Betty Marshall remembers visiting a Martin County dentist as a teen in the late 1960s and discovering his office had two entrances: One for whites, and one for blacks.
It was unfair and infuriating, but not especially unusual to a young black girl living in rural Florida.
“My adopted parents worked in the fields; I picked tomatoes for about $1 an hour,” says Marshall, now 67. “It was difficult, but you made it work. We did what we had to.”
For Marshall, that meant focusing on school, church, and, later, her teaching career. She would go on to become a highly regarded special education teacher –- twice named “Teacher of the Year” -- and a key player in the development of Special Olympics Florida - Martin County.
Over four decades, Marshall served in virtually every capacity possible with the organization. She coached, volunteered, and helped raise money. She was a mentor, a friend, and a mother figure. In 2019, she became the first woman of color inducted into the Special Olympics Florida Hall of Fame.
Though Marshall has stepped away from active volunteering, she still works with her god-daughter, a Special Olympics Florida athlete with autism.
“I take her to the store. She loves going to Publix,” said Marshall. “We have a good time.”
Marshall credits her success to her parents who taught her the importance of hard work, and to a prominent St. Lucie County educator named Queen Townsend. Townsend, a black teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, and interim superintendent, showed Marshall a determined black woman could outwit, outwork, and overcome systemic racism.
“I got to spend a lot of time with her and I thought, ‘I want to grow up and be just like you,’” Marshall said. “She inspired me to do something with my life.”
So Marshall became the first college graduate in her family then began a teaching career. In the late 1970s, while completing a teaching internship, she attended a Special Olympics Florida event. She watched in awe as athletes competed, celebrated, and laughed together. She was overwhelmed by the love and sense of camaraderie.
“I came back with such a good feeling,” she says. “I knew it was something I wanted to be part of.”
That was more than 40 years ago.
Looking back, Marshall is grateful society has become more inclusive of people with intellectual disabilities and proud that she and Special Olympics Florida have played a role in that. Our mission to foster respect and acceptance has enabled athletes from across the state to imagine and achieve remarkable things.
That work must continue, Marshall said, so everyone can reach their full potential.
“We’ve come a long way,” she said. “But we still have a long way to go.”