2022-23 First Ladies in African American History honored

The Woodson African American Museum of Florida celebrated the 2022-23 trailblazing Black women and their allies on April 16 at The James Museum. Pictured is the class of 2023: Left, Karen Davis-Pritchett, Sharmane Andrews, Mayor Ken Welch, Sherron Rogers, Mardie J. Chapman and Valerie Powell-Stafford

ST. PETERSBURG – The celebration of Black women in history is often overlooked and rarely acknowledged. However, following the Woodson African American Museum of Florida’s mission, the museum not only celebrates but has elevated the accomplishments of Black women annually since 2014 when hosting the inaugural First Ladies in African American History event.

Women honored as First Ladies in African American History are extraordinary trailblazers who exemplify excellence and have achieved the status of “first” in their respective fields. Historically, women of every race, class and ethnic background served as early leaders at the forefront of major progressive social change movements, and their contributions often remain unrecorded.

Pictured is the class of 2022: Left, Dr. Cynthia Johnson, Bemetra Simmons, Jeanne Milkey, Mayor Ken Welch, First Lady Donna Welch, Dr. Sandra Braham and Erica Sutherland

The Woodson Museum celebrated Black female excellence at The James Museum in downtown St. Pete earlier this year. Five trailblazing women from 2022 and four from this year. Also honored were two recipients of the Winnie Foster Lifetime Achievement Award, which honors allies in a quest for freedom and justice.

The Winnie Foster Lifetime Achievement Award is presented to individuals whose passion lights paths. Their vision to enhance the lives of others has been noted over time. Their commitment to human rights and justice is exemplified in their daily lives through their work in the community.

Dr. Sandra Braham

Dr. Sandra Braham was appointed president and CEO of Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services since 2016. At $35 million with more than 500 full-time staff, Gulf Coast JFCS is one of the largest JFS agencies in the United States.

Braham has brought stable leadership, vision, and skills in organizational development that are redefining the agency’s role as a regional leader in providing wraparound human services. She has broad experience in solutions-oriented strategic planning, technology utilization and integration, diversity and staff and community engagement.

Before coming to Gulf Coast JFCS, she spent 25 years in El Paso, Texas, where she served for 10 years as CEO of the YMCA El Paso del Norte Region and led 450 employees. Braham also served as associate vice provost for Undergraduate Studies and assistant vice president for outreach programs at the University of Texas at El Pasco (UTEP) from 1992-2006.

Braham received her Bachelor of Arts in Biology from the University of Missouri at Columbia and her master’s and doctorate degrees in Educational Leadership and Administration from UTEP. She graduated from Leadership Texas, Leadership America, and the Harvard Business School’s Strategic Perspectives in non-profit management executive education program. She also completed Jewish leadership studies with the Federation of Florida’s Gulf Coast, culminating in a 10-day trip to Israel. 

Among her civic activities are membership in the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, where she is the current board chair and the first African-American woman to hold this post. She also supports its organizational development and diversity and inclusion initiatives. She also is a board member of the Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce.

Professionally, she serves as co-chair for the Network of Jewish Human Services Agencies Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Affinity Group and she mentors other leaders of color in the non-profit sector.

Dr. Cynthia Johnson

Dr. Cynthia Johnson is the director of Pinellas County Economic Development and the executive director of Pinellas County’s Economic Development Authority. Since 2000, she has been a leader in the organization, serving as division director of Business Assistance from 2001-21, managing the department’s entrepreneurial and small business assistance and development initiatives.

As a trusted advisor to businesses large and small, government agencies, policymakers and community leaders throughout Florida, she has built her career around the diverse and inclusive interconnected aspects of economic development. She advocates for public policies and business practices that promote inclusion and marketplace diversity.

As an economic development practitioner, trainer, mentor, and educator, Johnson has supported hundreds of individuals in creating, retaining and expanding their businesses.

She specializes in partner relations, federal and state grants management and compliances, business and strategic planning, entrepreneurial development, finances and small business innovation. She has more than 21 years of experience in economic development and over 26 years in leadership training and development.

Johnson received a Doctorate in Educational Leadership & Organization from Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale. With a certification from Cornell University in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, she is a champion for equitable economic development and inclusive policy development.

A recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, Johnson was recently named ONYX magazine’s 2022 Woman on the Move, Tampa Bay Journal’s Power 100 and Women of the Year nominee. In 2021, she was appointed honorary commander to MacDill Airforce Base’s 927th Air Refueling Wing; she is a member of the St. Petersburg Chapter of Links, Inc. and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Bemetra Simmons

Bemetra Simmons is the president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a coalition of regional business leaders working together to improve Tampa Bay residents’ personal and economic well-being.

