ORANGE PARK – There’s a pocket of houses on Miller Street, Floyd Circle and Annie Lee Keyes Boulevard where more than 60 residents have called the area home for over than 50 years.
On Friday, June 7, they were honored by town citizen, Edward Keyes.
Orange Park was in its beginning stages of integration and the desegregation of schools and businesses 50 years ago. An educator for more 30 years, Annie Lee Keyes solidified her place in Orange Park history when she became the first African American administrator at Grove Park Elementary.
“Years ago, the [Orange Park Town Council] voted unanimously to name a street after my mom and that’s what Annie Lee Keyes Boulevard is today,” Keyes, the man behind the celebration, said. “That was really special for her and the community so it came to me this year that I wanted to do something to celebrate the entire community.”
So, after some research and speaking with community members, Keyes learned there were 63 homeowners in what he calls the Annie Lee Keyes Community that have been there for more than 50 years.
And without them, he said Orange Park wouldn’t be the same.
“And so that’s who I decided to celebrate,” Keyes said. “They’re our foundation, our base. They’ve kept the community together, even though things haven’t been so positive all the time.”
Keyes specifically referred to the Clay County School District’s decision years ago to put fences around the perimeter of each school. While Keyes understands the safety reasons behind the decision, he said it’s choked the life out of the community.
“The school field at Grove Park Elementary and the Orange Park Athletic Association pool, which has been filled in, used to be a mecca for the community to socialize,” Keyes said. “Whether it was sports or life or something else, everything was learned on those fields. After the fences went up, we were cut off.
“These were the places we all went to socialize and come together. Once it was choked out, it led to our youngsters not having things to do and I believe it choked the life out of our community. So, with things declining over the years, we were looking for something positive to reflect on.”
That’s where the idea for the celebration came from, Keyes said. Residents from the Annie Lee Keyes community, Mayor Connie Thomas, council members Randy Anderson and Roland Mastandrea, church representatives and local businesses representatives gathered at the GPE cafeteria to celebrate the residents who, through the highs and lows, have kept the community together for the past 50 years.
“They all came to the elementary school that night and it was stunning,” Thomas said. “It was a truly magical evening. It felt like you were around royalty.”
Thomas said Keyes and other speakers spoke about the professional basketball, football and baseball players that came from the GPE field that used to be open. They spoke about the residents who had lived through segregation and integration. They spoke about times in history when it seemed like the community might be destroyed, times in history when despite all odds, it rebuilt itself.
“They were committed to staying there,” Thomas said. “The community, their history, there was not a chance they would say goodbye to it.”
Thomas hopes to keep that sense of community alive throughout Orange Park. According to her, those longtime residents are who the town council should be looking to for guidance as the town begins its future visioning process.
Meanwhile, Keyes hopes to make celebrations like this an annual thing.
“We want this to be a yearly thing,” Keyes said. “I called on the community and the community showed up. Several people donated money to kids so they could enroll in sports programs. Several donated funds to educational efforts, like SAT tutoring and more. We even had a scholarship.”
Keyes said local barbershops donated free haircuts so that before the start of the next school year, residents in the Annie Lee Keyes community could get a fresh cut.
For him, it’s this driving community effort that has him ready for next year’s celebration. Keyes recalls running into one of the 50-year residents, Debra Kelly, in a local dollar store. That’s when he told her she would be honored at the Grove Park Elementary event.
“When I told her we were going to honor her for being a part of the community, she grabbed her heart and her eyes lit up and she hugged me so tight,” Keyes said. “If I only gave out one award, it would have been worth it so to give out plaques to all of the residents, that was the best.
“You’re talking about people that sometimes don’t leave their house and here they were at this event, out of their house, all dressed up in their best clothes with their hair done, as happy as they could be. If I can bring that kind of positivity and joy to this community each year like that, you can bet I’ll keep doing this.”