Black Americans have played a crucial role in helping to advance America’s business, political and cultural landscape into what it is today. In a city that is rich in Black History, we wanted to highlight some of the Black leaders in our community that are making history in their respective fields and doing their part to make St. Augustine a better place for everyone. From musicians to business owners, teachers and coaches to philanthropists and chefs, these local individuals are using their talents to make a difference in the world we live in.
Every now and then, you meet someone who creates such an impression on you that you realize you will never forget that person. Floyd Phillips is one such individual. He has a presence that brings light into the room, an outstanding passion for his work and cultural legacy, and an unforgettable, contagious laugh. You’ll find him at the Lincolnville Museum, working tirelessly to make the museum and St. Augustine a better place.
Purity Gikunju & Martin Kabaki
Growers Alliance has never just been about coffee. Born and raised in Kenya, Purity Gikunju started the business with partner Martin Kabaki to support small coffee farms and farmers back in her native country. And that support has expanded far beyond merely selling their coffee here in St. Augustine. Purity and Martin also started the 501C3 non profit organization Kijiji International, whose mission is to improve the lifestyles of the coffee growers and educate them on utilizing any available resources in order to be economically independent
Need inspiration? Courage? Determination? Then converse a while with community advocate Jaime Perkins, and you’ll soon be on fire. A single mother and almost the first black woman in St. Johns County to become State Representative, she packs a tight schedule in an effort to initiate as much change as any one person can. “There’s no better place to start than my own community,” says Jaime. Born and raised in West Augustine, aka “out west,” she knows and understands its needs, having enjoyed an idyllic childhood here.
Donte Palmer grew up in Philadelphia, one of five children, including a twin brother. Raised by a single mom, Donte and his siblings learned from their mother’s example how to fight for what is important and support those who need the most help. Donte’s early years were difficult, and the opportunities for poor choices were available every day. But his mom was always a big supporter of Donte and all his siblings. In October 2018, Donte and his sons were out at a restaurant, and his youngest son needed a diaper change. Donte got to the men’s room and realized there was no changing table, no counter, no surface anywhere upon which to change his son’s diaper. So, he squatted and placed his son across his knees, awkwardly (yet successfully) changing the baby. As he maneuvered through the process, his oldest son silently took a picture of him. He showed it to his dad, and they had a quiet laugh about how hard it is to change a squirming two-year-old perched upon his knees. Donte shared the picture in a brief Instagram post and over night it became a sensation. It has now turned into an international movement with local dad Donte Palmer standing up (and squatting down) for change.
As an American Sign Language instructor, Kiara Williams hopes to bridge the communication gap between the hearing and non-hearing communities. While she somewhat stumbled into this noble calling, her position has also led to her touching the lives of every student, coach, and fellow teacher at Pedro Menendez High School.
It’s been said “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” If that’s actually true, then musician (and educator) Billy Buchanan is the busiest unemployed man in St. Augustine. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Billy’s musical web extends to several different musical endeavors. He’s working on his degree in music and communications, teaches music and hosts his own radio show. Oh, and add to all of that his performance schedule, which has him playing in venues from the Renaissance Hotel to the rooftop of the San Sebastian Winery, and you’ve got someone who’s in a position to have a unique perspective on the St. Augustine music scene.
“I was going to be a basketball coach,” says Orvando Freeman of the career path he started on. Now serving as the Executive Director of St. Johns Youth Academy, he has first-hand experience with how simple connections can change lives. More than two decades ago, a summer job working with incarcerated boys at an emergency shelter made Orvando realize that he could better serve as a life coach to society’s most vulnerable citizens. It was an epiphany that led him to change his college major from kinesiology to psychology.
Since 1912, Girl Scouts has been pushing young women to learn new skills, make friends, and work hard. Brigitte Jones is the Troop Support Specialist for St. Johns County. She is helping to set girls up for a lifetime of leadership through being a Girl Scout so they can thrive in key ways. Girl Scouts helps girls to develop a strong sense of self, seek challenges and learn from setbacks, form and maintain healthy relationships and learn to identify and solve problems in their community. As girls develop their leadership skills, they can take action at home, in their classrooms, and in their community. As women, they can go on to apply those skills to their continued education and professional careers.
