Jeanette Wheeler has been an activist for equality her entire life.
Her passion for civil engagement led her to found the Youth Black History Reality Program in Flagler County through the African American Cultural Society. The program recently celebrated its 15th year of teaching local African American students about their culture and inspiring them to strive for success.
Wheeler said the inaugural program held in February 2003 filled the AACS center on U.S. 1 from wall to wall, as curiosity for something new peaked an interest in the community.
“It’s hard to explain,” she said about what founding the program means to her. “It just feels like, ‘Ah, I’ve made it. I’ve done something good.’”
Wheeler’s desire to make a difference began when she was a young adult in her hometown of Douglas, Georgia, in the 1950s.
“In high school, I became a Sunday School teacher for the little kids because I love to talk,” she said. “I think that’s what would get me in trouble.”
Wheeler described her aptitude to stimulate conversations as both a blessing and a curse. It has given her opportunities to create change, but it hasn’t let her slow down after retiring from 32 years in education as a teacher then administrator in Connecticut and then moving to Flagler County.
“I want my fellow citizens in Palm Coast to understand the importance of getting to where we are now,” she said.
A life of activism
Growing up in the South during segregation, Wheeler is no stranger to adversity.
She credits her talkative personality for leading her to participate in several marches for civil rights and equality.
The first march she participated in was in her hometown as a young adult. She said she marched “in order for merchants at stores to be respectful of the black clients. ... I marched for respect.”
In the 1960s, Wheeler marched for people of color to be hired in city hall. She said the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People screened the applicants, and the marchers were successful in helping a qualified African American get hired.
Education has always been a priority for Wheeler. After earning a Master of Arts in Foods and Nutrition Education from New York University, she started teaching at Norwalk High School in Connecticut and was one of two people of color on the faculty.
She helped bring a local chapter of Literacy Volunteers of Connecticut, Inc. to Norwalk, Connecticut and was honored with a certificate of appreciation for her contributions there through the 1970s.
After retiring in Connecticut, she joined a group that helped mothers on welfare start new lives and get jobs. For 18 years, she coordinated home and family programs there before moving to Palm Coast.
Impacting Flagler County
Wheeler moved to Palm Coast in the early 1990s with the goal of taking it easy.
“You come with the idea that when you’re retired, you’re just going to have fun, go for lunch and do things like that,” she said. “But because of my DNA, I suppose, I felt that I need to do something in the community that really makes a difference.”
As a life member of the NAACP, Wheeler searched for opportunities to impact this community like she did in Georgia and Connecticut. This led her to start the Youth Black History Reality Program.
Harriett Whiting, a Flagler County Youth Black History Committee member, said Wheeler has “clearly made a difference because we have so many students whose lives have been impacted by her having the initiative to develop a program that helps them culturally and intellectually to present themselves to the public, as well as their own opportunities to obtain scholarships.”
Whiting said working with Wheeler for 12 years on the committee has been fun and rewarding.
“We consider her our real leader and champion,” Whiting said. “She’s always trying to find someone else to take over her responsibilities, and she teases by saying, ‘Oh, I’m getting too old to do this.’ And we’d say, ‘We’ll be right behind you every step of the way, as long as you lead the charge.’”
Chances are, Wheeler’s active personality isn’t going to let her slow down anytime soon.
“My life just continues to be doing things one way or another,” Wheeler said.