Odell Kingston Mickens’ legacy as a Dade City educator and civil rights activist endures more than three decades after his death in 1980.
When racism and Jim Crow laws denied blacks access to public education during the 1930s, Mickens expanded the outreach of education to black students in Pasco County.
When white school boards eventually included black schools into a separate, but underfunded system, Mickens continued to expand opportunities for black students, including the right in 1940 to receive high school diplomas.
Mickens championed the economic and civil rights of the black community until he died in 1980.
He was the first black elected to public office in Pasco County, winning two terms on the City Commission of Dade City.
“I find Odell Mickens to be just a giant,” said Imani Asukile, director of global and multicultural awareness, and special assistant to the president of Pasco-Hernando State College.
Asukile was guest speaker on Feb. 16 at the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village in Dade City.
The museum is sponsoring a series of lectures in conjunction with its Smithsonian exhibit, “The Way We Worked.”
Asukile also is author of “Black Americans of Hernando County, Florida.”
Asukile said he is not formally trained as a historian, but has a deep interest in history.
“Somewhere I just caught the bug,” he said. “One of my goals is to unearth stories about local African-Americans.”
Mickens is a particular favorite.
In his research, Asukile learned that Mickens was mentored by Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the Bethune-Cookman University.
Bethune was internationally recognized as an educator, human rights activist and advisor to several United States presidents.
“She found him to be an outstanding student,” Asukile said.
Mickens was the descendent of Colbert and Nancy Mickens, former slaves from South Carolina.
Mickens’ paternal grandparents were later sold and sent to Marion County, where they raised seven children in the small hamlet of Flemington that Asukile described as “way back in the woods.”
Odell Mickens was born in 1904, the only child of Isaac Mickens and his wife, Anna. At a time when there were no public schools for blacks, they sent him to privately operated black academies.
“His parents invested in him to get an education,” Asukile said.
In 1933, at age 29, as a graduate of then Bethune-Cookman Junior College, Mickens became principal of Moore Academy, the first permanent school open to blacks in Pasco County. It was named for the Rev. Junias D. Moore, who served as its first principal.
Mickens’ wife, Christine, taught at Moore Academy and also coached the Panthers’ basketball team.
“This really turned out to be a wonderful and beautiful partnership,” said Asukile of the Mickens’ marriage.
Mickens oversaw the expansion of Moore Academy. Over the years the campus, in various locations, became Moore Elementary School and Mickens High School.
In 1940, Lillian Arnold, Mozell Thompson and Lila Thompson became the first blacks in Pasco to graduate and receive diplomas.
The school became Moore-Mickens Middle School in the early 1980s, and was later repurposed as an education center in 1987.
The Pasco County School Board closed the education center in 2015. A group of community activists are seeking to reopen the center, but have yet to finalize a plan with the school district.
But, Mickens’ contributions to the county extended beyond education.
He served on the building committee for the Dade City Civic Center which opened in 1963.
He also was a founder of the Negro Civic Association.
Association members lobbied city officials to open up land formerly used as a prisoner-of-war camp in World War II. The city platted the land and, over time, black residents bought lots and built homes in the Moore-Harper subdivision.
Mickens served on the board of the Pasco County Housing Authority; as assistant trustee for the Bethune-Cookman University; and, as president of the Bethune-Cookman National Alumni Association.
In 1980, he was named Citizen of the Year by the Dade City Chamber of Commerce.
Published February 22, 2017