2024 First Ladies in African American History honored

The Woodson African American Museum of Florida celebrated Women’s History Month by honoring six trailblazing women as First Ladies in African American History on March 23 at the James Museum of Western Art in downtown St. Pete.

BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL | Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – The Woodson African American Museum of Florida pulled out all the stops to celebrate Women’s History Month. The March 23 event marks the 10th anniversary of honoring local First Ladies in African American History.

From humble beginnings in the Legacy Garden of the Woodson Museum to the posh James Museum of Western Art in downtown St. Pete, more than 50 pioneering women of color, whose stories are often overlooked and seldom celebrated, have been honored for shattering the color barrier and making history.

Women honored as First Ladies in African American History are extraordinary trailblazers who exemplify excellence and have achieved the status of “first” in their respective fields. Historically, women of every race, class and ethnic background served as leaders at the forefront of major progressive social change movements, and their contributions often remain unrecorded.

Over the last decade, more than 50 pioneering women of color have been honored for shattering the color barrier and making history.

However, the Woodson Museum aims to rectify that in Pinellas County.

Mayor Ken Welch, whose wife is a First Ladies alum, said he was blessed to be raised and mentored by so many strong women.

“How great an impact women have on our families, church, on our neighborhoods, on our city and on our nation,” said Welch. “And we’re just so thankful for the leadership of all of the women who are being recognized and those who are yet to be recognized for what you pour into our communities every day.”

Woodson Executive Director Terri Lipsey Scott thanked everyone who made the afternoon a success and heaped praise on the six new inductees.

“I am humbled by your excellence; I’m humbled by your brilliance; I’m humbled by your beauty,” Lipsey Scott said. “You all set the stage for what’s to come.”

Congresswoman Kathy Castor received this year’s Winnie Foster Lifetime Achievement Award, which honors allies in a quest for freedom and justice. The award is presented to individuals whose passion lights paths. Their vision to enhance the lives of others has been noted over time. Their commitment to human rights and justice is exemplified in their daily lives through their work in the community.

Nikki Gaskin-Capehart

Nikki Gaskin-Capehart

A St. Petersburg native with more than 25 years of experience initiating and leading innovations in the public, private, non-profit and business sectors, Nikki Gaskin-Capehart currently serves as the president & CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League. Previously, she was appointed by former Mayor Rick Kriseman to serve as the director of Urban Affairs for the City of St. Petersburg.

During her tenure with the city, she cultivated over two dozen partnerships, including leading the My Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper Initiative, a local program affiliated with the Obama Foundation, to support and enhance the lives of young African-American men, women and their families. She pioneered the annual girls’ enrichment and women’s empowerment conferences, which evolved into a partnership with Hillsborough County, producing a regional girls’ summit serving over 1,000 attendees annually.

Before her role with the City of St. Petersburg, she was the Pinellas County Urban League’s director of external affairs and communication. She also worked for Congressman Jim Davis, Congresswoman Kathy Castor and was a small business owner.

Gaskin-Capehart holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication and a Master of Liberal Arts degree with a concentration in Entrepreneurship from the University of South Florida. She is a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority’s Pearl Southern Region Leadership Cohort, a graduate of Leadership St. Petersburg, National Urban Fellows America’s Leaders of Chane, Whitney M. Young Jr. Emerging Leaders and the Tampa Bay Chapter of the New Leaders Coalition.

Gaskin-Capehart is the first African-American woman president and CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League.

Celeste Davis

Celeste Davis

 Celeste Davis has spent her career in arts, culture, and education. She joined the City of St. Petersburg as director of Arts, Culture and Tourism in September 2022 after serving as executive director of Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture & the Arts.

Davis graduated from Spelman College and holds a Master of Fine Arts from George Washington University. Her community ties led her to serve as community liaison for the Fairgrounds and program director and curator for the Woodson African American Museum of Florida.

She’s continued her relationship with the museum as the founder, producer and host of “Curious Collector | Conversation Café,” a monthly art discussion with national appeal. Curious Collector discussions center around the presence of African Americans in the arts. Before joining Tampa Bay BCA, Davis received a mayoral appointment to the Arts Advisory Committee for St. Petersburg.

Davis was born and raised in St. Petersburg. Her desire to serve our city comes from her family, including her parents who worked for Pinellas County Schools.

Davis is the first African-American woman director of Arts, Culture and Tourism for the City of St. Petersburg.

Renee Edwards

Renee Edwards

Renee Edwards is the CEO of Skin Kandii and the founder and CEO of The Saturday Shoppes. Her vision for The Saturday Shoppes revolves around fostering equitable economic development opportunities for emerging minority and women-owned businesses through its rapidly expanding monthly markets in St. Petersburg, Miami, Atlanta, Clearwater, and Tampa.

Edwards is deeply committed to ensuring the growth and prosperity of all vendors associated with The Saturday Shoppes. To this end, she established the Saturday Shoppes Vendor Academy, providing comprehensive business coaching, resources, marketing assistance, labeling and product support to empower hobby vendors in growing their businesses and income.

