‘Time for a change’

In Reports

Election 2004

In a hotly contested race that polarized the community and ultimately was decided by 115 votes, Gadsden County elected its first black sheriff, 39-year-old Morris Young.

 

QUINCY – It was after 10 p.m. when the final vote tallies flashed on the wall of the Gadsden County elections office on Madison Street. Outside, people had waited all evening, milling around anxiously or hunkered down on the sidewalks with their children.

Now the street erupted with cries of “Thank you, Jesus!” Someone lifted a toddler with beaded braids high above the crowd. People surged into the elections office, blocking the projector that beamed the results onto the wall.

“I don’t want to be disenfranchised, Miss Shirley!” one man shouted to Shirley Green Knight, the county elections supervisor. “Put it up! Put it up!”

Outside, they were singing We Shall Overcome. The crowd – mainly black, some white – knotted around Morris Young, a tall man in a gray blazer with a small gold cross around his neck. Young stood calm, with one hand raised in the air. He had just won the sheriff’s race by 64 votes – ultimately 115 after a recount – to become the first black sheriff of Gadsden County, the only county in Florida with an African-American majority.

Sometimes a big thing happens in a small place, only to be overshadowed by big things going on elsewhere. On this night, Florida had chosen a president, and the rest of the country was still making up its mind. In 2000, Gadsden tossed out about 1,800 votes in the presidential race, the highest percentage of disqualified ballots in the state. This year the county’s handful of discards wasn’t nearly enough to change the course of the election.

Yet something big happened in Gadsden, where the median household income is $10,000 less than the national average and fewer than one in seven residents has a college degree. It started long before the election and came to a head when 78 percent of the county’s 26,884 voters lined up at tiny churches, tree-shaded libraries and town halls.

Through the warm fall months, politics took up residence here, seeding the grass with signs and filling the air with honking car horns and greetings shouted purposefully from street corners. Six-year-old children held forth on the presidential race (“Bush got to go, Miss,” one boy told the head of his after-school program).

In a county of C, D and F schools, the superintendent of schools’ office was up for grabs. And in a brick building off U.S. 90, Sheriff William A. Woodham, a white Alabaman with a diamond ring and a disarming Southern manner, was retiring after 34 years.

Young defeated Chief Deputy Sheriff Ed Spooner, whom Woodham supported.

Outside the elections office, the people sang: “Na-na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye!” The crowd of Young supporters moved up the street, into the town square. By midnight, they had reached the steps of the white-columned courthouse. Young stood on the steps and called for silence.

“I want to thank everybody who believed in me, who stood on that corner there,” Young said, pointing to the corner of Madison and Jefferson streets. “I stood on that corner alone sometimes.”

He campaigned there all day, even in the rain. Once someone threw a can of Coke at him; another time it was water. People hurled rocks. Drivers called out “n—–” as they passed.

On the steps of the courthouse, a supporter told the crowd: “He stands here to represent Gadsden County as a whole. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian – he’s your sheriff.”

The crowd roared.

Morning found Spooner, 54, taking calls on a cell phone in the lobby of the Sheriff’s Office. He said he wasn’t bitter.

“Sometimes these things happen to make you do something better,” he said.

Sheriff Woodham, a pale man with watery blue eyes, says the election came down to who was more popular.

“I think qualificationwise, Ed Spooner’s head and shoulders more qualified,” Woodham said, easing himself into a chair in his empty office. “But Morris is a super nice guy.”

Woodham was appointed sheriff in 1971 and won re-election eight times since. He admits he didn’t have much experience himself when he started – he had been a juvenile court counselor for five years and a trooper for a year and a half – “but I did have a college degree,” Woodham says. “And I was capable of learning.”

Young has been in law enforcement for 16 years and now works for the Sheriff’s Office as a school resource officer. He went to Chipola Junior College in Mariana. He ran for sheriff in 2000 and lost. Other black candidates have done the same.

Black leadership isn’t always the answer, Woodham says. Look at Gretna, Young’s hometown, which is mainly African-American and has an all-black town council.

Blacks and whites agree that Gretna has problems. At Smith’s tire shop in the center of Gretna, Thomas Davis, 31, a Holiness minister with a goatee and a gold tooth, says that two weeks ago, the town misplaced his wife’s check and cut off the water at his house.

