Byllye Avery visited different DeLand landmarks, like the Noble “Thin Man” Watts Amphitheater, where she spent time with friends, at right, like Alzada Fowler, a local educator and one of Avery’s childhood friends.

Byllye Avery came back to DeLand for the first time in 20 years on April Fools’ Day.

Avery and her wife, Ngina Lythcott, two national leaders in civil rights, health care, and reproductive rights, were in town to speak at Stetson University’s James A. Stewart Lecture series, joining the ranks of previous renowned lecturers including President Jimmy Carter, Bishop Desmond Tutu and anthropologist Jane Goodall.

LIVES OF SERVICE — Byllye Avery, left, with her wife, Ngina Lythcott. Lythcott, along with being gregarious and loving to everyone she met on their trip to DeLand, is also a formidable force in health care advocacy. They’ve been together for 36 years, and married for 18.

Avery’s four-day visit was meticulously scheduled to the hour each day to fit in a variety of university events, along with visits to DeLand landmarks of her childhood, all while a two-person film crew traveled along in her wake.

Avery visited the church she grew up in, Bethel AME Church at 210 E. Howry Ave., a grand old building designed by John Lankford, the first practicing Black architect in the United States, and constructed in 1907. Next, a reunion with classmates at the Noble “Thin Man” Watts Amphitheater, including local leader and educator Alzada Fowler, a childhood friend.

Avery also paid a visit to the James W. Wright Building, at 260 W. Voorhis Ave., with a presentation by educator Al Bouie.

“The businesses in the Wright Building were unique, because it wasn’t just Black people — it was white people and Black people working together,” Bouie said, explaining the history of the building, and the current interracial efforts to restore the historic brick building.

On April 3, Avery’s agenda included a flurry of visits — starting with an old oak tree nestled behind The Little House Next Door on Church Street in Downtown DeLand.

When the now-85-year-old Avery was a child in DeLand, that oak tree was in her backyard, in a Black neighborhood known as Africa, adjacent to another Black neighborhood, Red City.

Now memorialized in a mural around Painter’s Pond, nothing remains of the two neighborhoods but memories, and some of the oak trees. The area of Red City, once housing Black residents who often worked as cleaners and cooks for Stetson University, was slowly bought by the school, who removed the red houses that gave the neighborhood its moniker and erected dormitories in the 1990s. The homes that made up Africa, also known as “Lil Africa,” are also no longer standing.

Pre-integration, Africa was only a block from the bustling Downtown, but might as well have been a different world, Avery said.

Followed by the film crew, and members of Avery’s family, including her son Wesley (daughter Sonia would join the party later), Avery turned the corner behind Buttercup Bakery that morning on the walk to her tree to find hundreds of Muscovy ducks, who, along with the shouts of curious children, filled the air with a cacophony of sounds, delightful to everyone but the dismayed sound technician.

Avery and Lythcott performed a small ceremony at the grand old tree, dripping with Spanish moss, which, as Avery would later say, was a gateway for her to another time and place; she would spend many hours as a child lying underneath and imagining different worlds.

And then they performed it again, for a close-up shot. And again, for a faraway shot. And again, for another angle.

“Now I know why movie stars get paid so much,” Avery said.

A planned tour of historic Black areas in town was curtailed by the long movie shoot, but Avery and Lythcott did stop by the site of Euclid High School, DeLand’s all-Black high school pre-integration. The high school looms large in the memory of former students, but is nothing but a field now.

All that remains of Euclid High School, which produced many leaders in the Black community, is the old gym, now housing the DeLand Police Athletic League at 422 S. Delaware Ave.

Fairly tuckered out by this point, the group, including this writer, took respite and sustenance at the Spring Hill BBQ and Soul Food Lounge near the Spring Hill Resource Center at the corner of Adelle and Beresford avenues, the beginning of the area known as Spring Hill. Spring Hill is sometimes falsely considered the Black side of DeLand — something that Avery’s tour through the town clearly showed to be fallacy.

Avery’s classmate, another well-known Black leader in DeLand, Bo Davenport, stopped in as the group cleaned the restaurant out of the special of the day (fried pork chop with gravy, mac and cheese, and collard greens). It had been at least 20 years since they had seen each other, and they spent much of lunch discussing their classmates at Euclid High (Avery was in the Class of 1954, and moved shortly after graduation to Alabama for college).

Barely three hours later, Avery and Lythcott were on the porch of the president of Stetson University’s home for a reception. Half a mile from Avery’s well-loved childhood oak tree and childhood memories, it was the first time she had ever stepped foot on Stetson University’s campus.

STANDING UP FOR WOMEN — Byllye Avery’s whirlwind homecoming to DeLand included an invitation to the Stetson University president’s mansion. Pictured with Avery, seated above, are other local community advocates. From left are Dr. Deanna Wathington of Bethune-Cookman University, Dr. Asal Johnson of Stetson University, who arranged Avery’s trip, and Shilretha Dixon, executive director of the Dr. Joyce M. Cusack Resource Center.

As she would later tell attendees of the Tuesday night lecture, she and another classmate applied to Stetson after they graduated from high school in 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. The two were told that “the University is not accepting Negroes at this time.”

Tuesday was another full day, this time on Stetson’s campus, visiting classes and meeting with university officials ahead of the lecture that night.

“I was a scared little girl from DeLand, Florida,” Avery said at the lecture.

Avery’s accolades are many: a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, an award for the advancement of health care from the National Academy of Sciences and many more. She was an early advocate for safe and legal abortion and the founder of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, the first and only national nonprofit dedicated solely to Black women’s equity in health care.

There’s work to be done, she said.

“When you see something happening that you can do something about, do it,” Avery said. “We all have power … we are the people.”

Avery’s childhood was partly shaped by disparities — blocks away from a university that her neighbors worked at, it may as well have been a world away.

On this visit to her hometown, however, along with the tours, the meetings and receptions, the City of DeLand declared April 3 to be “Byllye Avery Day,” in recognition of her work.

MRS. AVERY GOES TO DELAND — Health care activist Byllye Avery’s trip to her hometown of DeLand was a busy affair, with a special lecture at Stetson University about her life and career.

“It’s something special to be recognized by your hometown,” Avery said at the lecture. “I’ve won a lot of awards, but this… this might be the top for me.”

In the whirlwind of events, places, and memories during Avery’s four-day visit, the group — her family, the film crew, and Stetson University professor Asal Johnson, who arranged the trip — never traveled more than 2 miles away from Downtown DeLand.

And while only a few blocks separated Avery from Downtown and Stetson University as a child, more than 65 years separates Avery’s past in DeLand from today.

“For nearly a year, I’ve lived in DeLand, in my head,” Avery told the crowd. “And now, I’m here.”


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