For more than four decades, Dorothy Wright Edwards worked in Miami-Dade schools as a teacher and administrator, a dean and counselor, all parts of a mighty legacy of education. But perhaps her most important public role was as a mentor who forged a wide path for African-American students heading to college.
Former students can still recall how Edwards urged students to attend college, helping to get scholarships for those who might not have attended otherwise. In that way, she influenced generations of Miamians.
Edwards died last week in her home of over a half-century, a white house with pink trim in Brownsville. She was just four months shy of her 103rd birthday.
“She really believed that people need to be educated; she saw it as a source of liberation or freedom and human dignity,” said the Rev. Ralph Ross, pastor of the Historic Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Miami, where Edwards was a member since 1936.
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If you ask Ross about Edwards, he turns to a moment in his own childhood. After his high school graduation, he planned to join the Army.
“She called me into her office and said go to Knoxville College, where I had a partial scholarship. With encouragement from her and others, I went and graduated with honors. She inspires people to go the distance,” said Ross, who will deliver the eulogy on Saturday. “She had a love and devotion to her students and a passion for education that made her like a mother to the students.’’
Edwards was born in Jacksonville in 1914. She graduated from Stanton High School in Jacksonville, where she excelled in basketball and tennis, sports she also played at Florida A&M College, now Florida A&M University. She was among the first women to earn an undergraduate degree in physical education at FAMU in 1935. Edwards later earned a graduate degree from New York University in guidance and counseling.
Edwards began teaching at Booker T. Washington in Miami in the late 1930s, and several years later, she married the Oscar Edwards, a coach and educator at the school who died in 1970.
In the 1940s, while teaching physical education at Miami Dorsey High School, Edwards was among the first black instructors trained to teach swimming. The American Red Cross trained Edwards and fellow teachers to offer swimming lessons for neighborhood children.
“We taught more than 500 girls and boys in one summer, using a community pool on Northwest 17th Avenue known as the Liberty City pool,” Edwards told the Miami Herald. “Our first goal was to get the kids into the pool to overcome their fear of the water. Then I taught them to float. After that step, another teacher taught them the doggie paddle. In about three weeks, we had most of them able to swim.”
Edwards later became a counselor and dean of girls at Dorsey and at Miami Northwestern Senior High, where she retired as an assistant principal in 1971.
“People would walk up to her and say ‘I haven’t seen you in 40 years’ and she still remembered their name,” said Edwards’ only child, Oscar Jr. “That is the kind of connection she had with students. She treated every student as an individual. She wanted the best for every child.”
Edwards spent much of her retirement years working for Upward Bound and volunteering at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Longtime friend Georgiana Johnson Bethel, who attended Edwards’ 102nd birthday celebration in January, reflected on Edwards’ enduring footprint.
“She has quite a history,” Bethel, a retired Booker T. Washington High teacher, told the Miami Herald earlier this year. “She has mentored and mothered literally hundreds of young people during her years as an educator.”
Edwards was also well-traveled, counting India, South America and Africa among her destinations. She was an avid Miami Dolphins fan, buying season tickets when Don Shula became coach. And she loved animals, taking care of neighborhood dogs and cats. Her beloved pet dog, Precious, now lives with her son.
Edwards was also a fierce Scrabble competitor.
“She and her [late] younger sister were very close and loved to play Scrabble; it was like playing against the dictionary. If you played with them, here is the kicker, they played for chores. The loser would have to wash the dishes or sweep the floor or cook dinner,” joked Edwards’ daughter-in-law, Brenda Edwards. “If you played with them, you could become their personal maid!”
Her other great love: sports. In 2004, Edwards was inducted into FAMU’s Sports Hall of Fame.
“She was really into sports,” Brenda Edwards said. “And when she taught physical education, she didn’t just tell the students what to do, she did the exercises with the students.”
While at FAMU, Edwards pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, the country’s oldest black sorority, started by students at Howard University in 1908. She was a charter and life member of the Gamma Zeta Omega chapter of AKA in Miami, where she had also served as its president.
“She was our last living charter member, starting the chapter in her home in 1940,” said Andrea Robinson, the chapter’s president. “She was the lifeline of Gamma Zeta Omega. She always did things from a place of love. When she would grip both sides of my cheeks and give me a kiss, I knew I was loved. She was everything a sister should be.”
Edwards’ community and volunteer service has been celebrated widely, including awards from Florida Memorial University, Jackson Memorial Hospital and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. In 2012, the Miami-Dade School Board recognized Edwards with a resolution, for her “commitment to education, her compassion for helping others, her spirit of cooperativeness and her enthusiasm for life.”
Edwards is survived by her son, Oscar Edwards Jr., two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. The AKA Ivy Beyond the Wall ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Historic Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, followed by funeral services at 11 a.m. The church is at 301 NW Ninth St., Miami, 33136. For more information, call 305-379-4147.