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Gainesville’s first black mayor paved the way for equality

POSTED: February 27, 2011 1:30 a.m.
/ Times file photo

John W. Morrow Jr. became Gainesville's first black mayor in 1985 after several successful terms as the city's first black city councilman. Morrow fought for equality in education and employment.

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Every day, hundreds of cars travel back and forth over John W. Morrow Jr. Parkway. Most drivers know that the roadway will take them to the mall or lead them to the interstate, but what they may not know is the history of the road's namesake.

John W. Morrow Jr. is more than the name of a busy road. It is also the name of Gainesville's first black mayor.

Gainesville City Council members elected Morrow as mayor in 1985. That was just seven years after he became the first black city councilman, then referred to as commissioner. He was elected to that post in 1978.

"John was an excellent councilman. He was concerned about the total city. All of his actions were dictated by what he thought was best for the city," said Robert Hamrick, current Gainesville City Council member, who also served with Morrow, who died in 1996.

In an interview with The Times just before he was elected, he explained why he decided to seek office.

"I love people and have done for people all my life. It would be an honor to serve," Morrow said.

"Government is serving and helping people. Gainesville has been good to me and (this) is one way I can help repay my city."

Although he was a proven leader, Morrow's entrance into city politics caught those who knew him best off guard.

"It came as more of a surprise than anything else, but I saw him being dissatisfied with certain situations and wanting to take a leadership role in determining how those things could be overcome," said Charles Morrow, younger brother of the late mayor.

"Politics to me at that time, and I suppose to him as well, was the one thing that would lead you into the path that would help you to overcome those obstacles."

Some of the issues that Morrow was dissatisfied with had to do with inadequate education and employment opportunities for members of the black community, Charles Morrow remembers.

Before he decided to run for city council, in 1950 Morrow helped form the Men's Progressive Club, a civic organization that was dedicated to improving the quality of life for blacks.

The club proved to be an important one. With a concentrated effort, the members of the club were able to help community improvements become a reality, at a time when the Civil Rights Movement had not yet garnered momentum to bolster racial equality.

"The city of Gainesville had no black policemen at that time. There were no blacks in any area of city government other than in janitorial or custodial positions," Charles Morrow remembers.

"John knew there were qualified people in the (black) community. He got together with the Progressive club and we came up with the idea that we would take on one issue at a time, and it just so happens that employment came first.

"We were able to open up some things. First it was the police department, and then later on the general government agencies and such."

Education inequities were also a trouble spot.

"John felt like this: if you're going to have an educational institution in your city, then it should be equal in so far as the academic areas were concerned," Charles Morrow said.

"We knew we weren't going to be able to break down the integration barriers, but we felt like there should be quality education provided to every student."

Together, members of the club helped to get typing, foreign language and "industrial arts" offered at Fair Street High School, which is where the black students attended school.

"Those were the things that offered the greatest opportunity for employment at that time," Charles Morrow said.

Way before he became one of 16 founders of the Progressive club - Charles Morrow was another - the future mayor was able to hone his leadership skills right in his own home.

"He was the third child in a family of 13," said Charles Morrow, who was No. 6.

"John was always the one who would go after things. He had the kind of disposition that said, ‘I want to do. I want to be a leader.'"

Even after his death during his fifth term on the city council in 1996, Morrow continued to inspire the next generation of leaders.

"John Morrow is one of my idols. He had so many great ideas. I just loved him. He was really what we needed at the time," said Myrtle Figueras, Gainesville city councilwoman.

Figueras ran for office and was elected to fill Morrow's vacant seat in 1996. She would go on to become the city's first black female mayor.

"I wanted to be sure that there was still someone on the council who could share what was happening with this community," Figueras said.

"I didn't think I would ever be in politics, but after Mr. Morrow died, I did the best that I could to fill in as a replacement."

Although he would be proud of how the city and black community has progressed, Charles Morrow says his brother would be less than pleased with some things.

"I think he would be accepting of a lot of things that are happening with kids today, but he would also be somewhat disappointed that kids don't look back over the field of life and see the bridge that brought them to be where they are today," Charles Morrow said.

"I think he would be satisfied with the progress that's been made, but disappointed that kids don't know what they should know about (their history). Regardless, he would be proud of the fact that it happened and allowed them to live the lives that they have today."

Outside of a road bearing his name and a marker at Bicentennial Park near St. John Baptist Church on E.E Butler Parkway, Morrow left behind an intangible legacy.

"He was a good person to know, but he was also very demanding — he gets that from our parents," Charles Morrow said.

"He would want to be remembered as a person that was fair and honest. He was always trying to make life today better than it was yesterday."

 



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