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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, May 10, 201112:00 PM EST

Gertrude Peele: 'All we need to do is go for it'

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Community leader Gertrude Hoffman Peele was a baby when her parents moved to Jacksonville from Tuskegee, Ala. in 1929.

She developed an intense connection to family, education and determination.

Peele, who has been recognized locally and nationally for her advocacy for children, will speak tonight about “A Purpose Filled Journey” as part of the Women’s Center of Jacksonville’s 2011 Speakers Series at Theatre Jacksonville in San Marco. It begins with a 5:30 p.m. reception and the lecture follows at 6:30 p.m.

Peele retired more than 15 years ago as CEO of Carthage Chapel Funeral Home, and volunteers there on occasion.

A longtime leader in the National Council of Negro Women, serving in national, state and community leadership positions, her current focus is on the Reed Educational Campus in Northwest Jacksonville. She developed the center to work with at-risk girls ages 9-12, offering educational classes, computer training, physical fitness and a garden. The campus carries the name of a friend who died and donated the house.

Peele also has been raising two teenage great-grandchildren, a boy and a girl, since birth.

She met with Daily Record reporters Wednesday at the Reed campus.

What is your message to the Women’s Center?
They have asked me to talk about the journey, and I have been around for a long time. On this journey, I’ve met so many marvelous people. It’s the work that I like to do, which is reaching out to others and doing something for somebody every day. You can’t do that kind of work alone. On my journey, I have had the opportunity to interact, to learn from, to understand and to love so many citizens of Jacksonville and beyond.

Where did your journey start?
This volunteer journey actually started in Sunday school when I was about 4 years old. I didn’t realize it at that time, but I was carving out a path. I had an awesome Sunday school superintendent, Dr. Abraham Lincoln Lewis, and he founded the first insurance company, Afro-American Insurance Co., in the state of Florida. He was also an outstanding, super Sunday school teacher. Dr. Lewis had a lot of friends. A lot of them were women. And those women would visit the Sunday school and one of the things that Dr. Lewis did was encourage volunteerism. I don’t remember a time in my life that I wasn’t doing something for somebody else.

What brought you to Jacksonville?
My father was looking for a better life for his wife and at that time, three little girls, and he didn’t think Tuskegee — Alabama — was a place for us because segregation was the law of the land, and he thought Florida would be better. So he came to Jacksonville with his girls to make a better life. I call Jacksonville my home.

What did your father do?
My father was with the King Edward cigar factory, it’s now Swisher International. He retired from Swisher International.

What was it like growing up in Jacksonville?
There would be good times and bad times, because I left what I thought was comfortable and had to go out in the real world, with my mother expecting another child. The school system had split shifts, a morning shift and an evening shift. My sisters were enrolled in the morning shift. I had to take the evening shift, and that was not pleasant for me. It was fight or flight. It wasn’t a pleasant time for me.

We were always encouraged by our parents that things would get better. If you don’t like what you see, create a way to help change it. It just stuck with us.

My grandmother used to say, ‘Brighten the corner where you are. If it’s not bright enough for you, you make it bright. Take the light to the corner.’

My mind was on getting my education. I thought if I got my education, I could help somebody else do some of the things that I saw the women doing for us. I just wanted to get in there and help make things different. I never believed in fighting anything. I don’t fight anything. I look for a way to help change it. If you fight things, they fight you back.

You changed a lot of things in Jacksonville. Would you talk about that?
The major change I see for myself, and I’m pleased with, is the way women work together. There was a time where there were so many wonderful women in Jacksonville, but we were so separated. We all wanted the same things, but it didn’t seem we knew how to find a way to work together to make it happen. You know, if you tell people you’re doing something, that’s fine. But if you’ve got 10, you’ve got it really going.

Women are powerful. Men are great, and we couldn’t live without them, but women seem to think things through. All we need to do is go for it. I don’t think there are any limitations. If you want to go into politics, fine. I don’t see any limitations for women. Women are moving faster than ever.

Did you ever consider running for office?
No. I was asked. Really, Sallye Mathis became very ill, and I was seriously asked by several people to run for City Council. (Mathis was one of the first African-American women elected to Council.) I had no interest. I still don’t have any interest in political office. I want to help those that are in there, but I never wanted to be a politician.

You grew up in Jacksonville. Where did you go to school?
I went to Franklin Street School. That’s in East Jacksonville. Then I went to Stanton High School. That was the only high school I could go to. There was not another school for colored children at that time to attend a high school. So I had to walk from Evergreen Avenue, in East Jacksonville, to Broad and Ashley every morning, and I was in school on time, or ahead of time.

In walking, if I went through Springfield to make a short cut, I had to run, because they didn’t want colored children coming through Springfield to go to school. If we wanted to go to a football game, it was run through Springfield to get to the football game.

After I graduated from Stanton, I had my suitcase packed, because I thought I was on my way to Florida A&M University, which was AMC at the time. I had two sisters there, and at the last minute, my mother and daddy had to tell me that they could not keep three girls in college and I would have to wait.

