Fall 2018

Saint Leo and the Billings Family Story

When Saint Leo University celebrated its 125-year anniversary in 2014, Dr. Heather Parker contributed to the commemoration by starting a local oral history project that focused on people and families who were involved with Saint Leo down through the generations. This work parallels her own, more focused scholarly research into the relationship between African-Americans living locally, who were generally from Protestant congregations, and the distinctly Catholic Saint Leo.

Dr. Heather Parker with a visual display of some of her research into Saint Leo’s early history.

Among Parker’s recorded interviews is one with Gloria Billings Roberts, who had been a Saint Leo student and employee. Her husband, Levy Roberts, was also a Saint Leo employee. Roberts grew up in the local area and attended public schools during an era of mandatory integration. Her family, the Billingses, lived nearby and had many employment connections with Saint Leo. Roberts even worked part time in the girl’s cafeteria from 1967 to 1970 while in high school. It is worth knowing that during Roberts’ childhood, it was the norm for many public schools locally to be segregated. Integration in some areas in Florida and elsewhere came about as late as 1970, prompted by a court order. The atmosphere at campus apparently differed from other environs, though. Roberts entered Saint Leo College in 1970.

Parker, now associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, asked Roberts about her college experience and about the personal and family connections with Saint Leo over many years for the oral history project.

HP: When you started at Saint Leo as a student in 1970, how many other black kids were enrolled as students, do you think?
GR: Wasn’t many. Not many of us there. In fact, I’m trying to think, did I know anybody? If there were, they were on the athletic team, and I didn’t have them … all my friends were white because at that time there wasn’t that many.
HP: But you made friends just fine. They accepted you?
GR: They accepted me just fine. Because we had the orientation, we got to meet each other whatever the case may be and there were classes. That group just jelled because that group was from the North anyway, and they were more open.
HP: What was your maiden name?
GR: Billings.
HP: So you mentioned your grandfather, who was the [orange] grove keeper.
GR: For Burkes and Burkes. His name was Frank McCoy.
HP: So Frank McCoy was your grandfather, and he worked for the Burkes?
GR: He was their grove keeper, or their foreman as they call it. In fact, we lived on the property there, right behind the college.
HP: So the Burkeses owned that grove—so it wasn’t the groves the monks kept. But (your grandfather) got to know Father Marion [Bowman], and Father Marion said ‘You have this granddaughter …’
GR: Well, his daughter. I was raised by him.
HP: And Father Marion said ‘When your daughter is ready, she can come to college,’ and he let you come basically for a song. For whatever you could pay.
GR: Books. That’s all I paid, was for books.
HP: And that’s an important story, it’s what I needed to hear because we wanted to find out the connections between the college (in whatever its forms) and the community. And your mother worked for the Montessori school with the nuns. And when did that start? Was this your grandmother?
GR: No, this was my mother. My grandmother [laughter], my grandmother worked for the Abbey. She was a cook for the Abbey.
HP: For the girls, or the nuns?
GR: No, not for the nuns, for the monks.
HP: And that was while you were growing up?
GR: Yeah, because she was there when I was in college. [My mother] also worked as a cook with my grandmother there at the Abbey. She worked there for a while as a cook, but then the nuns needed a cook, so my grandma sent her over there with the nuns. So she was a cook over at the nuns, and then they needed someone to go over to the day care, so they sent her to the day care.
HP: You were right. These connections run deep and everywhere.
GR: Basically, we’ve been around. Our family has been pretty much around with the college because of the fact that we lived right there. There was a house back in there we used to live in, so that connection was there so whenever they needed something when we were there …Father Marion would tell Daddy, and Daddy would come home and say they need this or that, or whatever the case may be, and that’s what would happen.

Jo-Ann Johnston earned her bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University (NY) and her master’s degree from Bay Path University (MA). She joined Saint Leo University in January 2008.

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