Every time you are driving along, you have to occasionally glance back in the rearview mirror. Right now, I’m going to glance back in that mirror.
I grew up in DeLand, and attended what was then the Euclid School of Coloreds, from first to 12th grade.
All that’s left of the old Euclid School is the band room, where I once played clarinet (first chair).
I was curious, always, about the separation of the schools. What was so different, between me, and you? Why could we be friends, but when time came for school, why did you go to your school, and I went to the colored school?
Back then, black people couldn’t sit down and have a soda in Downtown DeLand. You could buy a soda, and drink it standing up, or take it outside, but you couldn’t sit down. You could shop all day, but you couldn’t sit down.
In Downtown DeLand, there was a J.C. Penney store, down where The Table Restaurant is today. There were colored and white water fountains. Walking by, I said to myself, “Let’s taste some of this white water.” And you know what — it didn’t taste any different.
Back then, it was a time of unrest in this country, as the civil-rights movement took on the injustices that prevailed in our society.
It’s always the young who make the changes, who move things forward. And back then, I was young. So we decided we were going to walk from Euclid School, down past the Wright Building on Voorhis Avenue (which at the time was a hub for black businesses and culture), go down Florida Avenue to New York Avenue, go into Downtown DeLand, and take a seat at the soda shop.
The town was in an uproar. They were going crazy. They heard about our plan, and were just in an uproar. The police officers protected us. They stood behind us when we sat down, as a barrier between us and the people who wanted to get to us. I remember the staff at the lunch counter were so nervous.
Even our parents were a little nervous. Most of them did domestic work for the same people who wanted to get to us.
We sat there until the store closed, and then we walked across the street to what is now the Thomas C. Kelly Administration Center, but what was then the Veterans Memorial Bandshell.
The sit-in made national news, and it opened up doors for all of us. The next time that soda shop opened, it was open to all people.
That was my first victory.
After I graduated from Euclid, I went to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, the historically black college in Tallahassee. The only way I could go to Stetson University was if I had a mop and broom in my hand, because in 1961, they weren’t integrated yet.
For financial reasons, I never graduated from FAMU. Instead, I came back to DeLand and worked at a nursing home as a nursing assistant, and then at the West Volusia Hospital, which is now known as the DeLand hospital.
But I looked in the mirror — I glanced back in that rearview — and thought, if this is all there is to it, hell, I’m overqualified.
Back then, Daytona State was for whites, and Daytona Junior College was for blacks — can you believe it? All funded with money from the state. I went to school to be a nurse, and got a 4.0 GPA.
When I first went to apply for a job with my degree, the lady told me they weren’t hiring. She assumed I was asking to be a nursing assistant, or to do custodial work. Then she found out I was a nurse, and I was able to apply to work for the county. Eventually, I ran the Medical Department for Volusia County.
Back then, the cafeterias were separated for the county workers. You all got your food at the same place, but when it was time to sit down, there was a black cafeteria and a white cafeteria.
You get to know people when you eat with them. You get to know who they are, who their family is, and they get to know you, and your family, and if anyone speaks ill of you, I know better, because I know you. Come to think of it, that’s probably why they didn’t want us to sit together.
In 1999 and 2000, I ran for the Florida House of Representatives, District 26. Before me, no African American had been elected to the House in Volusia County — and it was the year 2000!
Then, Volusia County had a rule that you could not run for office if you worked for the government. We changed that later. I didn’t want anyone else to be in that position.
I was the only one to defeat an incumbent in District 26. I served four two-year terms, before I reached term limits. I was at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, and I attended the Obamas’ Christmas party.
I came back here, and I looked in the mirror again. And I said, you know what, everyone needs a Joyce Cusack. So I ran for the at-large seat on the Volusia County Council, and did it all again.
Eight elections, and I never lost a race.
The way I accomplished this — it’s all about relationships, about breaking bread with people, about making change as you go along. It’s about investing time in energy in doing good.
As I look forward, I know folks just like those reading this right now are going to be the ones to push things to a better day.
Editor’s note: Cusack relayed this story as a speaker for a Volusia County employees’ luncheon focused on diversity. Reporter Eli Witek recorded and transcribed her speech.