What began as an afternoon of leisurely Internet surfing for former Putnam County resident Gwendolyn Demps recently resulted in the enkindling of her family's historical ties to the community and to one of Northeast Florida’s original Black colleges.
Demps sat in her Jacksonville home, randomly typing in the cities where she and her sister, Elynor Williams, once lived with their mother and father - a scholar and education activist during the 1960s. Remembering the town where they attended high school prompted her to type in "Palatka, Florida" and their father's name, "Albert Williams."
That was the moment the distant echoes of courage and perseverance emerged from her search, and the Williams family discovered how their father’s role in helping to establish the former Collier-Blocker Junior College has found a place in history at St. Johns River State College.
After reading how in 2012, SJR State President Joe Pickens set out to memorialize the legacy of the Collier-Blocker Junior College by creating an endowed scholarship program and a permanent memorial display, the Williams family agreed upon a road trip to see what Demps now fondly refers to as “daddy’s wall.”
Pickens welcomed the Williams family on the College’s Palatka campus one recent Sunday afternoon, where Williams, of Chicago; Demps; and Demps' son Darrien Demps, of Washington, D.C., could rediscover a part of Albert’s past, and how it now plays a role in the community’s future.
During their visit, Pickens retold the story behind the wall’s inception and the creation of the in-district minority scholarship program named after the postsecondary institution. Collier-Blocker offered educational opportunities for Black students from Clay, Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties in 1960 before merging with St. Johns River Junior College in 1965.
“While the wall memorializes the legacy of Collier-Blocker Junior College, more importantly, its legacy will live on through the accomplishments of the local men and women who will be selected each year for the scholarship program," Pickens said.
Pickens explained how the scholarship program was created following the elimination of SJR State’s basketball program and how funds once used to support the athletic program would now support academic scholarships - based solely on local students’ academic aspirations and needs. Each year, approximately six students from SJR State’s three-county district are selected for the program.
The dedication wall is located in SJR State’s original campus building that now serves as the College’s Administration Building.
"He would have been proud," Williams said, taking in the inscriptions and photos, including her father's portrait that is displayed on the wall.
"He loved Collier-Blocker; it was his baby. He was very proud of what he had done, and to get the community’s support for the school was important to him,” she said. “To see this… especially the scholarships. He believed in education so much; to know that the School’s name is on scholarships for minority students would have made him very happy.”
Palatka Mayor Terrill Hill, who serves as a member of the scholarship selection committee, feels a personal connection to Collier-Blocker’s historical significance and envisions expanding beyond SJR State’s grounds to not only memorialize the school’s struggles and triumphs, but to also signify its original location at Shiloh Baptist Church.
The Collier-Blocker Junior College first opened its doors to 59 students in 1960 in the Shiloh Baptist Church, located on 19th Street.
Hill, who is also a member of the Church, said “A permanent marker or plaque would help keep the College’s legacy alive, honoring those who paved the way, its former students, as well as the students who will follow in their footsteps, thanks to the scholarship program.”
Eight students were recently selected for the 2016-17 academic year, including Mary Givens, Stephenie Pittman and Carlesha Smith of Putnam County; Chelsea Greene, Chelcee Rodriguez and Gordon Wilson of St. Johns County; and Suren Jeevaratnam and Kennedy Preston of Clay County.
A former Putnam County family re-discovers how their father’s role in helping to establish the former Collier-Blocker Junior College has found a place in history at St. Johns River State College. From left, Gwendolyn Demps (seated), Darrien Demps, Elynor Williams and SJR State President Joe Pickens.