Alexius Ferguson is a lifelong St. Augustine resident who attended Webster, Murray, and St. Augustine High schools. After attending Charleston Southern University, he returned to his community and became a teacher. Following a short stint working for DCF (Department of Children and Families), he became acutely aware of just how much devastating traumatic events can affect a person’s life. The opportunity was right for him to make a change. He started a movement called “Redemption” whose purpose was to redeem the community by addressing its flaws. The movement’s main areas of focus were the individual (can you look at yourself in the mirror and admit there are things you need to change?); the family (are you willing to invest the time in your family to make changes?); and the community (will you be able to apply what you’ve changed inside and at home to help those around you?). Alexius states the order is critical, “It’s an inside-out approach. You can’t start fixing the community if you’re not willing to start with yourself first.”
Harold Hardy remembers being about 16 years old when he fell in love with the game of tennis. “I was really more focused on basketball at the time,” explains Harold. “Until one day, when I was living across the street from the University of Wisconsin, and I saw a tall man playing tennis against a brick wall. I thought, ‘I want to learn how to do that.’” And learn he did! A string of chance meetings led to a series of golden opportunities which, when coupled with a lot of hard work and a fearless desire to follow his passion, led Harold to become a certified tennis instructor and nationally-renowned tennis coach.
In 1987, Kathy Griggs was searching for something to do while her children were in school when she decided to enroll in cosmetology classes at Riverside Academy in Jacksonville. She completed her nail technician certification and went to work at a local salon. But when winter came, business tampered off and Kathy took a second job as a home health care worker. As she began to visit with elderly residents across Northeast Florida, Kathy realized her patients had a critical need she could fill. “I noticed a lot of seniors weren’t receiving proper foot care,” says Kathy. “They would get bed baths, but no one was focusing on their feet. I felt I could combine my medical service with my pampering service.” After launching her business in a podiatry office, she realized she could help more folks by taking her services on the road. She now travels all over Florida and Georgia to long-term care facilities and private homes. “I am going to do everything I can to make sure they get the care they deserve,” she says.
A 2015 St. Augustine High School graduate, Daniel has spent most of his life preparing for a future in activism, but it wasn’t until he was 13 years old that he was able to put a name to a burgeoning passion. Daniel was raised along with his older siblings by his father and stepmother in what he calls a typical African-American “God-fearing” community. Daniel spent a lot of time outside, riding his bike, just being a normal kid. Except Daniel knew he was different. From a very early age, Daniel knew he was gay. But being a young, gay black man is not so typical and as a consequence, he was bullied within his own community. He learned to bottle up his emotions and feelings, and instead became an actor of sorts. A straight actor. He worked very hard to blend in. One day, while riding his bike around, a neighbor invited him in for some free food. “No middle school kid is ever gonna turn down free food!” he said with a laugh. So he went. The neighbor was hosting some members of the local Democratic Party chapter to make phone calls in support of President Obama’s second presidential campaign. And so his interest began. He doesn’t identify with just one political party, but simply prefers to represent “his people”. When asked to clarify, he said, “Anyone who is unloved, anyone who is oppressed or bullied, and anyone who needs someone, anyone to stand up for them and be their advocate.” Daniel’s agenda crosses all lines.
Born in Daytona Beach, Florida but spending most of her life between Atlanta and Chicago, Danika Meheux grew up watching PBS reruns of Julia Child cooking and Bob Ross painting instead of the usual kids cartoons. In 2009, she decided to go to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, graduating in 2011 with an Associates in Culinary Arts, and a year later graduated with a Bachelors of Professional Studies in Culinary Management. After spending time working in restaurants throughout Chicago and New York, Danika moved to St. Augustine with her husband and started working at Collage Restaurant. She is now leading the team as Executive Chef at one of the finest restaurants in not only St. Augustine, but also in the United States. Collage is ranked Top Ten Fine Dining Restaurants in America on Trip Advisor, Top Ten Restaurants in the $$$ and $$$$ price range in America on Yelp!, Top 100 Best Restaurants in America on Open Table (four of the last six years) and made the Top 100 Most Romantic Restaurants list five years in a row.
Chef Tyrone Bennett is taking his talents and passion for good food to a whole new level. A leader in the community, Tyrone is not only a talented catering chef, he is also helping to bridge the gap between restaurant owners, chefs and the general public by hosting podcasts and chef roundtables where he interviews people in the food industry and asks hot topic questions to dig deeper into why things are the way that they are. His shows give us an inside look at the people behind the scenes who are cooking our favorite foods and gives us a personal sneak peek into who they are as individuals. But that is not all, Chef Tyrone has also started a great organization called We Feed St. Augustine. He hosts multiple events throughout the year and works with local charities and restaurants to give out hot meals and fresh produce to families in need.
Is there someone we missed that you think should be on this list? Send us a message!
Featured image of Danika Meheux by @laurenpiperphoto