Simmons previously served as the chief strategy and operations officer for United Way Suncoast, where she led core operations functions, including finance and information technology and community investment for a five-county region.

In this role, she facilitated a COVID-19 emergency response process, which resulted in the disbursement of $1.6 million in emergency relief to area non-profits. She participated in the planning of the organization’s new strategic vision. A former banking executive, Simmons also worked as the Florida managing director at Mutual of Omaha Bank and held leadership roles at Wells Fargo and BB&T.

She currently serves on the board of commissioners for the Tampa Housing Authority, the Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce executive committee and the community Tampa Bay board. She is a 2013 Leadership Tampa graduate and a Leadership Florida Cornerstone Class XXXVIII member. The Tampa Bay Business Journal named her an “Up and Comer” in 2013 and a finalist for its Businesswoman of the Year award in 2017.

Simmons is the daughter of an Air Force Chaplain and has lived in 10 states and two countries. She attended Christian Brothers University in Memphis on a basketball scholarship and received a bachelor’s in business administration and a MBA from Wake Forest University in 2004.

Erica Sutherlin

Filmmaker and theatrical director Erica Sutherlin holds a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Television Production from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. She made her directorial debut with the Lifetime Movie Network’s number one Christmas movie, “Kirk Franklin’s A Gospel Christmas,” her second feature following “Stratosphere,” which she directed and co-wrote.

Before she was appointed director, Sutherlin was selected for the Lifetime Network’s Director Shadow program, held a fellowship with the Blackhouse Foundation Sundance Fellows program and received Facebook’s SEEN initiative for Black filmmakers.

Currently, Sutherlin is a recipient of the Creative Pinellas Individual Artist Recovery Grant for film and is a fellow for the Advancing Racial Equity on Non-Profit Boards class of 2022. As a writer, she is writing on projects with Village Roadshow and the UK-based production company iGeneration Studios. She was a writer for the newly released and multiple award-winning film “Voodoo Macbeth,” which was produced through Warner Brothers and the University of Southern California.

As a USC showrunner, she developed, wrote, and produced the sitcom “Unschooled” with an excellent team of writers. Sutherlin concluded her time at USC in the writer’s room, developing, writing, and producing the short-form limited dramatic series, “SUGAR LAND.”

After receiving her Bachelor of Arts in Theater Performance from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Sutherlin began theatrically directing. For the past 20 years, she has directed numerous plays and musicals.

Recently, Sutherlin received stellar reviews for her productions of “Pass Over” by Antoinette Nwandu, “Dutchman” by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and the musical “The Color Purple” by Marsha Norman.

Amongst her talents as a writer and director, Sutherlin is an equity actress and arts educator who has performed and taught nationally and internationally. Her theatre company, The Space, was awarded Tampa Bay’s Theatre on the Rise.

Donna B. Welch

Donna Welch worked passionately in the youth development field for over 35 years, focusing on addressing the social, emotional and gender-specific needs of young girls while assisting them with the various challenges of adolescence and living safe, healthy and productive lives.

She began her journey working with the youth immediately after graduating high school with the Big Brothers Big Sisters Organization. In 2008, Welch pursued one of her lifetime goals and launched My Daughter’s Keeper of Tampa Bay, Inc., a non-profit organization designed to provide support to young girls ages 10-18 in the transitional and developmental stages of life and to offer support to parents and caregivers during this critical time.

Welch expanded the organization in 2019 under the DBA “Envision Me Youth Academy,” which assists at-risk youth in overcoming the educational and social barriers that threaten their growth in achieving the fundamental skills needed to succeed.

In 2007, she played an integral role in developing and launching the Faith-Based Literacy and Technology Afterschool & Summer Enrichment Program, designed to provide academic assistance and support to youth and families in impoverished communities in south St. Pete.

Welch served as the program director for 11 years, overseeing 10 program sites until 2018. She continues to fulfill her purpose, serving as president and director of her own non-profit organization, which continues to meet the needs of youth and families in our community, including working with young girls in the foster care system and delivering weekly snack boxes to youth who live in non-traditional home environments.

She has a long-standing history of serving and advocating for youth in our community. She served on several boards and advisory committees, including a former board member of Everyone’s Youth United Inc., YWCA Teen Advisory Committee, Youth Arts Corp Advisory Committee, 4-H Club Advisory Committee, Quantum Opportunities Youth Advisory Board, the Urban League Youth Crime Prevention Advisory Committee and Clothe to Kids board of directors.

