In Her Footsteps: My Grandmother’s Impact on Black History


In Her Footsteps: My Grandmother’s Impact on Black History

As we continue celebrating Black History Month, it’s important to remember these lessons resonate far beyond the confines of February. It’s a daily recognition that Black history is American history, intertwined with the fabric of our nation’s journey, its struggles and its progress. In honoring this truth, I am proud to pay tribute to a remarkable Black woman whose life story became woven into the tapestry of the history of Tallahassee, Florida, and the nation at large – and in a very personal way, myself: my grandmother, the late Dr. Eva C. Wanton.

As the eldest of nine grandchildren (all girls!), I’ve learned from her the enduring power of resilience, the importance of education, and the boundless capacity of the human heart to touch lives and effect positive change. My grandmother instilled in me and others the importance of family, tradition, and legacy.

Born in 1935, she was the youngest of six siblings raised in Thunderbolt, Georgia, a small town steeped in the complexities of life in the Jim Crow South. As a young girl, she was affectionately nicknamed “Birdie” because of her desire to travel the world and make a positive difference – AND she did!

Her journey began at Seward Park High School, where she graduated with honors, setting the stage for her future endeavors. She embarked on her collegiate path at Savannah State College (now Savannah State University), distinguishing herself as the institution’s first female Student Government Association President. Her academic pursuits led her to excel in Biology and Spanish, culminating in an impressive graduation with honors.

Continuing her quest for knowledge, she studied abroad in Mexico, earning both her master’s and Ph.D. degrees in Spanish from the Interamerican University in Saltillo. Driven by her love of learning and passion for language and education, she came to Tallahassee to earn a second Ph. D. in Educational Leadership from Florida State University. She also was accepted as a Fulbright Scholar and studied at Harvard University. My grandmother married the late Albert Wanton, and they raised her four beautiful daughters before he passed away in 2004.

In 1964, she accepted a one-year appointment at Florida A&M University as a foreign language instructor. What was initially supposed to be a brief tenure unfolded into 45 years of dedicated service, marked by a trajectory of academic excellence and leadership roles that defined her legacy – including serving as Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the founding Dean of the School of General Studies, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Special Assistant to the University President, to name a few.

Her impact extended beyond academia, resonating locally, nationally, and internationally. My grandmother was one of the first Black women to run for the school board in Tallahassee. Even though this venture fell short, when a board member resigned, then-Governor Reubin Askew’s first choice was to appoint her to this position. As she made a name for herself, she and my grandfather were one of the first Black couples to be invited to join the Tiger Bay Club.

Because of her love for her children, grandchildren, and ALL children of the world, she was elected the 13th National President of Jack and Jill of America, Incorporated. It is the largest African American family organization in the nation, observed by 262 chapters across America and representing more than 70,000 members.  She served two terms from 1986 through 1990, during which she established National Black Family Day, which is still celebrated by all chapters. Moreover, she received keys to several cities in many states and was cited by Ebony magazine three times as one of the Most Influential Blacks in America.

It was hard to be so close to this amazing woman and not have some of her dedication rub off—not that I would ever resist! I was fortunate to be active in Jack and Jill during her time as national president, which gave me a front-row seat to watch her work a room and captivate the audience with her presence. There would be a hush over the crowd when she spoke as they all listened intently. I observed this in Jack and Jill and any room she was in, be it one lucky person (me!) or 10,000. She had this oratorical gift that was second to none, an ability I’m pleased to say she passed down to me. I’ve noticed when I enter rooms or after speaking that there, too, is a hush. It’s chilling at times.

As a fervent world traveler, my grandmother visited Spain, Mexico, Germany, France, Latvia, Italy, Greece, and Africa, to name a few places where she shared her love, kindness, compassion, and courage. She always brought a souvenir for her family and loved telling us stories about her travels. I think that’s where I got my “traveling itch.” Every year, I prioritize traveling out of the country and immersing myself in a different culture.

When her humanitarian endeavors extended to Africa, she started the Africare Ministry at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church back home, making numerous pilgrimages to many places in Africa.  On a mission trip to Guinea, Bissau, in West Africa, she was disturbed to see that the animals, children, and families shared the same water supply.  Upon her return to Tallahassee, she told the membership what she had seen, and the church built a well with the ministry’s help. Under her leadership, they also adopted the Bong Rong School in Mampong, Ghana, and provided computers, books, clothes, school supplies, and monetary assistance to the headmaster and the school staff. 

In 2009, I had the honor of making one of those visits to South Africa with my grandmother and the Africare Ministry. This was my first international trip, and I was so nervous—and so were my parents! We spent ten wonderful days visiting Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Soweto, learning the culture and providing resources to the village children.

Her work for the Bong Rong School didn’t go unnoticed; funds were raised, and a library was built in her honor.  My grandmother passed away in 2014, before the completion of this facility in 2017, but she was able to see several phases completed on the Dr. Eva C. Wanton Library and Computer Laboratory.

It is an honor and a privilege to share my grandmother’s remarkable journey, as her legacy is not just a distant tale of historical significance but a cherished part of my narrative, woven into my identity and aspirations. She was my best friend, sounding board, confidant, sorority sister, Charmette sister, Jack and Jill national president… butcher, baker, and candlestick maker! But the title she held that I cherished most of all was my grandmother. Long may her legacy live!