Janet Feagans Launcelott, 78

South Florida civil rights and fair housing leader Janet Launcelott dies

 
 
Janet Launcelott
Janet Launcelott

dneal@MiamiHerald.com

Janet Feagans Launcelott spent her life trying to get the powerful to play fair.

She got arrested and lost a job over her civil rights activities in the early 1960s. She spent 12 years as the head of Miami-Dade County’s Fair Housing and Appeal Board. She spent 1998 Mother’s Day protesting what she saw as INS abuse of power.

In 2009 and 2010, she tried to get back on the South Miami City Commission because she worried about unchecked growth.

“She really cared about the underdog,” longtime friend Sara Leviten of North Miami said. “She was just a caring person. She accomplished so much in her life.”

That life ended on March 28 at age 78 when an East Ridge of Cutler Bay senior living community bus struck Launcelott, an East Ridge resident.

The Miami Friends Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends held a memorial service Saturday for Launcelott, who was given the key to the city by South Miami in 2013, one of a plethora of honors she received for her decades of public service work in South Florida.’

Perhaps Launcelott’s affection for the disadvantaged came from her beginnings. She spent her first 13 years in a series of foster homes in New York and New Jersey. Eventually, a Methodist minister, the Rev. Harry D. Robinson, raised Launcelott, and the two would attend the 1963 March on Washington together.

But, before that, Launcelott would lose a teaching job and position in graduate school at Georgia State after police raided her apartment. She had invited a multi-racial group of friends over, and bigoted neighbors called the cops, who arrested everyone on drunk and disorderly conduct charges.

If Launcelott’s drive to fight the popular-isms of the day wasn’t already awakened, that did it. The former Eastern Airlines flight attendant worked at Vassar, the State University of New York and the University of Pittsburgh before pursuing the affirmative action director position at Florida International University in 1972.

Her prospective employers, seeing Launcelott’s PhD in political science from predominately black Howard University, didn’t expect an applicant of Launcelott’s light shade. Even decades later, she told interviewers of her amusement at their confusion.

“She had a dry sense of humor,” Leviten said. “She was quiet, but what she said made sense. She was a doer not a talker. She got things done.”

Making it easier to laugh over FIU’s mistake was taking the job of Miami-Dade County’s director of affirmative action in 1973. In 1975, Launcelott started a 12-year run as director of the Miami-Dade County Fair Housing and Employment Appeals Board. Whatever fines she could levy — however she could help Hispanics, African-Americans, the physically challenged, keep from getting shoved into the margin — she never felt it was enough.

Launcelott buzzed and stung more than racist landlords and employers. She fined a Miami Beach landlord giving discounts to young tenants as he tried to fill his buildings with the first generation of twentysomethings that would help make South Beach “South Beach.”

In 1986, those in Miami-Dade County government wishing to save $200,000 a year by killing Launcelott’s agency apparently forgot her political science background. Launcelott quietly marshaled media and community leaders in a campaign that saved the agency at a time when the county’s tensions increased with its diversity.

“If we aren’t here, people are going to get more and more frustrated and I don’t know that they’ll use reason….what action they might take,” she told the Miami Herald as she left Fair Housing. “We are a safety valve for the community. We provide remedies to rectify wrongs that have been done.”

In the 1980s, Launcelott taught etiquette classes that instructed young ladies on proper table manners, phone and in-person interaction and restaurant behavior while also taking them to museums and galleries.

After leaving Fair Housing to be a stock broker in 1987, she ran for and won a seat on the South Miami City Commission in 1988. She remained on the commission until 1992 and stayed active in South Miami, fighting for gender equal pay among other things. Launcelott later was an adjunct professor of political science at Miami-Dade College.

Launcelott’s husband, Owen Launcelott, died in 1987 of cancer

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