Legacy wall honors longtime change agent Chloe Coney

Chloe Coney is known in Tampa as the woman of many hats. She does not go unnoticed in the elegant and stylish hats that are her signature look.

She grew up in the tradition of strong Black women for whom Sunday church services means dressing out in their best finery. The hats speak of pride, culture, and overcoming slave history. Coney remembers sitting in church pews admiring the beautiful hats worn by her great-grandmother, grandmother, and her late mother, Mary Mitchell. 

But the title that Coney most likes to hear is that she is a change agent for making her community better.

The Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa -- an organization Coney founded in 1992 -- honored Coney Feb. 18 with the ceremonial unveiling of a legacy wall that commemorates a lifetime of her accomplishments as that change agent.

The CDC of Tampa’s mission is to fight against poverty and inequity through housing, job training, financial education, and leadership development. 

“She is a true blessing to this community,” says U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. 

The Congresswoman and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor were among about 75 dignitaries, family, and friends who attended the ceremony at the CDC of Tampa on Hillsborough Avenue.

Coney donated dozens of her hats -- from a collection in the hundreds -- for sale to raise money for youth programs sponsored by the CDC.

She was overwhelmed by the legacy wall, designed and created by Artist Ersula K. Odom.

“She did a phenomenal job,” says Coney. “This legacy wall will live beyond me. When I’m gone, people will look at the wall, and I’m praying, they’ll see things there and it will encourage the next generation.”

Dozens of people from Coney’s life are included in the photographic collage, including Audrey Spotford for whom the Audrey L. Spotford Family and Youth Center in East Tampa is named; Toni Watts, the CDC’s first employee and former chief executive officer; community activist and former USF student ombudsman Samuel Wright; U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

“You cannot do this work alone,” Coney says.

Coney’s life is one of firsts.

She was the first Black baby born in the formerly all-white hospital in Punta Gorda n 1950. She was one of three Black students to integrate Hillsborough County schools in 1963. She graduated with honors from Hillsborough High School in 1968. She was the first Black woman probation and parole officer hired in Hillsborough County, in 1972. She was the court service supervisor for George Edgecomb, the first Black Hillsborough County judge.

Coney worked in the private sector on occasion. And for a decade she was Congresswoman Castor’s district director. But her first love is always nonprofits that deliver community services.

She was center manager for the Lee Davis Neighborhood Service Center, which still provides social and medical services for the East Tampa community. 

As a neighborhood activist, Coney organized marches against drugs to drive the drug dealers from the streets of East Tampa.

Mayor Jane Castor, then a Tampa police officer, recalled Coney’s ability to bring people together from the community and law enforcement to “take back the streets.”

“It was more than getting together in the community. It was a show of strength by the community that provided the strength and determination to say enough is enough,” says Castor. “Chloe was the tip of that spear. She was the one who organized everyone.” 

The marches shut down the notorious Rabbit's Foot bar, which became the location for the Spotford youth center. The center provides educational services, mentoring, and scholarships for students. Coney served as chief executive officer of the CDC of Tampa from its founding in 1992 until her retirement in 2006. Her son, Ernest Coney, Jr., Is the current chief executive officer.

He marched with his mother and recalled the threats she got from drug dealers. He also recalls his mother sitting at a table writing out the speeches from Nehemiah describing his work to rebuild Jerusalem. And she talked about wanting to bring a business to East Tampa.

“That later was brought into the CDC and today we have a legacy,” he says.

Among the CDC’s accomplishments was the Nehemiah Project, which included the Nehemiah Coin Laundromat and an ice cream shop. The East Tampa Business Center also opened on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and the CDC built several apartment complexes in East Tampa.

The CDC continued its tradition of closing notorious night spots when it purchased a nightclub on Hillsborough Avenue. It became CDC headquarters, renamed the Chloe Coney Urban Enterprise Center. A building donated to the CDC, also on Hillsborough, became headquarters for the Suncoast Federal Credit Union.

Odom says she was honored to be asked by Coney -- a longtime friend -- to design the legacy wall. She is a motivational speaker, writer and does in-character performances as educator and civil rights icon Mary McLeod Bethune.

“I am overwhelmed with gratitude,” Odom says.

She told the audience at the ceremony the legacy wall represents only a beginning: “Because you are going to tell the rest of the story.”

To learn more, visit the CDC of Tampa (Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa).
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Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.