Black people may make mistakes, he says, but it’s about time Gadsden had a black sheriff.

“It’s time for a change,” Davis says. “We asked for this. We prayed for it. A lot of blacks get along with Sheriff Woodham. We go along to obey them. Why can’t they obey a black sheriff?”

About 3,500 people live in faded, listing trailers, tin-roofed houses, brick ranches and grand wooden mansions in Gretna, a web of dirt roads shaded by pine woods and century-old oak trees in the middle of Gadsden, which is west of Tallahassee and just south of Georgia.

Besides Smith’s tires (“At Smiths We Keep You Roolin,” says a hand-painted sign out front), there are two convenience stores and the Hole, a rented house off U.S. 90 where people gather to drink on the porch.

On a recent day in Gretna, police had to board a school bus to break up a fight. John Williams, 63, saw it all from where he sat under a spreading oak selling mustard greens, turnips and sugar cane off the bed of a red pickup. Williams voted for Young, but it didn’t have anything to do with his being black. He just wanted to give the young man a chance.

“You do something wrong, you face the consequences. It don’t matter who be sheriff,” Williams said.

Across town in a white house on a sandy road next to a big, open field, Young greets supporters, squeezes hands, accepts congratulations. There’s a half-eaten sheet cake on the kitchen table, and well-wishers crowd the couches watching the TV news. By Wednesday, someone has spray-painted the word “n—–” with a heart on the hood and sides of a pickup belonging to one of Young’s white supporters. No one is surprised.

Young, 39, is softspoken and straight-talking. He’s a deacon at his church, and you can hear church in his sentences. In the quiet of his dining room, his phone rings nonstop.

“Yeah, I’ll be a good sheriff,” he tells a caller who backed his opponent. “Y’all just stand behind me, man.”

During his campaign, Young promised to devote attention to a string of unsolved killings of blacks in Gadsden County in the last decade. He pledged to reduce black-on-black crime, which he says accounts for 95 percent of reported crime in the county.

“The law should be colorblind, and our jail is full of black men and women,” he says. “White crimes are committed here in Gadsden County, but they seem to go unnoticed.”

He says people in the community look up to him. In March, a woman came to his door in the middle of the night to tell him that her son had killed four people and wanted to talk about it. His work in schools and rundown apartment complexes has taught him the benefits of community policing. But he knows some in Gadsden will resist him.

“A lot of them didn’t believe we’d ever have a black sheriff in this community,” Young says. “Some elderly people see it as a white man’s position, like president. It’s like that throughout the state of Florida.”

He ran an interracial campaign. White men held signs on street corners for him. His black supporters wanted it that way, and so did he. Occasionally, he has tough words for his fellow African-Americans. As he puts it, “We need to recognize that sometimes we are our own worst problems.”

He knows he will be closely watched and tested. If he buys a fancy car with his big new salary – just over $100,000 – the people won’t like it. So he won’t buy one.

At twilight on his front walkway, he greets an elderly couple.

“God blessed me with it,” he tells the woman. “It’s a new beginning.”

Less than 24 hours earlier on the courthouse steps, a preacher called out to the crowd, and the crowd answered.

“Bless him, Lord, watch over him, Lord, in the name of Jesus,” the preacher called.

“In the name of Jesus!” the people cried.

They joined hands.

Over their bowed heads, the preacher spoke into the warm night air: “Let this be a new day for Gadsden County!”

GADSDEN COUNTY

2003 POPULATION: 45,134

2000 BLACK: 25,763

2000 WHITE: 17,448

1999 PER CAPITA INCOME: $14,499 (Florida: $21,557)

1999 RESIDENTS LIVING IN POVERTY: 19.9 percent (Florida: 12.5 percent)

PRIMARY INDUSTRIES: Agriculture/natural resources; health care and social assistance

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

First published in the St. Petersburg Times.

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Vanessa Gezari
Vanessa M. Gezari has reported from four continents for The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and others. Her book on the war in Afghanistan, The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice, was published in 2013. A visiting professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, Vanessa is a former Knight-Wallace Fellow and a three-time Livingston Award finalist. She has received grants from the Pulitzer Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism; an International Reporting Project fellowship; and a MacDowell Colony writing residency.

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