In the spirit of MLK

Published: Saturday, January 15, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 14, 2005 at 9:44 p.m.
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Dr. Cullen Banks, posing with his wife, LaKay, will be honored this weekend by the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission for his years of community service while being the only black physician in Gainesville for nearly 25 years.

ROB C. WITZEL/The Gainesville Sun


MLK banquet

  • What: Martin Luther King Jr. Hall of Fame Banquet
  • When: Sunday, 6 p.m.
  • Where: Paramount Resort and Conference Center, 2900 SW 13th St.

  • Two pioneering doctors - one a family practitioner, the other a dentist - and a longtime Gainesville activist, whose contributions are too numerous to fit neatly under a single title, will be the newest members inducted Sunday into the Martin Luther King Jr. Hall of Fame. Jackie Hart-Williams, executive director of the Gainesville-based Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Florida, says Sunday night will mark the 20th anniversary edition of the banquet and the 18th year of naming individuals to the hall of fame.
    Dr. Cullen Wadsworth Banks, the late Dr. Edgar Allen Cosby and Vivian Washington Filer bring the total to 26 individuals honored for their service and contributions to the community.
    Banks and Cosby were both pioneers in their professions, opening doors for others, while serving as leaders in the community beyond their office doors. Filer is a career nurse and teacher who passed her concern for patients and health care to generations of nursing students at Santa Fe Community College while working for equality. At age 66, she continues to use her many gifts in dozens of way all over North Central Florida.
    Vivian Washington Filer Nurse, teacher, storyteller, singer, radio show host, neighborhood leader and community activist, Vivian Washington Filer is all of those and more.
    "I think the Lord must have multi-tasked me so I can do so many jobs at once," she says with a laugh.
    After teaching nursing for 29 years at Santa Fe Community College, the 66-year-old Filer shows no evidence of slowing down. On Sunday morning, she hosts "Community Talk" program on Magic 101.3 radio.
    With the Greater Gainesville Black Nurses Association, an organization she co-founded, she's helped organize health fairs that offer screen tests and healthy living tips and suggestions at churches and small towns in North Central Florida.
    She was born in Trenton, and her family moved to Gainesville when she was in elementary school. She remembers the example of Rosie Lundy, the public-health nurse who worked in the Springhill neighborhood.
    "That's what I wanted to do; she had such a kind heart," Filer says.
    At Lincoln High School she made friends with a group of students who excelled academically, who pushed each other to be the best.
    "I still have them as friends," she says.
    With her husband Delano Filer, she helped raise two sons, Delano Filer Jr. and Craig Xavier Filer, while working full-time as a nursing assistant at Shands Hospital and while going to school, first at Santa Fe Community College and later the University of Florida. She went on to earn a master's degree in education from Nova University and a master's in nursing from the University of South Florida.
    "I couldn't have done that if my husband hadn't been such a helper," she says.
    In the community she was a member of Gainesville Women for Equal Rights, the first integrated group for women in the city. The group pushed for the integration of Alachua General Hospital, and members' frequent appearances at Gainesville City Commission meetings earned them the nickname "those damn women."
    Hart-Williams says Filer is an inspiration to her.
    "For over 40 years this community has benefited from Vivian's talents," Hart-Williams says. "There's no task too big or too small for her. She'll take on anything and excel at it."
    For fun, Filer is a member of The Washington Sisters, who really are her sisters, Sarah Washington Brown and Karen Washington Johnson. In singing freedom songs, she jokes that she sings the melody because "they don't trust me with harmony."
    Dressed in colorful African garb, she shares the stories of James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar, shifting from the perfect diction she learned growing up in a home where "speak correctly" was preached daily, to take on multiple accents and dialects.
    "I'm not a once-upon-a-time storyteller," she says.