Welch serves as a mentor for Pinellas County Schools, a board of directors member for PEMHS Behavioral Health Organization of Pinellas County and was selected in 2021 to become a Wisdom Council Member for the Southern Black Girls & Women’s Consortium.

Jeanne Milkey

Jeanne Milkey grew up in St. Petersburg and graduated from Florida State University with a degree in Business Administration. She worked in the past as a corporate trust administrator for Chase Manhattan in New York City and Bank of America in Tampa.

She is now a resident of St. Pete Beach and operates the Milkey Family Foundation, which she established with her husband, Kevin, to support local non-profit organizations. She also serves on the Feeding Tampa Bay and Suntan Art Center board.

Milkey’s compassion and commitment to social justice and equal rights for all have positioned her and her family to be one of the leading philanthropists in the area, supporting causes that elevate those who are disenfranchised.

Their commitment to area scholars has ensured a commitment of a quarter of a million dollars toward the Woodson Warriors Scholarship fund and a $1 million pledge to the creation of Florida’s first purpose-built African-American museum, The Woodson African American Museum of Florida.

The Milkey family has significantly improved the quality of life in the Tampa Bay community by supporting a wide variety of local charities in numerous areas, including human services, disaster relief, environmental stewardship, scholarship programs, arts and culture and animal services.

Milkey is an avid supporter of Woodson programming. Her commitment to the museum’s mission to preserve, present, interpret, celebrate, and educate others regarding Black history is unparalleled.

Jeanne Milkey exemplifies in more ways than one the honor associated with receiving the Winnie Foster Lifetime Achievement Award.

2023 recipients

Sharmane Andrews

Sharmane Andrews, MSN, RN, CPEC is the director of Obstetrical Services at Bayfront Health, St. Petersburg and the CEO of the Andrews Consulting Firm. She is a native of Johns Island, S.C., who earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from Lander University in Greenwood, S.C., and a Master of Science in Nursing from the University of Phoenix. She is also a certified executive coach and received her training through the CaPP Institute in Atlanta.

As a nurse executive, coach, and consultant, Andrews has successfully led diverse, multicultural teams within the United States and abroad. Overseas, as the executive director of Women’s Services, she was instrumental in the commission and opening of a state-of-the-art women’s and children’s hospital and outpatient clinics in Doha, Qatar.

Andrews impacts her community by serving on the board of Healthy Start to help enrich the lives of underserved women and children. As a published author, professional speaker and mentor, she is dedicated to empowering those around her to be infectious, impactful and to lead with intention and purpose.

Valerie Powell-Stafford

In April 2019, after serving as CEO at Englewood Community Hospital for three years, Valerie Powell-Stafford joined CA Florida Northside Hospital as the chief executive officer. Before her CEO role at Englewood, she was the chief operating officer at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton, chief operating officer at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota and assistant administrator at Community Hospital in New Port Richey. 

She is an experienced healthcare executive with over 20 years of experience in various healthcare management settings.

Her previous executive leadership experience includes being a program administrator at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa and director of various departments at the St. Joseph Health System in Tampa and Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut. She has had many professional and civic affiliations:

  • Board member, St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce
  • Leadership Academy Fellow
  • The Advisory Board Company
  • Board member, University of Michigan Health Management Alumni Program
  • Tampa Bay Go Red for Women executive cabinet
  • President-elect, Englewood Chamber of Commerce
  • Board member, Metropolitan YMCA board
  • Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Zeta Upsilon Omega Chapter member
  • Jack and Jill of America Suncoast Chapter member
  • NAACP Lifetime member

She is a graduate of Indiana University with a Bachelor of Science in Health Administration and a graduate of the University of Michigan with a Master of Health Services Administration degree. Board certified in healthcare management as an American College of Healthcare Executive fellow, she has served on the Board of Governors and received the ACHE Exemplary Service Award.

Karen Davis-Pritchett

A St. Petersburg native, Karen Davis-Pritchett is the vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the nation’s largest non-profit hospice and palliative integrated care network, Empath Health. She provides leadership to the diversity, equity and inclusion department and provides support to each affiliate with the Empath Health Network throughout Southwest Florida.

Davis-Pritchett earned her Master of Education in Community Counseling from Howard University and her Bachelor of Science from Florida State University. Additionally, she is a certified diversity professional by the National Diversity Council, a certified English educator, Alzheimer’s Association Caregiver support group facilitator and a Certified Laughter Yoga Leader.

