Vernice “Flygirl” Armour wanted nothing to do with flying until a chance encounter with a black woman in a flight suit changed her life forever.
It was a brief moment of inspiration in the 1990s while she was still in college, but it was enough to make her believe she could accomplish something that once seemed impossible.
Before that moment she had always dreamed of becoming a mounted police officer and had joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps because she would “do anything to shoot a gun or blow something up.”
But she went on to become America’s first black female combat pilot by flying an AH-1W Super Cobra in the Marines, and she shared her inspirational story Friday morning with members of the Jacksonville community at the 31st annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast.
“If you want something, you can’t just sit in your chair and raise your hand … you’ve got to stand up,” Armour told the audience.
She pointed out a group of men in the crowd at the Prime Osborn Convention Center who broke barriers long before she took the controls of a helicopter. Armour said it almost brought her to tears when she got the chance to talk with the members of the Montford Point Marines — the country’s first black Marines — before Friday’s event.
Her grandfather was a member during World War II, so Armour said she felt a very personal connection to the men.
Photos: Scenes from 31st annual Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast
It gave her a great deal of pride to see that the men in the crowd who fought in the Marines with her grandfather were now wearing Congressional Gold Medal replicas. She said the awards were truly an honor they deserve.
“It makes me feel real good, and it makes me feel blessed that I’m still alive and people appreciate the things we did,” said 93-year-old Alpha P. Gainous, a local member of the Montford Point Marine Association.
He said young members of the black community need be true to themselves and their families before everything else if they want to follow in his footsteps.
Gainous was one of the older people in attendance Friday, but others with bright futures got a chance to share their ideas with the crowd.
Jerome Singleton, Kaila Skeen and Kehinde “Kenny” Sogbesan were selected as Tomorrow’s Leaders of 2018.
Each submitted an essay after they were nominated by a teacher, mentor or nonprofit organization. They were chosen by a panel of judges and read their essays during the breakfast Friday morning.
Singleton is in the fifth grade at R.V. Daniels Elementary and compared his community to a colony of ants. He said everyone in the community plays a part, and no ant is ever left behind.
Skeen, an eighth-grader at Kirby Smith Middle, wrote about how everyone in her community shares the same goal to be successful.
She said if you don’t do everything you can to accomplish a goal, there will be someone looking to take your place.
Sogbesan pointed to the resiliency shown by the people of Jacksonville after recent natural disasters like Hurricane Irma last fall. The Bolles School sophomore said it was encouraging to see all the citizens do whatever it took to come together and help each other in times of need.
Mayor Lenny Curry took the stage after the winners and praised their ability to speak with poise in front of such a large crowd. He said it was an enormous honor to speak at Friday’s event because it went along with his vision of “One City, One Jacksonville.”
He said every citizen in every ZIP code should have the opportunity to thrive.
For the most part the breakfast was a complete representation of the community, with Sheriff Mike Williams, U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, Edward Waters College President Nat Glover and many others from local organizations seated at reserved tables.
But two area groups were noticeably missing.
Leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People boycotted Friday’s breakfast on the grounds that they weren’t included in the event’s planning and execution.
“Everything was already mapped out and when we made suggestions, those suggestions were not accepted as related to speakers,” said NAACP Jacksonville chapter President Isaiah Rumlin in November.
He said it has been a point of frustration in the past, and they no longer wanted to be silent partners of the program.
Armour’s message Friday was that people need to “stand up” if they want to accomplish their goals. She said life is about transitions, and people should always be open to change.
“Sometimes when you are a pioneer you get arrows in your back,” she said. “But you’ve got to keep standing up.”
At one point she changed from a leather bomber jacket into a sport coat. She said she did that to show the crowd she looks very similar to them, and it’s possible for each person to accomplish great things.
Martin Luther King Jr. helped blaze the trail for her, Armour said, and now it’s time for younger people to blaze a new trail for others.
Joe Daraskevich: (904) 359-4308