The most emotional part of her interview is when she describes that one year as the single, most isolated year of her whole life. Her story is heartbreaking.

WFTV news anchor Vanessa Echols interviewed Central Florida trailblazers as part of the coverage.
WFTV news anchor Vanessa Echols interviewed Central Florida trailblazers as part of the coverage. (Alex Blankenship/Alex Blankenship)
Perry, 70, shared personal stories of his experiences.
Perry, 70, shared personal stories of his experiences. (Alex Blankenship/Alex Blankenship)
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings spoke with WFTV about Black History Month.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings spoke with WFTV about Black History Month. (Alex Blankenship /Alex Blankenship)
Vanessa Echols spoke with numerous individuals from Central Florida about their personal stories.
Vanessa Echols spoke with numerous individuals from Central Florida about their personal stories. (Alex Blankenship /Alex Blankenship)

3. Why do you think it’s important for Central Floridians to hear their stories?

We need to know there are people right here in our local communities who have blazed trails, made significant contributions to tell the story of Black history here in Central Florida. In addition to hearing personal stories, we have a few people who are actively involved in keeping the legacies alive for several people who are no longer with us. For instance, the director of the Wells’Built Museum. Decades ago, it was the only hotel where black people barred from hotels during segregation could stay. We also talk with the director of the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex in Mims. The Moores are considered the first martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.

Josie Lemon Allen is responsible for getting the lunching marker in honor of July Perry, a black man who was murdered by a white mob in the Ocoee Massacre in 1920.

4. What do you hope people take away from their stories?

I want people to feel proud that there are people here in Central Florida - our neighbors, friends, elected officials - who have had a great impact on Central Florida history, and not just Black history.


Vanessa Echols also hosts a podcast, “Colorblind.” It focuses on issues concerning race in contemporary society.