Like the average teenager, I didn’t like the idea of waiting, because I had worked so hard to get to college.

I had just met a handsome sailor who had returned home on his furlough. I thought I was in love, so I got married to that handsome sailor. By the time I got into Lincoln Business College, my daughter was 7 years old. But I did finish. I finished at the head of my class, so I made it. It wasn’t easy, because at that time, I had to try to work, take care of children, go to school, doing everything.

You have six children. Four are adults and two are teenagers. What’s it like having two teenagers?
It’s interesting, because you know, I see the things that I want for them, and it really helps. It keeps you alive and well. The mornings you want to sleep, you’ve got to get up and get them to school on time, so you don’t have time to sit around watching television. I don’t have that kind of time.

What sort of issues do you see today’s teenagers facing that you relate to?
The bullying. There was bullying when I was going to school. When I walked to school in the morning, that was nothing but bullying, but the difference was that I was being bullied by adults.

The other difference is it seems to me they want to do things earlier than they did when I was growing up.

Other than that, it’s about some of the same things that we did, and we don’t want to say it, but we acted out sometimes. I’m sure we did. But I enjoy teenagers. I really do. I listen to them, and I learn from them. And they have to listen to me and learn from me.

Why do you think teenagers are doing things earlier now?
Some of it might be media. We let our children see and learn a lot from the media. We have to teach our kids how to be media smart, or they will pick up images that they really shouldn’t pick up. We give our kids toys to play with, I think sometimes without thinking. I have gone through the toy store, and I’m looking at the guns. I wouldn’t dare buy my son a gun. There are other things you can give your kids to play with. You can give them a microscope. You can give them a math book, or something to read.

I think some of that problem starts with us, and it’s according to what your values are. You shouldn’t have to look for a teenager, somebody 15 or 16 years old, at night. You should know where your child is. I’ve got a son 16 years old, but believe me I know where he is at night.

You spent a lot of time helping Jacksonville improve itself. Can you tell us about the civil rights movement?
During the active civil rights movement here in Jacksonville, my daughters were very young, and they were in school. I was spending most of my time trying to raise my daughters. In my mind, I had to educate them. I felt like I had gone through so much as a child, and fighting to try to get to school to learn my ABCs, I just could not get out and walk or march.

I had to find a unique way to make a change. I had to make friends with people, and sometimes people don’t realize they’re being racist. You have to understand them, and try to show them, but you don’t have to be angry. You should do it with compassion.

I spent my time looking for people who could understand, and I could help them understand, and they could help me understand why we think like we think. It’s all in your thought patterns. If you don’t want to be rude, you don’t have to spend your energy in doing things that are rude. It’s just that simple.

How far has Jacksonville come?
It’s come a long way. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way. We’re seeing things now that we didn’t see 30 years ago, and not only in Jacksonville, but in our whole state, our whole country. We just have to understand that we’re changing, and be ready to accept the change. A lot of times we don’t accept change, but I think we’re changing. I think we’re growing. And it’ll get better.

Your focus has always been on young people. Why?
It might have been from my house. When we were growing up, and I told you we came from Alabama to Florida, my mom and dad had a very large playroom in our house. They didn’t tell us why we couldn’t play outside, but we were living in an all-white neighborhood. They didn’t tell it to us like that, they just said, ‘stay in your playroom and play together.’

We were the only African-American family in that neighborhood at that time. When it began to integrate, and other people had children, then my parents allowed the children to come in because they were not about to let us go out and stay out.

There were children always around my mother, and when my mother died at 84 years old, there was still a young girl with her.

We have never been without helping somebody, and whenever my mother and father could help, they were always helping. I would go with my mother when there was a need in the neighborhood, and she would always leave, and say, ‘now you call me if you need me.’ That just stuck with me, and I’m the same way.

What are some of the organizations, efforts and initiatives that you have led over the years?
I led the National Council of Negro Women as president. I am the founder of the Child Watch Partnership of Jacksonville. I am the national president of Women in Community Service. I served many years there. I served as the first African-American president of the League of Women Voters.

What have you received from your service? What have you learned?
Sharing or being able to share whatever it is you have, no matter how small, is just a blessing. You don’t have to have it, but if you’re fortunate enough to do something, and share something with others, why not?

Tell us about your family. What happened to the handsome sailor?
Well, we were divorced after three years. We were still friends. We just had to grow up. We were friends until his death. And I remarried.

And you have a lot of grandchildren, don’t you?
I have grandchildren, and they are growing up too, and I have great-grands, and it’s all like one big happy family. We’re just very close. When it’s a holiday, we’re all in one place. And if one hurts, all hurt. And when one’s happy, they’re all happy. We have been a blessed family.

I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be without a family. That helped me, too, because I’d run into others without a family, and I just want to do everything I can to make them happy.

