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Plant City resident blazes a pioneering path for black journalists

PLANT CITY — When Plant City resident Jeraldine Williams walked through the halls of the School of Journalism at the University of Florida in 1963, she wasn't just bringing a new mind to the table. She single-handedly revolutionized the program.

Williams was the only African American student to have ever passed through those doors, forever integrating the college. At 17 years old she began crafting a legacy, planting seeds in a garden that will blossom for decades to come.

Williams was honored last month at the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists' annual Griot Drum Awards & Scholarship Banquet for her revolutionary life.

"At age 17, I walked where angels feared to tread," Williams said at the banquet. "When I walked on that campus there were 2,000 acres. There were 14,000 white students. There were 14 black students and I was the only one in journalism. Frightening."

Williams' father proved to be a driving force and pushed her to graduation day. She said he worked so hard to keep her in school and the immense pride he had in his daughter kept her from ever giving up, despite the trials she underwent to pursue her degree.

While on campus she was asked if she grew up in the ghetto, and one girl stared at her for a long period of time before finally asking where her extra bone was that allowed black people to run so fast.

Her fellow students decided the best way to handle the integration was to put Williams through social isolation. For four years, every white student on campus acted as if she did not exist.

They did not speak to her. They did not acknowledge her. Williams said she always walked through campus on guard, that she knew all it would take was one person to react violently for things to quickly lose control. She carried that sense of vulnerability around with her for the entirety of her education.

For four years, she was alone. But when graduation day arrived, she walked across that stage knowing she could handle anything thrown at her, that she could survive and prosper regardless of the obstacles in her path.

While at UF, she joined the Alligator student newspaper and began a rivalry with a fellow journalist to compete for the Hearst Awards. Once again, she came out on top.

During her senior year at UF, Williams became the first African American to win on the national level of the William Randolph Hearst Writing Competition. She received a silver medallion and a check from U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey and William Randolph Hearst Jr. for placing second nationwide. In 2014, the Hearst Foundation featured her during its 50-year anniversary.

Her whirlwind career began at the St. Petersburg Times, where she worked as a general assignment reporter. Then she pursued a masters of business administration at Atlanta University, since renamed Clark Atlanta University, so she could have the traditional "black college experience."

By 1972 she was the first black and first female manager in the Hillsborough Savings and Loan industry. Then she pursued a law degree at Florida State University. Though she never studied for the LSAT, she passed with flying colors and was accepted.

"I was living a life of leadership, of role modeling, of dispelling untruths, of establishing horizons," Williams said. "I felt a sense of duty to walk through those doors that were beginning to open for me, to pave the way for others to follow."

Soon after, she became the owner and publisher of the Capitol Outlook weekly newspaper in Tallahassee and opened her own law practice. She ended up in the hospital because she was overworked. When the doctor told her she had to slow down she smiled and nodded, then found an inner reserve of energy and continued right where she left off. She would not be left behind.

A political revolution was beginning an ocean away and Williams packed her bags to watch history unfold in South Africa with the election of Nelson Mandela.

She became a writer for Ebony - South Africa and joined an organization that helped educate people on how to vote, as it was the first time in the country's history people of all races were allowed to vote.

A plethora of unique and awe-inspiring experiences have filled Williams' years, ranging from meeting world leaders to going on exclusive nocturnal safaris. She is in the process now of capturing each moment in an autobiography, which she hopes to publish soon.

Through it all, the one memory that stands above all others was winning the Hearst award all those years ago at UF. That moment set her on a path of success, one she hopes will inspire others to reach for greatness.

"Leaving Tampa was my graduation, entering UF was my commencement into an integrated society," Williams said. "I felt rewarded for having chosen, as a child, to take the path that I took. I felt a sense of success in that I have made a meaningful contribution."

Contact Breanne Williams at bwilliams@plantcityobserver.com.

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