From New York to Florida: one cultural coordinator finds purpose in keeping civil rights history alive
What is the meaning of HOME?
In this project through Next Gen Radio -- a collaboration between NPR and member stations -- we highlight the experiences of people in the state of Florida.
Miranda Camp spoke with native New Yorker Sonya Mallard about her struggles to find a sense of home in Florida. Mallard grew up in Harlem and moved south in 1999 with her family to care for her husband’s grandmother. It wasn’t until Mallard found the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Complex in Mims, Florida, that she found her place. In 2013, she became the cultural coordinator for the center, where she keeps the Moores’ civil rights legacy alive.
For native New Yorker Sonya Mallard, it took a long time for Florida to start feeling like home. But when she walked through the historic Moore Cultural Complex in Mims, she felt she found her place.
New York’s bustle will always be a part of Sonya Mallard. She was born and raised in Harlem, living and breathing the city’s hustle for decades.
“It was a sense of community, culture, diversity that meant the most to me,’’ said Mallard.
It was in New York where Mallard, 63, faced her first cancer diagnosis, which would become a two-decade long battle.
But despite that strong connection to the city, in 1999, she and her family packed up and moved over 1,000 miles south to Florida to care for her husband’s 95-year-old grandmother.
“I wanted to show my children, that’s what you do for family, right?" Mallard said. “You can get another house. You can get another couch, another television, but you can’t get another great-grandmother or grandmother. So I wanted to show them what the sense of family is all about.”
She now makes her home in Titusville, 40 miles from Orlando on Florida’s east coast. There, it was hard for Mallard to adjust to a slower pace of life. She was used to a New Yorker’s sense of urgency.
“Everything that I do, I feel like I have to not just pace, but sprint, right?’’ Mallard said.
Mallard remembers the moment she knew she had transitioned from being a New Yorker to a Floridian. The moment came in the middle of traffic. She said that one day she was speeding down the U.S. Highway 1 in Titusville when she encountered a slow driver and did what most New Yorkers do — honk her horn.
“It was this little bitty, older lady,’’ Mallard said. “Her head was just above the steering wheel, and you could tell that I startled her, I scared her. And my heart sunk. I remember saying, ‘Sonya, what are you doing? Calm down … you’re not in New York. You in Florida, girl. Appreciate nature. Stop.’ I never blew my horn again. I promise you.’’
Mallard’s sense of home in Florida deepened in 2013 when she discovered the Moore Cultural Complex in Mims near Titusville. She was facing her third battle with cancer when she stumbled upon the complex and visited for the first time.
Inside, she learned the story of Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore and the work they accomplished in Central Florida for the civil rights movement in the 1940s and '50s.
“This was like a diamond in the rough. It was right after chemo. I had the scarf on, no hair, you know, I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do and I used to come out here and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this big building, so much rich history.’”
The Moores were school teachers in Brevard County and fought for the right of Black people to vote and for equal pay for Black teachers. On Christmas Day in 1951, which was also their wedding anniversary, they were sleeping in their home in Mims when terrorists crept under the floorboards of their bedroom and ignited a bomb. Harry Moore was killed immediately. Harriette Moore died from her injuries a few days later.
Today, Mallard serves as the cultural coordinator and takes care of daily operations in the museum. She said that it has given her a new sense of purpose.
“I truly believe I found a home,’’ Mallard said. “Cause a home is not just a physical location. It’s the memories, the experiences, and every person that comes through that door, I treat them just like family.”
That includes the people who work at the center. Kecia Williams, an assistant at the Moore Complex, has known and worked with Mallard since 2005. She said Mallard is always checking in with co-workers to make sure they are okay.
“She really cares about your feelings,’’ Williams said. “She cares about you as a person. … Even if you don’t have family, you know what, you feel like you have family with her.’’
For Mallard, her home is now taking care of the Moores’ home — and their legacy.
“I have to make them proud. I have to, and I get emotional, but I want them to really understand that that baton was passed and somebody’s running the race.”
Miranda Camp is a senior electronic journalism student at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Her goal is to continue sharing the unheard voices of her community through audio storytelling. She is currently a freelance reporter with works published in Watermark Media, and she is the president of the UCF campus chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. Miranda is from Rome, New York, and feels most at home when she’s eating chicken riggies and Utica greens.