Would you tell us about the Reed Center?
This is a home-style facility that’s designed for tween girls, so they can have a safe place to come every day. And even on Saturdays. It is not a place for just playing games. They have to study and they have to do their work. We offer academic courses, language arts and reading, math and science. We have a mental health counselor. He’s also a school psychologist, so he’s able to help them with their thinking and their behavior in and out of school, because some of them come from chaotic backgrounds. We have the nutritionist. We have yoga. We’re getting a photography class. We have found that some of our girls come to us looking down. Always looking down, can’t look in anybody’s eyes. That photography class is going to help them to look up and see the beauty.

They might come from an area that to them, there is no beauty. We’re going to teach them they can find it in their own community.

They are here Monday through Thursday and on Saturday. We have health sessions, but that’s provided to us by the University of Florida College of Medicine. They send their pediatricians in here once a week. Our girls are able to talk to a doctor as long as they want to and it’s a personal thing with them.

They have questions and they might not have anybody at home to answer those questions. But they’re comfortable talking to the pediatricians about it.

We have other role models coming through all the time. They can capture a vision of what they can become. We treat them like family. We treat them with love and if there’s a problem, we try to find out what it is.

We’re in our sixth year. Our core number of girls is 13, but we really have 24. We brought them in here in third grade, to keep them till the fifth grade. Some of them went into middle school and they’re all right, and some of them are not. They come back every day, because they feel comfortable coming back, and they serve as mentors for the little girls.

This summer’s going to be particularly challenging, because we have so many who are saying they want to come, and I don’t think we’re going to have the space. We seriously need to expand.

Do you have space here to expand? How many girls do you think need the center?
We’re going to have to have land acquisition in order to expand. There are hundreds of girls that need it. But if we could have enough space for just 50 … We know we can’t solve everything, but we can make a quantum leap into their success.

Would you talk about the garden?
The garden adds a great deal to the program. You don’t know how much, until you see them sitting there writing a poem or writing you a note, and say, ‘I feel so good when I dig in the garden and I come in and I wash my hands and I watch the dirt roll away. It makes me feel good.’ Notes like, ‘I loved working in the roses today, I felt so pretty. I never knew that roses were yellow and red and white. I never noticed that. We don’t have roses in my yard, but I took some home for my grandmother.’

That’s what the garden does for us. They feel the freedom in that garden. The garden just brings peace to the minds of those girls, and we did not know that when we planted the garden. The garden is very valuable. It’s therapeutic and I’m just glad the community has helped us in so many ways.

You’ve served in a lot of leadership roles but seem to be more at home and at peace within the community with the children.
Yes. I’m at peace. That’s where my attention is, and I go where my attention flows.

What else should we know?
My greatest concern, I should say, is the education of our children. I think it’s a travesty to leave any child behind or make them feel that they can’t learn. It’s just unthinkable that a kid might not graduate from high school, or that girls go into penal institutions in larger and larger numbers. Those kinds of things are painful for me. We’ve got to do some critical thinking on how we, as citizens of Jacksonville, are going to change the way we treat children. All children.

Have you talked to the school board?
No, I haven’t talked to the school board. The only thing that I’ve done is in here, to try to complement what’s going on in school. When I lock that door in the evening and tell that kid goodbye, have a good day in school tomorrow, I’m satisfied that we are sending kids out to school the next morning ready for school. Children should be excited about going to school. They shouldn’t have to go to school frightened.

I’m sure we’ll see a headline that says they’re closing schools. I think we can do better. I know we can. And I’m sure we will. Those who are working there are working hard to make a change, and hoping that that change will come.

What’s your average day?
I’m up at 5:00 every morning, taking my great-grands, getting them ready for school, and from there, it’s volunteerism all day long. I have meetings, or by 7:00, I’m watering the garden, because, you know, this is the time of year when you have to keep water on it.

Then my day will start out with meetings, or planning, or thinking, or traveling, because I sometimes have to go, making trips to Washington (D.C.), because I still work with national organizations. While I’m there, I’m always thinking Jacksonville, and what can we do to help change things in Jacksonville?

One of things I’m working with now is childhood obesity. And I’m working with the NIH, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and looking at obesity, or maintaining a healthy weight for women.

Diabetes is at an all-time high. We see a lot of loss of limb. Cancer. Heart disease. And we have to look at the health of our children. So that’s where I spend a lot of time, thinking and planning on how I can help bring this community’s attention to the devastating effect of obesity.

Would you talk about The Center of Achievement?
We opened the Center of Achievement in 1990, and that came from the most notorious corner in Jacksonville, that was Beaver and Lee. Crime was something you saw every day. There were a lot of activities going on there that just did not serve the community well. I wanted to see it change because I saw children, babies, being left in the bushes, prostitutes coming out in the streets.

The only way I could change that corner was to purchase the corner. And I did. I opened the Center of Achievement as a resource center because there was not one Downtown. I had been in this community for a long time and I knew where a lot of things were.

It enabled us to do more things, connecting us to the Children’s Defense Fund. Job Corps. The Department of Labor. They all came in and we just worked on community problems. We’re still working in there. It is now the Center of Achievement Inc.

It’s alive and well, and most of the attention in the Center of Achievement has been put in Reed Campus, because we are just getting into our sixth year, and we have a long ways to go.

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