It’s late in the day on Tuesday, and an anxious stillness hangs in the air. The world is responding to a global pandemic as coronavirus has coursed its way around the world, bringing everyday life to a halt and introducing a new normal, new phrases and new awareness. It’s thrust government leaders at every level into unprecedented territory as they work to protect their residents. Those leaders include Sonya Wheeler Rich. She is the first black woman appointed to the Enterprise City Council. And she is my cousin.
I remember reading news articles about my history-making cousin and being so excited for her. Until then, I had no idea she had political aspirations, so I asked her how her journey began.
“My journey began the day I was appointed,” she said. “Prior to that, I never had any
plans to be on the city council. . . And that’s what your family prepares you for, the things you can never really fathom.”
Rich’s historic appointment was part of a series of circumstances set into motion with the resignation of former Enterprise Mayor Kenneth Boswell, who left to serve in the governor’s cabinet. Longtime District 1 Councilman William E. Cooper was then appointed mayor, leaving the District 1 seat vacant. Ordinarily the incumbent would appoint a successor, but in 2016, the council decided the change the process and allowed residents of the district to recommend a successor for the council to vote on. Rich, who had been active in a past political campaign, found that her name had come up for consideration.
“I’m active in organizations and my sorority, so I’ve always been visible in the community but not politically visible,” she said. “That was an honor for me that my name did come up. . . If people see it in you, it’s there.”
Rich serves District 1, which comprises communities where black Coffee Countians have lived for more than a century. Bennettside. Baptist Hill. And Coppinville, where my great-grandfather,J.E. Nance, lived, farmed and ran a grocery store. Rich’s grandparents, Cleveland and Nehata Gavin, were longtime District 1 residents, and she spent much of her childhood there, and made her first friends in that neighborhood. Now, years later, Rich views that neighborhood through a different lens– through the perspective of a public servant.
“It’s not just the city you live in anymore,” she said. “You’re part of the governing body that determines what happens to the city of Enterprise.”
The same wood frame homes that Rich remembered seeing in her childhood–homes passed down through generations–stand in desperate need of repair. District 1, which encompasses the oldest parts of Enterprise, contains the largest amount of nuisance property, she said. A citywide resurfacing project will soon go to bid, and most of the streets are in District 1, a much-needed improvement.
Looking back over the past three years, Rich said she never envisioned this opportunity, but truly enjoys serving her community. “You’re going to plan a lot of things,” she said. “But you just don’t really know the plan for your life. . . Once you push yourself outside of those norms or say, ‘I’m going to do something,’ you really will surprise yourself as to how you have knack for something. It provides an opportunity for growth.”
Continuing the family legacy isn’t lost on her either.
“I think I got a lot of support and good cheer because of my family’s background. My grandparents were known educators. My mother is a successful business woman…A lot of people don’t know my connection to the Nance family, or how I’m connected. I know exactly how I’m connected* and I know the influence the Nance legacy has had in the communities I now serve. It does mean something to me that I can contribute. The generations before us contributed in so many different ways– providing services, business owners, educators– Cousin Myra (Nance Riley) taught almost all of Enterprise. To be able to contribute in my own little way is special.”
*Rich’s great-great-grandmother is Ella Nance Barnes, an older sister of my great-grandfather, J.E. Nance.