    Portia Taylor, vice president for student affairs at Santa Fe Community College, says she first met Filer when she was teaching nursing and was impressed with how she was an advocate for her students.
    "She taught her students to be advocates for their patients," Taylor says.
    Later, Taylor says, she saw the Washington Sisters sing. "And they were so good," Taylor says, "I was ready to be their agent."
    Later she got to know Filer as a storyteller and as a community activist.
    "All these different layers of Vivian would come out, and she continues to amaze me with her abilities," Taylor says. "This woman has no boundaries, no limits."
    Filer says she appreciates the honor of entering the hall of fame and of entering with two men she considers icons, pioneers in the community. She also appreciates the contributions of the man whose name is attached to the honor.
    "I think Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. handed down this plan, that if we'd followed it, we'd be much further along in the area of human rights," Filer says.
    Dr. Edgar Allen Cosby Leslie Cosby says her late husband, Dr. Edgar Cosby, loved dentistry so much, he never really retired.
    "He went to work the day he was admitted to the hospital," she says.
    Cosby died Aug. 22, 2004, after serving in Gainesville for nearly 50 years, working most of that time from an office building on the corner of NW 7th Avenue and NW 6th Street, which was also home to fellow-honoree Dr. Cullen Banks.
    Cosby was born in Philadelphia and went to high school in Chicago. He met his future wife when they were both students at Fisk University in Nashville. Leslie Cosby says before heading to college her husband had hoped to turn his love of the saxophone into a career in music.
    Those aspirations were tempered by a dose of reality. A group of his friends hit the road with a musical combo, and it wasn't long before friends and relatives back in Chicago were taking up a collection to help buy them tickets home.
    "He decided he'd better change from music to science, and he never looked back," she says.
    Leslie Cosby's father, Dr. J.A. Parker, was one of Gainesville's early black physicians. One Christmas while in college she invited her future husband home to meet the family.
    "He'd never seen green in the wintertime before," she recalls. "That sold him."
    After he finished dental school at Meharry Medical College, he did a residency at Homer G. Phillips Teaching Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. He came to Gainesville to set up a practice in 1950. He served two years as an Army dentist in Germany from 1952-54, and then came back to Gainesville to stay. He got involved in the community and active with Greater Bethel AME Church, the NAACP, the Elks and more.
    He and Leslie raised three children - Leslie Carolyn Edwards, now living in Rochester, N.Y., Dr. Joyce Y. Cosby-Harris, now living Atlanta and Edna Jean Cosby, now in Kansas City, Mo.
    Along the way Cosby made history, as did his wife. Leslie Cosby was the first black academic teacher at Gainesville High School. Edgar Cosby was the first black member of the State of Florida Board of Dentistry. When they would attend social events with colleagues, they were often the only faces of color in the crowd.
    "We had each other, and he was such an outgoing person," she says.
    And while he was making history, he was also capturing it one picture at a time. Leslie Cosby says her husband purchased a camera while he was serving in the Army in Germany, and photography became more than a mere hobby.
    Parades, school assemblies, banquets, meetings, wherever he went the camera came along. She says she still has shelves and closets of pictures to sort, but they won't be going to waste.
    "His life's work has been donated to the library at the University of Florida," she says.
    Former County Commissioner Tom Coward says Cosby wasn't flamboyant, but worked hard behind the scenes on many issues. "His influence was effective," Coward says.
    Hart-Williams says Cosby's impact went well beyond his professional life.
    "He became a counselor and and mentor to many young people in the area," Hart-Williams says.
    He joins his daughter, Joyce Y. Cosby-Edwards, who entered the hall of fame in 2002. The two practiced dentistry together full-time from 1981 to 1995 and part-time until her father's death.
    She says it's a great honor to have her father enter the hall of fame. Growing up in Gainesville, she says she could see first-hand how active and involved he was over so many years. Leslie Cosby says she knows her husband would appreciate the award.
