VERO BEACH - Valerie Brant-Wilson, a 35-year veteran of the Indian River County School District who served as both a science teacher and a school counselor, remembers her introduction into civil rights activism well.
There were two defining moments in her youth that stick with her today. Both involved learning from examples set by others.
The first was in 1964, when she watched her dad, Leroy H. Brant, Sr., play a pivotal roll in the integration of Jaycee Beach, a whites-only beach in Indian River County.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, discrimination based on race was outlawed. Until passage of the Civil Rights Act, black people in Indian River County had to use a different beach than white people.
When Mr. Brant, a math teacher at Gifford High School, saw Pres. Johnson sign the new law, he turned to his wife and said: “Alberta, I’m going to take my boys to the beach. We aren’t going to the Negro beach. We are going to Jaycee Beach.”
Valerie Brant-Wilson, the only daughter in the family, wanted to go to the “white beach” too, but her father wouldn’t take her, fearing for her safety.
“My father has given me so many nuggets to help me become the person that I am,” Ms. Brant-Wilson told Hometown News. “Because I saw his strength, I wanted to emulate being independent in my thinking and action. A lot of people say I have so much of him in me. My courage and boldness all came from him. I’m not afraid to speak out on anything. I may speak out too much, but those are things that he has given me. I was brought up tough. He didn’t teach me to be timid about anything.”
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Ms. Brant-Wilson again saw the courage of others, and it became another building block in her life.
“When I was in high school, there was a person named Blair Smith who was the vocal person in our class, always confronting the principal at that time, Mr. Witt.” John B. Witt served as Vero Beach High School's principal from 1966 to 1983.
“When Dr. King was killed, Blair tried to convince the principal to lower the flag in recognition of Dr. King’s death. Principal Witt refused.”
“Blair told us to come outside; we’re going to lower the flag. I didn’t participate in that, it was a group of guys that went out and did that. The next time he called for us to do something, which was to walk out of school, my dad told my brothers that they could participate in the walkout, but he told me I couldn’t participate. However, I was on the biracial committee for the high school. Those who walked out were going to be penalized. We went to Mr. Witt to advocate for those students to be allowed to come back into school without a penalty. That was when I really started speaking out.”
Ms. Brant-Wilson remembers that moment as the first time she took an active stand for civil rights. Like the Energizer Bunny, the 68-year-old Ms. Brant-Wilson has never stopped since. She just keeps going, doing more for the community.
One of Ms. Brant-Wilson’s greatest accomplishments was when she served on the county Parks and Recreational Advisory Board to the County Commission, with a goal of ensuring that Gifford Park was adequately funded. During her tenure, the Gifford Park was the first local park to have a long-range comprehensive plan for its facility, which she submitted. Today, the park is the pride of the community, and many of the amenities that the children enjoy are due to her advocacy.
“When they put in the tennis courts at that park, they were going to require tennis players to put in money to turn the lights on. I told them that we shouldn’t have to pay for the lights, because Gifford residents were already paying a special lighting district tax. I argued that that tax should pay for the lighting at the courts, and in the end they didn’t require tennis players to insert money to turn on the lights.”
Ms. Brant-Wilson’s resume includes service on more boards and committees than one would think humanly possible, including multiple school committees, and past service as president, Eta Eta Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority; board member, Daise Hope Center; executive board member, IRC NAACP; executive board member Gifford Civic League; board member, Riverside Children Theater.
“My aunt tells me I better slow down. She reminds me that when JFK was shot, on that same plane bringing his body back to Washington, they were swearing in a new president. So you don’t have to be the one to do everything.”
“My motivation comes from just trying to be a good servant. I am a highly religious person. I live by Matthew 25:31-46, that when Jesus returns, he’s going to ask these questions: when I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was without clothes, did you clothe me? Those basic questions are the things God is going to ask us about: what did we do for the least among us? That’s my driving force. I want to be able to say yes, I did my best to be a good servant. Not a leader, but a good servant.”
During her 35 years in the school district, Ms. Brant-Wilson has seen an evolution in what Black students feel they can accomplish. She has seen their goals change over time.
“Many Black students now see themselves as capable of being a CEO, not being limited to certain jobs. When my parents graduated, there was a limitation on what you could be. Now, students are pushed to go into higher math and science, so they can actually get into STEM-type jobs. More Black students now are saying they are going to be an engineer. There are more Black students now in the medical field, and doing extremely well. When I first started out, that was rare.”
She sees a similar evolution in how students view historically black colleges and universities as a path to success.
“Maybe because Vice President Kamala Harris graduated from Howard University, Black students will look at Black institutions as not being inferior. I think it sends a nice message that it is the individual person, as MLK said, the character, what’s in you that will help you to be successful or not successful. If you’re going to be a top student, it’s the motivation within, whether you are at a Black institution or a white institution.”
We closed our conversation with a discussion of Black History Month, which Ms. Brant-Wilson is not a big fan of.
“I don’t think that we should have a Black History Month. It should be incorporated into the regular curriculum. I hate the fact that we’re being recognized during this special month. It’s like a token. Black history should be integrated. If we learn to integrate everything, then we don’t have to single out anything.”