Mother To Son: A Poem for Libby Wesley

Ida Elizabeth Wesley

She was known by some as the “mother of Delray Beach.”

To others she was the founder of the Roots Cultural Festival, the namesake of a plaza on West Atlantic Avenue and a legendary retired educator who touched so many young lives.

To most people she was simply Libby.

To me, she was a guardian angel and I adored her.

Elizabeth Wesley passed away last week and I feel this loss deep in my bones.

It’s a big loss for Delray Beach because Libby was more than an icon, she was an inspiration, a visionary, a community leader and a role model.

She made her biggest impact on the youth of our community because she believed in them and that’s why her Roots Cultural Festival featured oratorical contests and other events that showcased the intellectual talents of local children. She was proud of her community and she wanted the world to see the potential that she saw in every child.

She was a big believer in education and was always teaching.

She was a big believer in community so she was always seeking ways to bring people together and strengthen Delray Beach.

Libby led with love, like all the great ones do.

Many people have their own Libby stories. And I’ve heard a few of them over the years. The common thread was that she made you feel special. Everyone felt special and loved in her presence. That’s what the great ones do, they move you and inspire you to do more, be more and love more.

Here’s my Libby story.

I got to know her when I was a reporter writing about the Roots Festival but our relationship deepened when I was elected to the city commission.

From the beginning of my term in 2000, Libby would speak of a “covenant” between city government and its citizens. I have to admit I wasn’t totally sure what she meant, but she asked the commission not to break the covenant and told us that we needed to work together to move the city forward. As a government, we shouldn’t move forward without considering the needs of the people. All of the people.

We met frequently and at every meeting I would learn something. Our meetings were often emotional—at least they were for me. I can’t say I experienced that with too many other people but something about Libby touched me very deeply. It was her depth of feeling. Her concern for others. Her insights. Her inherent goodness. It was also the way she spoke and the way she looked at you.

She was in a word: remarkable.

And I loved her very much. We all did.

I felt privileged to spend time with her. And I knew that with every meeting she would impart a lesson and I would be better for having listened.

She was close with so many of my friends—Bill Wood at the chamber of commerce, Lula Butler at the city, Joe Gillie at Old School Square.

She inspired all of us and our friends and children too.

For places to grow and for positive change to occur, they need to be shaped by people like Libby Wesley. Communities need people who are in it for the long haul and who lead with love.

We were so lucky that Libby came here from Defuniak Springs to lead and inspire us.

When I left office in 2007, Libby came to see me and she gave me the best gift ever.

It was a cassette tape of her reciting the Langston Hughes poem “Mother to Son,” a hopeful poem about not giving up. She softly sang that poem to me two years earlier after a tragic shooting took the life of a young man. The shooting challenged our community in ways I can’t begin to describe. She held my hand during those trying times and told me it was going to be OK. I guess I looked uncertain, so she said it again and I believed her.

Two years later, as I left office she signed off on the tape by telling me that she loved me like a son and that yes I had kept the covenant.

“You know that you hold a special place in my heart,” she said in a follow up email that I looked at after she passed. “That is why you were chosen to be one of my “children by love.”

She had many, but I still feel so lucky to have been one of her children. Mrs. Wesley could have had a million sons and it still would have been special.

What a gift she gave to me.

What a gift she was to Delray Beach.

Here’s the poem.

It’s beautiful.

So was Elizabeth Wesley.

Mother to Son

BY Langston Hughes

Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor—


But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now—

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Making History, Living History

Yvonne Odom

““If we lose love and self respect for each other,this is how we finally die”
― Maya Angelou, who would have been 90 today.

Last week, civic rights icon Linda Brown passed away.

She was the historic figure and namesake in the landmark Supreme Court case “Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas” which overturned school segregation in 1954.

When I heard the news, I immediately thought of my friend Yvonne Odom.

Mrs. Odom was the brave student who integrated Seacrest High School seven years later in September 1961. Seacrest would later become Atlantic High.

Mrs. Odom was in 10th grade that year when she walked into that school alone. It’s hard to imagine, from the vantage point of 2018, what that must have been like.

When Mrs. Odom went to Seacrest on her first day, a white stranger reached out and took her hand. That stranger was Paula Adams, a student council member. She wanted to help Yvonne cope with the stares of students.

As we remember the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Assassination today and this week, much is being written about the civil rights movement and how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.

