Jonnie Mae Perry
“I remember Mom telling me she would stand over our beds and tell us we could do and be anything. She planted the seed. It’s still growing.”
Jonnie Mae Perry is linked to the history she’s preserving in Gifford. “I’m a fifth-generation descendant of slaves on my mother’s side. My mother could read but stopped school in the 12th grade, because she was ashamed of her clothes. My father couldn’t read or write but he had the first full-service gas station in Gifford in the 60s and 70s. My parents moved here from Georgia in the early 40s as children. The story of my mom’s great grandparents includes a great uncle who owned a restaurant in Gifford for over 50 years and was very active in civic engagement.
“When Victor Robertson, my father’s employer, asked him what he could do for him, my daddy said he wanted his own business and a home for his family. Mr. Robertson, a citrus owner and builder, built the house I grew up in, where my mother still lives. The service station was built on that property. I pumped gas and put air in people’s tires there.”
Her initial passion was music. She learned to play piano when she was 11 or 12 and performed for the church junior and adult choirs.
Never feeling she was good because “I couldn’t just sit down and play like others I watched with envy,” she also took up singing and was a member of the Gifford Community Choir.
“Mom wrote to President Nixon and asked for options to help me go to college. I have the letter she got in return. It suggested she apply for a national defense student loan, which allowed me to be the first in the family to earn a degree.” She selected a music major in voice at HBCU Morris Brown College in Atlanta. After one semester, she reconsidered.
“I felt like there wasn’t enough money in music, and jobs would be limited to teaching. My experience in church hadn’t prepared me for the variety of voice work I encountered in school.”
Switching to business, she studied secretarial science, then education and business administration, graduating with a BS in Business/Office Administration.
“I joined a co-op program that sent me to DC to visit HUD, where I interned during my sophomore year. Already learning that things work out, I prepared for opportunities and let the universe deliver.” Then two of her first cousins were killed on Christmas night in 1975, and she learned she couldn’t take anything for granted. “I craved entrepreneurial freedom, especially given how women were treated in corporate America, particularly black women. To get it, I walked away from my first corporate job after eight years.
"At around the same time, a woman I’d met at HUD took me to her Unity Church in Atlanta. She told me I could dress casually, which was new for me. There was a woman minister. I loved it.”
The founder of the Chicago company Professional Creative Services invited Jonnie Mae to work for them out of her home in Atlanta and flew her to California several times, where she worked with the NAACP Image Awards TV Show.
“When I first returned to Vero in 2011, my eyesight had deteriorated because of diabetes. I turned to a doctor at We Care, who found he could clear away scar tissue in one eye and save my vision. That doctor gave me back the flexibility I needed to continue growing as I wanted.”
Never a sit-around person, she began volunteering. “Habitat for Humanity hired me part-time. I was one of the volunteers that set up their first library in the in-store and eventually appeared in a commercial for them that ran for quite some time.”
In 2015, she was part of the Gifford Progressive Civic League and the MLK birthday committee, which used the little white church in Gifford. “I was told the dream for the historic building was for an African American museum and library and asked to do it. OK, I thought. I don’t know anything about how to do this, but I’ll figure it out.”
A current Board member of the Indian River County Historical Society, President of our local AAUW Chapter, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Chair for AAUW State, Jonnie Mae is founder and CEO of the Gifford Community Cultural & Resource Center and the Gifford Historical Museum.
She began telling the story of Gifford, which resulted in donations here and there, enough to allow the museum to open February 24, 2018. On March 16th of this year, the IRC Board of Commissioners approved a Resolution of Commitment to lease the land it’s on in the MLK Memorial Park to extend the museum and build a cultural center. A Capital Campaign is underway.
“I’m called to service as the conduit for the universe to do its work. That’s how I feel about everything I’m in. No hidden agenda.”
Written and submitted by Elaine Spooner