Alpha Phi Alpha pays tribute to Daytona Beach icon
Dr. James Huger credits two women for his success – his first employer, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of Bethune-Cookman University – and his beloved wife of 71 years, Phannye, whom he met while attending the school.
Huger, who has lived most of his 97 years in Daytona Beach, was honored last week by Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, an institution he has been a member of most of his adult life.
A church service at Stewart Memorial Methodist Church on April 1 wrapped up a three-day Legacy Celebration that paid tribute to Huger; $30,000 in college scholarship money was raised in his Huger’s name for high school seniors.
The celebration included a golf tournament on March 30 and a dinner at the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort on March 31 sponsored by the fraternity’s local Beta Delta Lambda chapter.
The local icon recently granted the Daytona Times an exclusive interview.
Met Bethune at an early age
Huger first moved to Daytona Beach from West Palm Beach, where his father was a well-known minister.
He recalls first meeting Bethune when his father invited her to speak at a function in the city.
“My brother and I were coming down the hall (at their West Palm home). People of color could not stay in hotels. Mother and her group prepared a meal for her (Bethune) group. I was in eighth grade at that time,” Huger recounted.
He eventually would attend Bethune-Cookman College (B-CC) when it offered classes for grades 10 through 12. Huger also would be one of the first students at the school when it dropped its high school classes, and allowed students to enroll and earn associate’s degrees.
Earned bachelor’s in West Virginia
He also worked at the school while a student.
Huger would go on to West Virginia State where he would earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
While in West Virginia, Bethune would intervene again in Huger’s life. Upon graduation, she helped him get a job in the War Department.
Huger said he held that job only a few months when Bethune sent for him to come work for her at the college.
“I told her I had just graduated from college. I didn’t know anything about running a college, But she said you will learn,” Huger recalled. He would eventually rise to business manager for the school.
A Marine and marriage
While working at B-CC, Huger was drafted into the Marine Corps in 1941. This would also be the year he married Phannye, whom he met while he a sophomore at B-CC. She was visiting B-CC to learn about the school.
A much younger Dr. James Huger is shown on Bethune-Cookman’s campus.
“She came here when she was in 2th grade. She was in my group. She was a cute little girl. The mind that she had, working with Ms. Bethune, no telling where she could go,” said Huger. Mrs. Huger would not end up enrolling at B-CC, but as destiny would have it, they would meet later while he was living in West Virginia. She would go on to graduate from another college and be successful in her right, including being the first Black principal at the former Mainland Seventh Grade Center. Mrs. Huger died in March 2009.
Invested in gas station
After his tour in the Marines, Huger said he decided not to go back to B-CC. Mrs. Huger landed a job in St. Petersburg, where he would end up becoming part owner of a gas station.
“Because of segregation, I could not get a job. I bought into a filling station. When that grease started running down my fingers, I knew this wasn’t for Jimmy Huger,” he said with a laugh.
But Huger said he was determined to make a go of it. After all, he said, “I was a Marine.”
“I am going to make this thing work,” he recalled saying to himself. But before he could get his hands too greasy, Dr. Bethune called upon him again.
Assigned to UNCF
She had been asked to run the United Negro College Fund campaign but didn’t want to travel anymore.
“Huger, I’m not going back to Washington (D.C.). You are going to run it for me,” Huger said she told him.
After this assignment with the UNCF, Bethune would eventually persuade Huger to come back to the college to work full time. She had just appointed Dr. Richard V. Moore to take over for her as president of the college.
After the passing of Bethune, Moore would not only be his boss but a mentor and friend.
Huger said had it not been for Moore and Bethune, he would not have been able to attend the University of Michigan to earn his graduate degree.
Witnessed civil rights history
Huger served as Alpha Phi Alpha’s general secretary in 1939 when he first learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was a member of the fraternity before he became famous. One of Huger’s greatest honors was serving as the fraternity leader and the role they played in helping King when he was arrested in Alabama supporting civil rights icon Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a White man in the 1950s.
Dr. James Huger is shown with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Huger said he and several of his Alpha brothers went to Montgomery for King’s trial and was shocked how King was being treated by his own attorney who referred to him as “that boy.’’
“We were ready to walk out. MLK was watching us. MLK said, “Cool it. This too shall pass,” Huger recalled.
Helped integrate Peabody
Before leaving Montgomery, Huger said they gave King and his supporters $5,000, which was a lot of money back in those days coming from a Black organization.
Huger would in later years work with King to help fight discrimination in St. Augustine and “he (King) helped us integrate Peabody Auditorium.”
“I was with him when he started his journey and with him at end of his journey,” said Huger, who signed King’s certificate when he became a member of the fraternity.
Asked to run for city seat
He reflected on Daytona Beach and Florida and the segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.
“I was born and raised in the South. I knew about lynching and I knew about being called a nigger,” he said.
He wanted to go to the University of Florida, but at the time Blacks were not allowed to attend the state school.
Moore, who was the first Black appointed to a city-run committee – the Planning Board – came to Huger in 1965 and asked him to run for the Daytona Beach City Commission.
A historic election
Before he made any major decisions, Huger said he always talked to his wife, Phannye. When he was asked to run for city commission, he was hesitant to do so.
“I told her (Phannye) why I wasn’t running. How could I get elected with all these Whites (voting),” Huger said.
“I give her credit. She said go ahead and try it,” Huger continued.
Huger would end up winning, becoming the city’s first Black elected official when commissioners were elected by citywide voting instead of zone voting as they do now.
He represented the City of Daytona Beach as a commissioner from 1965 to 1971.
First Black on county council
He was the first Black to serve on the Volusia County Council, holding office from 1973 to 1978 and serving as chairman in 1975 and 1978.
Huger served as the city’s community development director from 1976 to 1994.
Huger remembers catching a lot of flak from Blacks when he supported Urban Renewal, which eventually led to the closing of many Black-owned business and caused blight in many parts of the predominantly Black populated areas of the city.
“We were able to put people in decent housing. We paved many streets, (had) stoplights (installed where they had never been). There were people living west of railroad tracks who didn’t have a bathroom in their houses,” he said noting that changed under his reign as an elected official and head of the community development department.
Huger also was the first African-American to play on the Daytona Beach Municipal Golf Course.
He is a founder and past president of the National Community Development Association and the Florida Community Development Association, which advocates for community and economic development funding and programs.
He is a former president of the Stewart-Marchman Center, Rape Crisis Center of Volusia County, Association for Retarded Citizens and Halifax Associates.
BY JAMES HARPER DAYTONA TIMES