When Barack Obama became America’s first black president, pundits said real progress would come when people stop using such phrases.
But it was a big deal 30 years ago this week, on March 25, 1982, when West Palm Beach got its first black mayor.
The city was only a few decades from the era when newspapers — including, sadly, this one — still identified people as “James Jones, negro … ”
“I am not proud of the fact that I am the first black mayor of West Palm Beach,” Eva Williams Mack said when other city commissioners selected her. “As I think back over the years, I remember the many black men and black women who tried and failed in their attempts to win election to this commission.”
The position was mostly ceremonial at the time. West Palm Beach had abandoned the “strong mayor” post early in the 20th century. It wasn’t until Nancy Graham in 1991 that the concept returned.
In between, two other African-Americans served as mayor: Sam Thomas (1986-1987) and James Poole (1989-1991).
“In my time,’’ Mack once said, “blacks had no choice.”
Until 1978, West Palm Beach had a de facto segregated commission. There were no districts. Most of the five commissioners lived south of Southern Boulevard, and each commissioner was white.
But that year, commissioners had to run by district, and Mack and Ruby Bullock were voted in. They’d each failed twice earlier.
“I was sick of going down to the city commission every time something needed to be done for the community, which was almost all the time,’’ she said.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., on Feb. 19, 1915, Mack had come to West Palm Beach in 1948. She was a public health nurse for 26 years, then a Florida A&M University instructor, then the first health specialist for the Palm Beach County School Board.
She lobbied for health classes in all grades, including courses in sex education, and she helped change the policy of expelling pregnant students.
Mack was mayor for two one-year terms and was on the commission until 1985. She died at 81 on June 3, 1998, at her home on Beautiful Street in Pleasant City.
West Palm Beach Mayor Eva Mack prepares to throw out the first ball of the 1983 spring training season as Braves owner Ted Turner looks on. She was elected mayor by her fellow commissioners in 1982. (Palm Beach Post staff file photo)