The first of February marks a month dedicated to honoring and celebrating black achievement. 

In the last 450 years, Pensacola has come under the sway of five different flags — Spanish, French, British, Confederate and American. Each wave of occupation brought new immigrants to Pensacola’s shores — all of whom contributed to the city’s cultural and ethnic milieu.

Among the waves of settlers, soldiers and immigrants were many of African descent, who have helped define modern-day Pensacola.

 

Travelers can find physical footprints from the steps of strength and perseverance at Daniel “Chappie” James home, the nation’s first black four-star general and famed Tuskegee Airman. To the sands of Johnson Beach notably honored for Army Pvt. Rosamund Johnson, Jr., decorated war hero and first black soldier killed on duty during the Korean War. To the streets of Belmont-Devilliers whose soul music still reigns in the hearts and homes of our city.

Those communities and its leaders paved a bold and progressive path for the leaders of today. As we look to the future, it’s important to recognize that one day, the activists of today will be woven into our history’s fabric as those who walked the path 100 years ago. To honor and celebrate our city’s leading voices we sat down with them to discuss their walk of life, how they celebrate black history and how it has contributed to the story of the Pensacola Bay Area. This is Visit Local Pensacola: The Modern African American Experience.

 

Captain Keith Hoskins, USN, Retired

Western District General Manager, Gulf Power Company

God, Family, and Country. When asking Keith Hoskins what his most notable achievement in life was, serving those three pillars radiated as the foundation of his existence. A dreamer at the age of five, he watched a Blue Angels airshow and decided right then and there that was what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“When I was five years old, sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s Ford truck, we were stuck in traffic leaving the airshow and I looked at my dad and said, ‘I want to be a blue angel pilot someday,’ and the one thing he said was, ‘Okay son, well you’ve got to study hard, and you have to stay out of trouble,’ and I remember that like it was yesterday and I tried to live my life that way.”

keith Hoskins

Growing up in a humble family outside of Kansa City, Kans., he attended Missouri Western State University on a football and academic scholarship. Following graduation, he enlisted in the Navy moving him one step closer to making that dream possible. 

From there he was selected for flight school, to which his roots spread to Pensacola to nonother than NAS Pensacola, home of the Blue Angels. Even closer.

Following flight school, he was selected to fly an F/A-18 Hornet, the same type of plane the Blue Angels operate. Really close.

At this point, with his father’s advice echoing in the background, he worked to obtain the flight hours and necessary obligations to apply and sure enough, it happened. Talk about a dream come true.

“The thing that was so different for me was it was something that I had always wanted but I didn’t know what to expect,” Hoskins said. “When I had the opportunity to put on that blue flight suit, fly a blue jet and get out in front of the crowd you see how you can lift spirits and provide guidance or motivation.” For Hoskins, that blue suit was all about giving back.

blues upside down

“When you serve in the military, that’s what you do, you serve. To have that opportunity, to again wear that flight suit and represent the United States Naval Service of pride and professionalism, that’s the ultimate, so that was amazing.”

Following his tenure with the Blue Angels, Hoskins went on to serve in multiple capacities across the globe on behalf of the United States Navy before finally settling into his final role as commanding officer of NAS Pensacola.

“With being the commanding officer of NAS Pensacola, as you know Naval Air Station Pensacola is the cradle of naval aviation. If you’re a naval aviator and have the opportunity to be selected as the commanding officer, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Hoskins had the distinct honor of being the first black man and first former Blue angel to command the air station.

“I can tell you that the military service is an institution that will value and merit your sustained superior performance and you will get advanced according to that. I’ve worked with so many different people in the military – different religions, different races, people not even from the United States that want to come to the United States, gain their citizenship and join our military and raise their right hand to swear to the constitution to support and defend the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic," he said. "To have that opportunity to have that bond and that coalition, a melting pot of men and women that have the same focus and are moving in the same direction, that’s amazing."

Naval Aviation Museum Blue Angels display

Hoskins focused on that it shouldn’t just be a conversation about what he’s doing as an African American but as to what we all are doing as Americans.

“I’ve put a lot of thought into not only Black History Month but Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian-Pacific Islander Month; there are so many heritages and ethnicities that have contributed to the success of the United States, I hope that one day we will celebrate all throughout the year. As we continue to grow as the first settlement, there are other stories that we can tell as it relates to race.”

Upon retiring from the Navy after 27 years of service, Hoskins continues to command the ship but in a different role. As the Western District General Manager of Gulf Power Company, Hoskins is making waves in a new industry all over again.

 

Dr. Lusharon Wiley

Director of Culture, Innisfree Hotels

The day I was lucky enough to find Dr. Lusharon Wiley across from my desk in my office, I came to recognize all of the magnetic traits so many people conveyed to me. With a velvety voice that could melt butter, she made me feel more comfortable in my own chair than I did daily. As the words began to slip off her tongue, she explained her blissful, across the railroad track, all-black upbringing in a rural southern Georgia town. Seemingly raised by a whole village, she grew up on the stories of her ancestors, including her great aunt born out of slavery in 1887.

