Pensacola, Florida
Thursday October 23rd 2014

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Battle for Black Business Leadership

Councilman Challenges Chamber Chairman
By Jeremy Morrison

By the time Pensacola City Councilman John Jerralds called the police, George Hawthorne had publicly summed up the councilman’s March 16 “Interest Meeting” as “odd” and “ludicrous.”

“George, I’m not gonna play with you,” Jerralds told him, while they waited for law enforcement to arrive.

The confrontation erupted as the councilman opened his public meeting concerning the Gulf Coast African American Chamber of Commerce, which Hawthorne chairs. Jerralds, who is not a member of the chamber, had said earlier in the day that he needed to come to GCAACC’s “assistance and to resuscitate it.”

Hawthorne had learned of the meeting through a post on Rick’s Blog, ricksblog.biz. The GCAACC’s chairman refused to leave when Jerralds threatened to call the police.

“You’re not gonna make me look like a fool,” Jerralds said.

“You already made yourself look like a fool,” Hawthorne replied.

After several standoff minutes full of lively back-and-forth between the gentlemen, a Pensacola police officer arrived and Hawthorne stepped into the hallway. As the meeting proceeded without him, the chamber chairman left city hall.

“I told you it was gonna be fireworks,” Hawthorne said via phone shortly after his truck pulled out of the parking lot.

The GCAACC chairman said that he chose to leave rather than “tie up the Pensacola Police Department with this foolishness.”

“He’s mad because I say he’s an ineffective leader and I want somebody to run against him,” Hawthorne said. “That’s what all this is about.”

Hawthorne said he planned to file a complaint with the State Attorney’s Office in response to Jerralds throwing him out of the meeting. He felt the ejection was an abuse of Jerralds’ authority as a city councilman.

Disparities Trigger Discussion
In the meeting room, members of the African-American business community talked shop for the full two hours that Jerralds had reserved the meeting room. They spoke about, among other things, the notable disparity between the white and black community and the need for networking among black-owned businesses.

Georgia Blackmon, owner of Gathering Awareness and Book Center, spoke about how she had been involved with the creation of the African-American chamber of commerce in the late 1990s. She eventually became disillusioned with the chamber and walked away from the organization.

“I think you need a chamber,” Blackmon said. “I just think you need the chamber to do what it’s supposed to do.”

Jerralds agreed. He said that was why he decided to call the meeting.

“If these things had been taking place, I wouldn’t have called the meeting in the first place,” the councilman said.

One woman told Jerralds that she had approached a local, unnamed official about the apparent racial disparity in the region and the lack of direction within the black community. The reported feedback wasn’t helpful.

“That was the comment: ‘your problems run too deep,’” said Eleanor Johnson.

Jerralds told the group that he would soon schedule a second meeting to explore what shape a new incarnation of an African-American chamber of commerce might take. He said he didn’t have any personal ambitions in such direction.

“I don’t want to be the chairman,” Jerralds said. “I don’t want to take over the chamber. I’m not looking for a job.”

Black Man In A White Man’s World
After the meeting, attendees milled in front of city hall continuing the conversation. Some preferred a new direction for the chamber of commerce, while others defended Hawthorne’s leadership.

“If you’re going to represent a body of people, you can’t be self-serving,” said Johnson, plowing into specifics concerning minority contractors working on the Maritime Park project being stalled on checks.

Tony McCray, who is the co-chair of the Contractor’s Advisory Council for the Maritime Park and a consultant on the city’s current disparity study, came to CAC co-chair Hawthorne’s defense. He said the Hawthorne was fighting an uphill battle.

“That’s still a black man in a white man’s world trying to get a black man paid,” he said.

A few days after the meeting, Jerralds sounded optimistic about the discussion that he had begun and was undeterred about the possibility of Hawthorne’s complaint with the state. The councilman said the GCAACC chairman had worked the chamber into “piss-poor shape” and equated the complaint threat with “pissing in the wind.”

“He’s trying to make something out of nothing,” Jerralds said. “What he needs to do is get the chamber up and running.”