CLEARWATER — Growing up in a small Virginia town in the 1960s gave Leon Russell firsthand knowledge of the inequalities that can exist in this world.
He attended a segregated school, and there were places his family couldn't eat or use the restroom when they traveled.
"There was a real awareness at the time of civil rights struggles," said Russell, the longtime leader of Pinellas County's Office of Human Rights. "You felt it. You were always at the back of the line, the last to be served. … I wanted to do something that could make a difference."
According to colleagues and his resume, he has succeeded.
From organizing investigations that uncovered housing discrimination, to leading the campaign to add sexual orientation to the county's human rights ordinance, to crafting policies that boosted the ranks of women and minorities in the county workforce, colleagues say Russell has built a legacy of improving life for all humans, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or disability.
Today, he retires from the post he has held for 35 years.
"Pinellas County has been enriched by Leon's stewardship," said county Administrator Bob LaSala, who first met Russell in 1979. "This is a better, stronger organization for his counsel and his example. And the community is a more stable place for his steady leadership. … I'm going to miss him."
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Russell hails from Pulaski, Va. His parents died in a 1962 car crash, so he and his five younger brothers were raised by relatives.
While he witnessed racism growing up, he saw tolerance, too. Russell, who primarily attended segregated grade schools, transferred to an integrated school his second year of high school and joined the band.
"When we went into a place that was inhospitable, the band would sort of cluster around the black members and make sure we were protected and always part of the group," he said.
Still, the '60s were rough. In 1968, his high school graduation year, the principal threatened to suspend the school's black students, who had decided to stay home the day of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral.
"The NAACP fought a little battle for us, and we were not suspended. I've been a member ever since," said Russell, who has been on the group's national board of directors since 1990, is the current vice chairman, and was president of the Florida Conference of NAACP branches from 1996 to 2000.
After high school, Russell earned bachelor's degrees in political science and history from East Tennessee State University. He went to work for the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, where he helped develop equal employment programs and started 16 NAACP branches in less than four years.
Pinellas recruited him in 1977 to lead its new Office of Human Rights and to create an affirmative action program. The office was created after the U.S. Department of Justice threatened to sue the county for gender and race discrimination in hiring.
Russell worked to remove barriers to a diverse workforce, such as tests set up to exclude minorities and job recruiting by word of mouth only.
He also realized he would have to change attitudes of people who believed there were "black jobs," "white jobs" and "women's jobs." A "classic example" he heard was that there were no female sheriff's deputies because gun manufacturers didn't make handles small enough for their hands.
Sometimes the need for change lay with the minorities. Russell recalls encouraging a black mother to keep her children in school. "Her response was, 'Well, they're only going to be orange pickers anyway,' " he said. "You had to make opportunities, but also make people aware and … ready to take advantage of those opportunities."
Because of Russell's work, supervisors were required to say why they did or didn't hire an applicant and goals were set for the hiring of minorities and women in each job classification.
"That was a major achievement, and it has worked," said Russell, 62, of Tampa. "Today, we're proud that our workforce is not only reflective of the county's demographic makeup but exceeds it in a lot of areas."
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In 1984, Pinellas amended its affirmative action ordinance, expanding Russell's purview to protect the general public from discrimination in housing, employment and places of public access, such as stores, restaurants and theaters. Discrimination because of religion, disability, age and sexual orientation were eventually added.
Russell oversees nine employees who investigate resident complaints, facilitate mediation, create or review discrimination policies with county agencies, and occasionally launch independent investigations into suspicious patterns or practices.
Russell has worked on several notable cases:
• The revelation that former Largo City Manager Steve Stanton was undergoing a sex change. Russell advised the City Commission in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade it to adopt an anti-discrimination ordinance. Stanton, whose name is now Susan, was fired.
• He helped facilitate conversation between St. Petersburg College administrators and black nursing students who believed they were being denied access to hospitals to work with patients.
• Using undercover testers, his office conducted a fair housing investigation in 2002 that revealed differential treatment of blacks, Hispanics, disabled people and families with children at 29 of 200 surveyed apartment complexes in Largo, Clearwater, Palm Harbor and St. Petersburg.
County Commissioner Ken Welch calls Russell a "legend" who helped Pinellas live up to its slogan of "Progressive Pinellas." But the modest Russell brushes off compliments. He insists on sharing credit with his staff and county colleagues.
"It was very clear from the top down that we were going to make those changes, and there was a commitment to do that," Russell said.
Russell is training his successor, Paul Valenti, a former manager of Lee County's EEOC office.
"He's very highly regarded in the field of human rights," Valenti said. "Many people have told me the giant shoes I have to fill, and I can only hope to generate half the admiration and respect he has nationally and here in Pinellas."
Russell remains active in the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies, the National Association of Human Rights, the American Association for Affirmative Action and the National Forum for Black Public Administrators. And he jokes that he's "married to the NAACP."
But life in retirement won't be all work and no play. He plans trips to Hawaii and Europe.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To submit a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.