    "He'd be so very proud," she says. "It's a humbling thing to be honored by your peers, by the people you've looked up to, to have look up to you."
    Dr. Cullen Wadworth Banks Dr. Cullen Banks broke the medical color barrier, becoming the first black physician to gain privileges at Alachua General Hospital.
    Banks, born in Texas, grew up in Palatka and Orlando. He went to Wilberforce College in Ohio, then on to Howard University for medical school. But it was Dr. James A. Long in Palatka, a physician he describes as a friend and mentor, who steered him back to Florida and a practice that would span more than a half century in Gainesville.
    "The outlook for medicine appeared to be much better in Gainesville than in Palatka," says the 80-year-old Banks.
    But that didn't mean it was easy. He was the first black physician to receive privileges at Alachua General Hospital, which in 1949 was the county's only hospital.
    "There were some doctors hoping not to see me do well, but that's not how it turned out," he says with a smile.
    The doctor, who would deliver hundreds and hundreds of babies in his career, found separate and very unequal medical facilities at AGH. Black maternity patients were housed in rooms above the hospital boiler room.
    "In the summertime the temperature in that set of rooms would climb to 115 degrees," he says.
    So Banks fought for changes. When black babies needed incubators, he made sure they were there. For nearly 25 years, he was the only black physician practicing in Gainesville.
    Coward, a fellow hall of fame member, says Banks had a great influence in the medical community and in Gainesville as a whole. Hart-Williams concurs.
    "He opened the doors for others to come in," Hart-Williams says. "He went beyond his call in service to the black community. When there was a need, he didn't hesitate to answer it."
    Former Alachua County Commissioner Charles Chestnut III, who was inducted into hall of fame in 1989, knew Banks both as a patient and as a friend. Chestnut recalled Banks battle to gain privileges at AGH. He also remembers his role as an adviser to the local NAACP Youth Council, of which Chestnut was president.
    "He was a very serious person; his demeanor was not one of confrontation, his demeanor was more that of a strategist," Chestnut says
    He says Banks aim was to bring about change, but also assure the safety of the young people who were involved. Chestnut says Banks' role as a leader served as an example for him and many other young people at the time.
    Banks' community involvement is extensive. He served on the board of directors of the Gainesville Boys and Girls Clubs and the board of trustees of Greater Bethel AME Church, where he's been a member for 46 years.
    When construction began for the hospital that would become North Florida Regional Medical Center, Banks was a member of the board of directors. A life member of NAACP, he also worked with the Sickle Cell Foundation, Acorn Clinic, One Church, One Child of Florida and many more.
    Banks and his wife, LaKay, raised three children - son Barry Banks, who lives in Gainesville; Garry Banks, who now lives in Niceville; and daughter Colleen Banks, in Virginia Beach, Va.
    He continued to practice medicine until his retirement in 1995. He still lives in town and still enjoys an occasional round of golf with friends. He considers entering the hall of fame and honor, especially considering its namesake.
    "Martin Luther King Jr. was the No. 1 person in this country as far as race relations," Banks says.
    Gary Kirkland can be reached at (352) 338-3104 or

    2005 INDUCTEES

    Dr. Cullen Wadsworth Banks

    Dr. Edgar Allen Cosby

    Vivian Washington Filer


    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1987)

    Savannah Williams (1988)

    The Rev. T.A. Wright (1988)

    Charles S. Chestnut III (1989)

    Musheerah Shahid (1990)

    Rosa B. Williams (1991)

    Dr. C.W. Norton (1992)

    A. Quinn Jones Sr. (1993)

    Susie Mae White (1994)

    Thomas Coward (1995)

    The Rev. James Cato (1995)

    Dr. C. Arthur "Art" Sandeen (1996)

    Russell Henry (1997)

    Virgil Hawkins Jr. (1998)

    Barbara Higgins (1999)

    Joseph Judge (2000)

    Floretta Vinson Allen (2001)

    Dr. Joyce Yvette Cosby (2002)

    Joseph Marcus Buchanan (2002)

    Lucille B. Perkins (2003)

    Carol W. Thomas (2003)

    Pearlie Mae Stephens-Hunt (2003)

    Harriet Ludwig (2004)

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