She currently serves on the NAHC Diversity Taskforce, NHPCO Diversity Advisory Council, Tampa Bay National Diversity Council and Alzheimer’s Association IDEALL Florida Council. During her tenue at Empath Health, her commitment to access and inclusion has been demonstrated in numerous ways, and she has been able to attain serval “firsts.”

  • Being promoted to become the first vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion for Empath Health
  • The first Empath Health executive team member and department to be awarded the Florida Hospice and Palliative Care Association Award for Innovative Community Engagement
  • The first Empath Health executive to serve on the Diversity Advisory Council for National Hospice and Palliative care Organization and the National Association for Home Care and Hospice
  • First in her organization to be a panelist at the National Healthcare DEI Conference to discuss the impact of COVID-19 and access to healthcare
  • Awarded funding for and facilitated with Suncoast Hospice colleagues, the first Healing Hearts Camps to introduce grief support to Black children living in Southern Pinellas County
  • First to create intentional community engagement presentations for Grief Conversations, with diverse communities and has personally facilitated Grief Conversations and reached more than 500 community members with her local community

Before transitioning to healthcare, she held several roles in the public education sector, including middle and high school English educator, student intervention specialist, curriculum coordinator, college summit coordinator and Title I family engagement specialist.

Davis-Pritchett is a graduate of Leadership St. Pete class of 2014, past Florida Diversity Council board of director member, past board of director for Health Equity for All, was awarded The Legacy Education Award from IMA and the Community Leadership Award from the Gathering of Women. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. and the St. Petersburg Metropolitan Section of the National Council of Negro Women.

Sherron Rogers

Since 2005, Sherron Rogers has worked with large organizations to lead transformational change in a manner that engages and empowers those closest to the work. A chief financial officer of John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Tampa Bay’s highest-ranked children’s hospital, Rogers strategically leads all financial aspects of the hospital, including planning and analysis, performance improvement and numerous strategic initiatives.

Before joining Johns Hopkins Health System, Rogers spent seven years caring for central Indiana’s most vulnerable at Eskenazi Health, one of America’s largest essential health systems. In her role, she led large growth and improvement initiatives and transformed the approach to strategic decision-making.

Rogers spent over a decade at Indiana University Health before joining Eskenazi Health. As the youngest person to serve in a vice president role in the IU Health system’s history, she led transformative change in multiple areas including information services, hospital operations and administration.

Throughout her career, Rogers has also prioritized ways to ensure others were engaged and developed and had more opportunities to demonstrate their talent. She developed efforts like Affinity Groups, mentoring programs and created focused succession planning and recruiting programs.

Rogers spent her undergraduate and graduate education at Indiana University-Bloomington, culminating with a master’s degree in information science in 2002. She has continuously sought opportunities to learn and has received recognition along the way.

In 2022, she was selected as a member of the Stanley K. global approach to areas like human resources and real estate at Cummins, an international manufacturing organization.

Rev. Mardie J. Chapman

An advocate for democracy, an ambassador for positive change and sacred leader, Rev. Mardie J. Chapman has become a force within our community as a drum major for justice. As a board-certified Chaplain of the Pastoral Care Department at St. Anthony’s Hospital, she has provided spiritual care for patients, families, visitors, and staff.

Serving on the hospital’s Diversity Committee, Chapman initiated and led team member orientation workshops while serving the specific needs of Black patients and families.

Upon retirement in 2020, Rev. Chapman began a full-time pledge of growth and service for racial justice. She became committed to practicing daily healing from white superiority and confronting white complacency.

She became an avid writer with several published letters to the editor of the Tampa Bay Times. Chapman furthers her commitment as a facilitator through action-oriented racial justice book studies.

She is a trained community organizer. Her organizational commitments include actively participating and supporting the mission of The Woodson African American Museum of Florida, the St. Petersburg Branch of the NAACP, which has helped conduct economic development research, a scribe for the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the Social Justice Committee of the League of Women Voters, an active and engaged member of Faith in Florida through protest, rallies, phone, and banking.

She is an active Lakewood United Church of Christ member as a committed congregant focused on racial, social, economic and environmental study classes.

Chapman obtained an M.Div. from Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Mass., a master’s in management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Hartford, Conn., and a  bachelor’s in English literature from the University of Hartford, Conn. She is a board-certified chaplain and an ordained authorized minister at the United Church of Christ.

Rev. Mardie J. Chapman exemplifies the life and legacy of Winnie Foster.

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