The Life and Legacy of Author, Historian, and Teacher Mildred Alene Murrell
Mildred Alene McNeill was born one of eight siblings on July 27, 1917, in a small suburb called Spring Park on the Southside of Jacksonville to John Wesley McNeill of Bennettsville, SC and Mary Louise Coleman McNeill of South Jacksonville Florida. She attended local schools, South Jacksonville #107 (1th- 8th grade) and Stanton High #101 (9th-12th grade). Graduating in 1937 after honorably completing the college preparatory course of study in home economics and interior decorating under the teaching Alpha Hayes Moore. September 1939, she married Quincy Murrell of Arlington, Florida. After WW II Quincy moved his family North to attend college at University of Pittsburgh under the Roosevelt GI Bill. The couple with child returned to Jacksonville several years later to assist with the care of their aging parents. After few moves in the city the Murrells’ settled in the Pine Forest Heights Community built for African American WW II veterans in 1950 under former President Truman Fair Deal-Housing Act of 1949 that champion veteran home ownership. For seventy years Mrs. Murrell lived and proudly served her community. In 1954 she completed a short course in home economics at Florida Agriculture Mechanical University (F.A.M.U.). She later took courses in English composition and art, at Edward Waters College (E.W.C) in 1957.
During her life time Mrs. Murrell experienced the Great Depression, Florida Renaissance, World War II, Korean War, Civil Rights Movement, and Vietnam War. She recalled many historical events that helped to shape her life including how instrumental her grandfather was in the preservation of the Jacksonville Historical Cite Treaty Oaks. She also would recall her time spent as a child with Mary McLeod Bethune. Her immeasurable experiences were sought after by many educational platforms to share her knowledge and guidance. To note “Voices of the Harlem Renaissance” Ms. Murrell participated with local historians at the Ritz Theatre & La Villa Museum bringing history to life telling their stories. She spoke about Zora Neale Hurston and her many experiences in the La Villa community during the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. On another occasion with Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum she participated with forums speaking on her experiences with the “Great Depression” and the Mandarin Historical Society- “African American Education in South Jacksonville, Florida”.
Her professional attributes afforded extra income for the rearing of her growing children. In the late forties and early fifties Mrs. Murrell worked at Furchgott’s, Department Store in Metro Jacksonville, Florida, in alterations as the first black women tailor. Her next endeavor was with Duval County conducting community needs surveys. Mrs. Murrell spread-headed the 1958 Southside needs survey that led to the need of the first elementary school for blacks in south Jacksonville, Florida, later named Pine Forest Elementary School and dedicated in 1961.
During her early years, she worked with well-known Harry Nestler Interior Design. Some of her award-winning designs includes cornice and head boards furniture upholstering and drapery. Mr. Harry Nestler Interiors were featured in the local and national newspapers and magazines; no credit was given to Mildred’s designs. However, Mildred’s designs were featured in Jacksonville, Florida Times Union in 1961 and Ebony magazine in 1962.
Later, Mildred accepted the job that was recommended by her Duval County Home Demonstration Agent, Bess Canty. She accepted a job with the Greater Jacksonville Economic Opportunity (G.J.E.O.) as a home management aide for four years. She was essential member of the team who received Mayor Hans Tanzler’s the first major gift for playground equipment in African American Eastside Community. While working with G.J.E.O. Mrs. Murrell successfully organized and instructed clothing classes motivating her students to organize a sewing co-op. Many Senior citizens and handicap individuals was able to supplement their incomes from articles they made was sold through the co-op.
There came about the consolidation of Jacksonville, making Duval one of the largest countries in the United States. Many other needs were discovered during surveys. Education was a must at this time. FCCJ was founded to meet the needs of people from surrounding counties for jobs and better benefits. From the food and health program, commodities or surplus food was issued to the needy. Out of towners got fresh start from test kitchens and food demonstrations.
Meeting an educational need to Jacksonville’s rapid growth period the FCCJ was set-up in the Riverside Area. These changes and proof of progress caused a change economically in many lives; it was a great change in Mildred’s life, career wise. The college was short of instructors for many subjects that were needed, and she was asked to teach at the college. Although she was not prepared at that time to teach at a junior college, she was inspired to get other credits, and she attended weekend classes at FAMU. Mildred taught home economics for many years in adult studies, her contributions proofed to be a success for her and her students. She retired in 1989.
