Mary Toney was born in 1933 and moved to Sebring as a toddler. She graduated from E. O. Douglas High School in Sebring, class of 1951.
At 48, she worked as a school bus driver and decided to run for City Council. Not exactly the background you’d expect for a politician. However, she was active in the NAACP and wanted to make a difference in her community. She turned that ambition into action.
When she won the election in 1981, she was only the second black candidate to ever run in Sebring — and the first to win. To put this into context, even though blacks comprised about 30% of the population, the first black VOTER to cast a ballot in Highlands County wasn’t until 1946! Almost 80 years after the 15th Amendment!
There had only been one previously elected black official in the county. Robert Britt was the first black man elected in the county; he served one term on the Avon Park city council in 1973.
Toney served a total of six terms between 1981 and 1992. Mary was a staunch advocate for her home community, the historically black Washington Heights neighborhood. There is a small park named in her honor for her efforts to improve the neglected area during her tenure.
However, she was not one-note and advocated for many causes around the city, including pushing for the sale of Sebring Utilities (remember the “Sell SUC Now” signs?). She overcame her poor background, endured many personal hardships, and helped break down barriers to get the black community to be more politically and community-minded.
It is always hard for the “first” because, as Mary often voiced, there is added pressure. After all, your success or failure will be counted for or against your entire race. It’s not just about you and your legacy but impacts all who follow.
Mary died in 2010 and should be remembered for her tenacity in facing struggles and prejudice. She had uphill battles from both within her community and those who did not think it was worth giving city resources. But she never gave up!