Race is clearly still a major issue in America—our schools, neighborhoods and many institutions remain segregated—despite the 1954 ruling. And yet there’s been progress.

Back In 1961 Delray, the school’s administration was so worried about Yvonne’s safety that they asked her to use the faculty bathroom.

They didn’t know her well. She insisted on using the student’s restroom. She was not afraid.

Mrs. Odom paved the way for future African students at Seacrest/Atlantic.

And she walked away from a lot to be a leader–people give up a lot to be “the first.”

At Carver High School, she was a standout in many ways. Her basketball coach was the legendary C. Spencer Pompey who had identified Ms. Odom as a leader. He was right, as he always seemed to be.

Writing the name C. Spencer Pompey gives me an opportunity to tell you how wonderful he was—a gentleman, an historian, a mentor, a leader, a teacher and a pillar of strength not only in this community but throughout Palm Beach County and the state. People like the Pompey’s (including his wife H. Ruth), Elizabeth Wesley, Solomon D. Spady and others are important. They become important people because of the impact they make, the legacies they leave, the lessons they impart and the lives they mold—positively.

Yvonne Odom was and is a leader. She is an important person.

The year she left for Seacrest to make history was going to be her sophomore year at Carver High School. She had been chosen by Mr. Pompey to be captain of the girls basketball team. She was also slated to be part of Carver’s Homecoming Court, which was a big deal and a major honor.

But she left for Seacrest for a more important mission….and because she was African American, school officials thought it best to minimize her contact with the white kids. That meant: no sports, (impacting her ability to earn a college scholarship), no physical education classes and no rides on the school bus.

According to Sun-Sentinel archives, Palm Beach County desegregation began with a lawsuit filed in 1956 by West Palm Beach attorney Bill Holland, who objected to school officials’ refusal to let his son be admitted to a West Palm Beach elementary school.


A committee, which included Holland and Odom’s father, the Rev. Randolph Lee, went to black families’ homes to recruit black students to attend white schools in Jupiter, Lake Worth and what was then Palm Beach Junior College.


Lee, a minister who worked with Holland and the attorneys, decided his daughter fit the profile of what they were looking for.


Mrs. Odom was one of five students who were used in the group’s plan to integrate. She fit the bill: a top student who exhibited strength and character.

Mrs. Odom’s father, Rev. Lee, worked hard to ensure his daughter’s safety, working with administrators to make sure she was OK.

In my own prior interviews with Mrs. Odom she said she was never physically abused but was called derogatory names on two occasions.

She went on to a distinguished career in education, including teaching at Carver Middle School.

She has also been involved deeply in the Delray community for decades.

Linda Brown also remained involved in the “movement”. She was an important person.

As was MLK.

A single bullet changed the world 50 years ago in Memphis.

A half century later we continue to mourn the death of MLK—but the work continues. It always does. We are nowhere near the mountain top. To some, that may be a depressing prospect and truth be told there are sad elements to this journey, but to others the dream is so compelling, so valuable and so important that they are willing to keep on going. Thank goodness for their commitment.

We are lucky to have people like Yvonne Odom in our midst—living testaments to history but like others she is not merely a relic of the past. She remains hard at work in the community. As it should be. As we all should be.




A Village is a Port in a Storm


There was a homicide in Delray Beach a few weekends ago.

A 26-year-old man was shot and killed outside a community market on our Main Street, in our downtown. His name was Jamar Gabbage.

The shooting happened not far from our “gateway” feature, in the 1100 block of West Atlantic Avenue; the entrance to our downtown.

Last week we learned that three people died after overdosing on heroin within 24 hours in Delray.

The same day this story led the local news I saw a young man on a bike heading toward A1A screaming at passersby. I wondered whether he was ill or under the influence of “flakka”, the new scourge that is laying waste to young minds. This week came more news of someone allegedly under the influence and violent requiring several police officers and a K-9 to subdue.

But when I stop by to visit friends at a local restaurant the talk isn’t about murders or what to do about substance abuse. The talk is about “A frame” valet signs and whether a part on the beach pavilion is rusting.

When I browse social media I read about change and how sad it is to see a chain store downtown. Valid concerns, but definitely first world problems, I think to myself.

Then I read about an unattended death at a local rehab and see a slew of insensitive comments.

And I feel sad.