Her first passion for writing was in 1939 – 1941. Mildred published her first poems and song with the Beacon Publications-Richard Brothers she was not able to continue her writing because her need to provide for her family and her parents. After retirement, time was provided for Mildred’s return to writing. Therefore, in 2013, Mildred published her first book, “Zora Neale Hurston: In an Around Jacksonville, Florida, in the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s” at the ripe age of 94. The book recalls her memories of time spent with Zora Neale Hurston. An article was published in the Florida Times Union based on an interview by Charlie Patton. In his article, he notes that “over the year’s biographers and historians have often interviewed Mildred Alene Murrell about her friendship with the great novelist, poet and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Although Hurston is more closely associated with Eatonville, where she spent her childhood, and New York City, where she was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, she spent a lot of time in Jacksonville, where her brother, John Hurston Jr., and a close friend, Gerda King, lived.” Mildred was the first cousin to John Hurston’s wife Blanche, who was Gerda King’s sister. Patton noted that “as a teenager, Mildred spent a year living with John and Blanche Hurston because she was attending the only public high school in Jacksonville that admitted African-Americans –Stanton. “Mildred recalled how difficult it was to navigate from the Spring Park area across the river to Stanton. Although Zora was 17 years older than Mildred, she spent time with her as she traveled through Jacksonville for many extended visits. Mildred describes Zora as being “courageous, smart, funny and fearless.” Mildred was urged by family members and friends to write a book about her memories of Zora. And so, she did, the book was published in 2013. In honor of her book, The Ritz Theater hosted a book signing for Mildred in 2013 in which many people attended to hear her recall funny stories of Zora growing up. Mildred tells of Zora’s striking image and provide details of her wearing a cream or off-white pants suit and how she drove a cream white convertible car with the top down. She remembers her having a cigar that was never lit but held it as if she was cool. As Mildred states, “folks thought she was crazy.” In 2009, Mildred was featured as a guest presenter at the Zora Neal Hurston Festival. Her book has been archived in the African-American Collection-Jacksonville, Florida and the Florida State Archives. At the age of 100 Mildred published her second exciting cookbook of old-style recipes.
During Mildred’s spare time, she enjoyed traveling the many states in the US with her family and social clubs. For many years she served and volunteered in a wide variety of civic, religious, and social activities; she has also chaired many offices with those originations. Some of her church affiliations have Included-Baptist Young Peoples Union (BYPU), Baptist Training Union (BTU) Director, Sunday School Teacher, Youth Director, Vacation Bible School founding member and Director, Choirs I & II, Deaconess Board, Education Ministry, and Church Mother. Mother Murrell was a life-long member of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church-South Side, where her parents were founding members, and she was baptized at the early age of 11 and served 91 years. Rev. Dr. Samuel Norris is the Pastor.
Mildred was a Civic Leader in the South Jacksonville community, often referred to as “the Pillar of the Community” where she served in many organizations, committees, and activities. Some of those activities include founding the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) at Pine Forest Elementary and serving as President and other offices from 1960’s – 1990. Douglas Anderson High School Band Parent Club and Mother’s Club, Girl and Boy Scout Den Mother, 4-H Club Leader, First President of Unit #244 Chartered by the American Legion 50 years ago, Pine Forest Heights Community and Civic Association-Workshop Facilitator (Youth and Seniors) in Arts and Crafts, and Community Council. Her family were contributors and founding member of the Historical St. Nicholas Live Oak Cemetery where she served in many roles. Mildred held memberships with several clubs to include Invincible Ladies Social and Savings, Omega’s Ladies Social and Savings, Live Long and Like It Seniors, Home Demonstration of South Jacksonville and several Bowling Leagues. She served on the League of Woman’s voters of Jacksonville. Mildred chose careers in Interior Designing, Professional Seamstress, Personal Alterations and Design and Leadership Training. Her special interest were her writing Poetry and Prose, presenting Fashion Shows and Exhibits, Comfort Articles for the Sick and Shut-In (hospitals and nursing homes), Hosting and Shopping.
She received more than 100 accolades, recognitions, rewards and proclamations for her Civic activities. Some include the Jacksonville Historical Preservation Award for Author of the Year; Nominee Florida Memory Project, Honors from the Mandarin Historical Society; Recognition from the Greater Jacksonville Economic Opportunity Poverty Program Education Aide and Sewing; The Ritz White Glove Award for her contribution in restoring and preserving various artifacts that are currently on display. American Legion Auxiliary Honorary Life Member, American Legion Auxiliary Florida District Service Award. She received Proclamations from Senator Audrey Gibson as a Centenarian Celebrating her 100th Birthday; Governor Rick Scott for Celebrating her 100th Birthday and Mayor Alvin Brown who so eloquently recognize Mildred for her “exemplary strength, perseverance and visionary leadership have inspired countless others in the struggle for women’s and civil rights, and she is to be commended for dedicating her life’s work to bettering the world around her. [Her] love and dedication…epitomizes the essence of unity, family, civic and religious duty, and brightens the lives of all those who have opportunity to know her; and her lifetime of good work continues Zora Neale Hurston’s and Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune’s legacy of faith, scholarship, history and service.”
Mildred Alene Murrell’s life and legacy will be forever woven in the foundations of Jacksonville communities for her tremendous leadership, notable service and contributions.
In addition, if you have any book request or would like to donate to the Mildred Murrell Educational Scholarship Fund, scholarships are awarded annually to youth of the Southside community who demonstrate these essential attributes-Passion, Confidence, Compassion, Enthusiasm, Ability to be a Team Player, Analytical Skills and Foresight, please contact MAM.firstname.lastname@example.org or 904-801-7078.
Educating others was her passion, she taught so many and was a desired mentor, we are proud to welcome in her honor donations can be made to The MILDRED A. Murrell Scholarship Foundation.
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