CELEBRATING A COMMUNITY LEADER Teacher, civil rights pioneer Rosa L. Jones will be honored with new mural in Cocoa7 min read
A family photo of Rosa Lee Jones on a wall at the home of Rebecca Jones-Baker, who lives in the home that her mother did and has adorned its walls with photos, awards and proclamations regarding her mother.
PHOTOS BY TIM SHORTT/ FLORIDA TODAY
J.D. Gallop Florida Today | USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA
Rosa Lee Jones lived a life of firsts. First Black Girl Scout leader in Brevard. Civil rights pioneer who worked alongside Harry T. Moore. Radio personality. Journalist. h But perhaps she’s best known for the vision that helped shape generations of Black children across Cocoa: first Black daycare owner in the county. h The school was called Rosebud Kindergarten, and Jones’ goal was to help mothers and others find educational support for their children in a society where Blacks were educated separately. Her husband built the licensed school in their backyard after receiving a $600 bank loan.
Each morning, the students would turn up, sometimes at 3 or 4 a.m., get a pancake, grits, and egg breakfast. Jones, known to the students as “Big Mama,” was the first teacher for many in Cocoa including community leaders, principals, and others. Jones also took in students whose parents had no other options.
“She was so dedicated,” said Rebecca Jones Baker of her mother, whose work as an educator, civil rights pioneer, and journalist drew accolades up to her death at 101-years-old in 2008.
“She touched so many lives with her work,” said Baker, who lives in her mother’s home.
Now, to honor Rosa Lee Jones’ legacy, city officials will gather at 10 a.m. on August 14 to unveil a
new mural that will highlight the life and decades of community work of the civil rights pioneer. COVID restrictions will be in place. It will become one of only a few public murals honoring a Black leader in Brevard.
The mural — funded by more than $10,000 raised by Jones’ family and others in the community – was designed by artist Frank Rao. It will be spread over three panels. The 5-by-7-foot panels were positioned by Macik Builders at the roundabout at Brevard Avenue and the east end of the long and winding road named in her honor in 1999.
Rao is also creating a bust of Jones that will be donated to the Florida Historical Society Library of Florida History a short walk away on Brevard Avenue.
“This has been a long time coming but she coined a phrase that ‘it’s not on time, it’s right on time,’” said Cocoa Mayor Mike Blake, whose father Dick Blake, also a community legend, was one of Jones’ first students.
“She was a pillar in the community and broke a lot of barriers. I recall as a kid listening to her on the radio. I grew up as a child right down the street from her. She could relate to anyone.”
Jones was born Feb. 26, 1907, in Quincy, Florida, a small agricultural community in the Panhandle.
Just two years after women were granted the right to vote nationally, Jones completed high school in Tallahassee and attended FAMC, the college that became Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. She later earned a business degree from the Walker College of Business in Tampa.
At age 19, she married Osborne Herman Jones after a short courtship and later had three children, Robert, Annie Laura, and Rebecca.
Jones moved to Cocoa in 1925– then a small but growing town of about 1,800 people along the Indian River. The couple settled in a home near the orange groves and joined Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church where she played the organ on Sundays.
Almost immediately she saw the disparities impacting the community.
Brevard was mostly rural, cut with dirt roads, lakes, and communities settled around Melbourne, Cocoa, and Titusville. News, however, spread quickly when a Black man was lynched by whites in Eau Gallie in 1926.
The man’s body was handled at Stone Funeral Home in Cocoa, the late Rudy Stone – also a student of Jones who would take over the mortuary from his father – would tell FLORIDA TODAY. Rudy Stone was the first student enrolled in Jones’ daycare.
In 1934, Jones helped organize the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with Harry T. Moore, a Brevard County school teacher seeking equal pay and treatment for Blacks. Jones took notes during secret civil rights meetings and became Moore’s secretary as he and his wife Harriette V. Moore worked to register voters across the state.
“I remember we would go to the Moores’ home. I was so young. But they were just regular people to me. But (Harry) Moore was doing a mighty work. And my mother was there. They were doing mighty work but it was frightening,” Baker said of her mother’s time with the NAACP.
A bomb blast ripped apart the Moores’ wood-framed home in Mims on Christmas Day 1951, killing them and sending shock waves through the civil rights movement nationwide. Moore became the first major figure of the civil rights era to be slain for the cause.
That didn’t stop Jones, who continued to be an advocate for Blacks while building bridges to the white community.
“All I could think was that could have been us. We would meet up there and they would talk,” Baker said. “But my mother did not know Black from white. She worked to bring people together.”
Jones also worked as a contributing editor to two Black newspapers, The Brevard and The Script. She also could be heard sharing community news on a local radio station, WKKO-AM. Behind the scenes, she also wrote speeches and columns for others, but without taking the credit, family members point out.
Rosebud Kindergarten opened in the 1940s.
“She had an influential life,” said Pastor Oliver Wells, whose father W.O. Wells, one of the original Freedom Riders, moved to Cocoa in the late 1950s to pastor Greater St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church and take up the mantle of civil rights during the Space Age.
“She affected the lives of a huge number of young people at that time,” said 63-year-old Pastor Oliver Wells who attended the daycare. “I still can hear her voice on the radio, WKKO-AM. She had an amazing tone that set her apart. Both she and another woman, Dorothy Carter Moore, would make people aware of all of the events and challenges in the community.
It was hard work but Jones enjoyed talking with the kids and working with the mothers, sometimes caring for the children without payment.
“They came to her for help and she took the children in. She kept them clean and fed,” said Baker, who worked with her mother at the daycare. They not only taught the children basic skills but tried to instill values like being respectful and listening. Years later Jones shared memories of that first day of the daycare’s opening.
“When I stood in the door the day of the dedication and I looked down the road and saw them coming and I rang the little bell and they were all dressed in finery for little folks, I was exuberant,” said Jones, quoted in a 1999 FLORIDA TODAY editorial.
“They were entering the most precious, impressionable and valuable time of their lives. Our first song was ‘Smilers never lose, frowners never win, open up your little hearts and let the sunshine in,” Jones recalled.
Jones also became a well-known and comforting voice over the airwaves.
“I still can hear her voice on the radio, WKKO-AM. She had an amazing tone that set her apart. Both she and another woman, Dorothy Carter Moore, would make people aware of all of the events and challenges in the community,” Pastor Wells said.
There were quiet times also. Jones had a favorite chair at home where she enjoyed sitting in peace. She also played piano and loved the gospel song, “Blessed Assurance,” along with “Amazing Grace.” Each Christmas was a special celebration of food, family, and giving, Baker said.
“I’d sit up with her all night long and she’d cook her turkey. I just took it all in. I’d take care of her as she got older. So many memories,” said Baker, who will celebrate her 90th birthday on the same day as the unveiling of her mother’s mural. “She would be really proud of this,” Baker said.
“To see the recognition for all of her work. And she deserves all of it,” Baker said.
J.D. Gallop is a Criminal Justice/ Breaking News Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Gallop at 321-917-4641 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JDGallop.