From the time she was nine years old, Wiley knew she wanted to attend college. With the drive of the community behind her, the echoes of the past and her mother’s advocacy for learning; she would go on to attend Tuskegee Institute, presently Tuskegee University, to begin her homage to understanding her heritage and developing a pathway for change. After marrying a Navy sailor out of college, the two would land on Pensacola’s doorstep thanks to the military.

lusharon wiley

Wiley went on to complete her doctorate at the University of West Florida from where she moved into her role as Senior Associate Dean of Students. As the Senior Associate Dean of Students, she was a moderator and a voice for students and their organizations between the university administration and the community.

“One of the things that was really fun at the university was when we did the inclusion spotlight. It gave us a chance to look at so many dynamic people right here in our community who are doing good stuff,” she explained.

While she spends her time year-round facilitating and speaking on diversity, she expressed how Black History Month allows her a chance to reflect and reminisce on all the elements she’s been taught over the years and how it is impacting those today. 

inclusion spotlight

“I think it’s noble, that there is a Black History Month because before, I believe it was Carter G. Woodsen, there was not even a Black History Month, so initially it was a Black History Week that he fought for and then it became a month. But I think as we become a much more diverse community, a much more inclusive community, a much more inclusive nation that we must begin to step away from the notion of a month, but to begin the talk about all of us all the time so that we’re celebrating the diversity that we are.”

Those historical efforts are in turn what are bringing our city and our nation into the future.

“Intentional efforts, not only by African Americans but by a collective effort to make sure that that history is not lost and to speak honestly to that history because some of that history hasn’t necessarily been the most beautiful but out of embers growth can begin anew,” she expressed. “I see this growth I am excited about it, I want to be a part of that and I want us to not only celebrate the dynamic history that Pensacola has had including its African American but to build so that more history continues, so that we can see that all of us can do great things regardless of race and ethnicity. As Americans, we have the opportunity to excel and so I’m excited to see that we, in fact, have the opportunity because we’ve not always had that.”

Today Wiley has moved into her current role as Director of Culture at Innisfree Hotels. Daily, she has the opportunity to inspire change and growth in others. 

 

Ronnie Cole, USN, Retired

Instructor, U.S. Department of Defense

With a boisterous smile and a contagious laugh, you can find Ronnie Cole at just about every community service event in Pensacola. After serving in the military for 20 years, he retired in Pensacola, the first duty station he served at the age of 18.

“There were white sands and white trout; there wasn’t much else to think about, Pensacola had to be home.”

Ronnie Cole

Upon retirement, Cole dedicated his years of military service to molding the young minds of tomorrow. As a federal employee at Corry Station working for the Center of Information Dominance, he is one of the first people that young sailors see in A School, the first stint of military training. As an African American, he explained to me just how vital it is for him to be seen in his role to set a positive example for others.

“My job and the role I have in my job is not one that you see a lot of people of color. I think in any environment, especially a military environment, it’s important to see people that look like you as you’re striving to establish a goal, especially early on in your life,” Cole explained.

Cole’s strong will to help others at a young age was set by the example of his mother. For 12 years she was the president of the National Foster Parents Association. In her time, she raised over 138 foster children and adopted six of them as her own. Cole expressed that she instilled the process of giving back to the community. He said that one of his favorite things about Pensacola is that he can see tangible results from his philanthropic efforts.

Murals in Belmont

“When you make a difference in Pensacola, you can see the results. You can do a lot of things in the big city, and you never see the tangible results but here you can make an effort to make a difference, and you can actually see it.”

He went on to express just how unique Pensacola is when it comes to giving in relation to African American history.

“I treasure the fact that I’ve never been any other place that in a community of our size there’s so much notoriety about Pensacola because of its history of people and the African Americans that are a part of that history,” Cole said.

“I think the fact that we have so many great African Americans from Pensacola that have helped put this community on the radar and on the map. Everyone likes to go to a place and say, ‘I’ve been where Roy Jones was,’ or ‘this was the place Chappie James was born,’ and we have that,” he said. “These guys are our greatest ambassadors because they always recognize where they’re from and that says a lot about them, but it also says a lot about Pensacola. It’s so critical, Pensacola is a place you brag about.”

From the sugar-white sands of the beach that we love to highlight to the back-alley stories that are just surfacing, Pensacola is making extraordinary waves in our nations storybook. 

From modern-day representatives to the momentous ones of our past,  an unending historical footprint has been left. From concrete-clad landmarks and museums to current community representatives spearheading dynamic life-changing conversation I am excited about the fluidity of the African American mark in Pensacola. For more information on how to celebrate African American history when visiting the Pensacola Bay Area, click here.