These are people we are talking about.

Someone’s dad. Someone’s child. Someone’s friend. They are not “cancers”, they are people.

I see a lot of lost people in our city. I see them outside the local Walgreens and watch them slowly cross a parking lot in front of my office on Lindell Boulevard.

Some are homeless and worn, like weathered driftwood. Others seem cooked with vacant thousand yard stares as they make their way across streets only to disappear in crevices.

We have it all here.

Mansions on the water.

Craft cocktails.

Fancy cars.

Valet parking.

Big Boats. Expensive private schools. 100 foot Christmas trees.

We also have murders.

Drive by shootings.

Kids whose parents beat them. People suffering from cancer and dementia. Heroin. Homelessness and drug deals done in alleyways.

It’s there for all to see in the village. If we care to look.

When I drive through town I have memories everywhere. That’s what happens when you’re anchored in a place for a long period of time as I have been in Delray—happily.

I remember being able to seeking solace in people whenever the going got rough.

On South Swinton there was Father Stokes. Chip, he would insist you call him.

He became Bishop of New Jersey.

But before he left he was a confidant; a trusted partner.

He cared about the poor people who lived just west of his church. When you talked with him you could see his passion about education, social justice and racism. Before he got his post in New Jersey he was up for another big job in the church.

A team of senior church leaders came to Delray to discuss his work in our city. I was asked about Chip’s work in the community and when I began to answer I noticed that I was choked up describing the care and leadership he provided. I realized that if he left, he would leave a gaping hole. He didn’t get that job but a few years later he got an even bigger one.

And you know what? We miss Chip Stokes’ leadership, courage and ability to focus on what was most important.

On Lake Ida Road, there was Nancy Hurd who spent decades loving the poorest children in our village at the Achievement Center. Nancy was always a port in a storm. On the darkest days, the days when I couldn’t sleep because I saw images of a 15 year old boy in a casket I knew I could visit Nancy and she would hold my hand and together we would visit pre-schoolers with their smiles, hugs and hopes. By the time you left, you had hope in the future. It wasn’t that reality changed, but in that corner of the world you could see goodness and love.

On North Swinton, at Old School Square there was Joe Gillie and Frances Bourque who were always excited about the arts and about serving children by exposing them to culture. Their passion was infectious. You wanted to sign on to their mission immediately and we did.

Years later I would sit on an interview panel and listen to 17-year-old Stephanie Brown talk about her love of photography stoked by a class she took at Old School Square. She would become one of our first set of Dare 2 Be Great Scholars. A year or two later she was named one of the top young photographers in Savannah where she excelled at the Savannah College of Art and Design. But for that class…it might not have happened.

Near Pompey Park, lived the Pompey’s, lovely people, educators, community builders whose love of this city made you fall in love too. Their history was painful; fighting for the right to go to the beach, better schools and parks and for local children denied opportunity.

On the southwest side, you could sit with Mrs. Wesley. Libby to some…and she would sing to you or read you a poem that left you a puddle. Libby was beauty personified. She believed in Delray. She believed in young people. She believed in roots. She inspired everyone.

At City Hall, you could pop in and feel the energy of achievement and pride. In the clerk’s office were Barbara Garito and Chevelle Nubin and lots of happy faces, Sue and Jim and others. There was DQ and Lula and a busy planning department with smart people like Ron Hoggard and Jeff Costello who could figure out any problem you threw at them. And we did. We threw a lot their way.

And there was tough Paul Dorling, who could be disarmed with a joke.

Perry held court at Boston’s and Bill at the Chamber. Lori could be found at the market and Nancy was always planning a festival.

Solace; everywhere you looked.

Pame, Jen, Evelyn, Skip, Bob, Cathy B, Susan, Kerry, Rachel and Tom Fleming in the Grove. Mrs Gholston and Miss B.

A village.

There were murders and drugs. Always. There was crime and blight galore. Businesses went bust. People said rude things.

But we were a village.

Always a village.

I’m not sure if those same havens exist these days. I hope they do and I suspect they do. Many of the players mentioned above have moved on in life which is what happens, but I’m sure they were replaced by others who are caring as well.

My wish is that current and future leadership seek advice and solace. You can’t do these jobs on social media, as great as Facebook is. And you can’t do it walled off somewhere in a vacuum. It’s only a village if we talk to each other. And listen—with empathy.