She made history as the first African-American manufacturer to showcase her products at the downtown St. Pete Chamber Store. This landmark achievement earned recognition from esteemed media outlets such as Bay News 9, Action 10, Power Broker magazine, the Tampa Bay Breakfast Club and The Weekly Challenger newspaper.

Beyond her entrepreneurial endeavors, Edwards remains deeply involved in various community initiatives, actively engaging with organizations like the St. Pete Chamber, the St. Pete Business League, One Community, Feed the Homeless Pinellas, and the NAACP. Notably, the St. Petersburg Chamber nominated her for the Most Valuable Burger award in 2023 and received the Lift Award the same year from RaceWithoutism, Inc.

Edwards is the first African-American woman to brand an outdoor shopping conglomerate in the Southeast region.

Dr. Shameka S. Jones

Dr. Shameka S. Jones

Shameka S. Jones, PHARM.D, is a highly respected regional clinical pharmacist at Florida Blue with over 20 years of dedicated experience in the pharmacological field. Throughout her career, she has gained extensive expertise in retail, hospital, and managed care pharmacy settings.

In 2022, she was the first African-American female to serve as chairwoman of the City of St. Petersburg Citizens Redistricting Commission. This commission was tasked with drawing new maps to comply with the requirements of the U.S. Constitution, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Florida Constitution, Florida Law and the city charter.

Jones is a member of several professional associations and non-profit organizations, including the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy, St. Petersburg Chapter of The Links, Inc., Order of the Eastern Star Sisters of Love #129 and is the immediate past president of the St. Petersburg Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Jones attended Lakewood High School, earned her doctorate in pharmacy from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in Tallahassee and holds a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt certification. She is also a graduate of the distinguished 2013 class of Leadership St. Pete and the 2023 Florida Blue Building Leaders program, demonstrating her commitment to personal growth and development.

Dr. Juel Shannon Smith

Dr. Juel Shannon Smith

Dr. Juel Shannon Smith’s illustrious career unfolded primarily at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she held a spectrum of impactful roles, including serving as a university counseling psychologist, pioneering as the founder and executive director of the Institute on Black Life and Center for Africa and contributing faculty in Women’s Studies and Afro-American Studies. Retiring after 30 years, she is currently the president of JUE-L Consulting Group.

 In addition to the many titles she held during her career, Smith produced and hosted “The Bridge,” a 30-minute weekly local PBS television program featuring interviews of local leadership as well as prominent national and international speakers, ambassadors, other world-renowned leaders visiting the university and the Tampa Bay community. Featured guests included Spike Lee, Susan Taylor, William Raspberry, Cicely Tyson, Martin Luther King, III and Ray Charles, among others.

Smith’s academic journey has been equally distinguished, with her formal education as a foundation for her professional endeavors. She received a Bachelor of Science degree from Langston University, Langston, Okla.; earned a master’s degree, an Educational Specialist, and a doctorate from the University of South Florida; and continued her educational knowledge by earning a post-doctoral Certificate in Management Development from Harvard University.

Hailing from Sapulpa, Okla, Smith’s personal life is rich with love and family. She shares her journey with her husband, Dr. John L. Smith, Jr., and takes pride in her role as a great-grandmother, cherishing her seven grown children and grandchildren as the cherished treasures of her legacy.

Smith is the first African-American woman to host a television show on WUSF.

Rita R. Wesley

Rita R. Wesley

Rita R. Wesley is an experienced and dedicated community servant who focuses on aiding causes and organizations that benefit children, women, and families.

She has a bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of South Florida. Wesley completed Leadership St. Petersburg and the Florida Institute of Government at USF.

She is an active member of several organizations, including Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. Zeta Upsilon Omega Chapter, CASA board of directors, and The Woodson African American Museum of Florida.

Throughout her career, Wesley has held various notable positions, including working for the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, serving as deputy director of Events & Volunteers for the 2012 Host Committee for the Republican National Convention and as an executive recruiter for CareerSource Pinellas.

She has also served as a special assistant to the first two strong mayors of the City of St. Petersburg: Mayor David J. Fischer and Richard “Rick” Baker. Currently, she is a special assistant to the first African-American mayor of the City of St. Petersburg, Ken T. Welch.

Wesley is the first African-American woman to be a special assistant to three St. Petersburg mayors.

Congresswoman Kathy Castor

Congresswoman Kathy Castor

Kathy Castor is Tampa Bay’s voice in the U.S. Congress. She was elected in 2006 and represents Florida’s 14th Congressional District, which includes Tampa and St. Petersburg with parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. She is the first woman to represent Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in the U.S. Congress.

Castor focuses on issues vital to Tampa Bay area families and businesses and is committed to building a stronger economy that works for everyone as a ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s powerful Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. Castor also served as chair of the former Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, where she crafted policy recommendations that led to the signing of landmark climate legislation.

Congresswoman Castor continues to work on initiatives to create jobs, protect the environment and consumers, improve schools, ensure veterans receive the benefits and care they have earned, provide access to affordable health care and defend protections for people with preexisting health conditions.

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