Barbara Jean Cliffin Sharpe was a 5-foot-2-inch fireball with the ability to empathize with whomever she encountered, but better known for being the first Black woman since Reconstruction to sit on the school board for Alachua County Public Schools.
She sat on the board for 16 years and presided over Florida’s 67 counties as president for the Florida School Boards Association.
Sharpe, 84, died surrounded by her family, on Feb. 8 at the E.T. York Haven Hospice in Gainesville after developing Lewy Body Dementia.
As a school board member, Sharpe wanted to make sure that there was a level playing field for children, family and colleagues recalled. She wanted every child to know that they could be successful and live a life full of abundance.
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Sharpe’s youngest daughter, Leslie Sharpe Chestnut, said her mom had a superpower of being able to connect with people and she used that power to create impact in the community.
“When she said she was going to do something, she did it. When she said she wasn’t going to do something, she didn’t. But she fought for everybody,” Chestnut said.
Sharpe also loved fashion, sometimes wearing a bracelet on her wrist that would snake its way up her arm or perhaps a blouse with a belt tied around her waist.
“She’s just this beautiful soul. She’s beautiful period. Just to physically look at her, I mean gorgeous and the figure of any bombshell. But it was her spirit, inside is where her beauty really shined,” Chestnut said.
A huge accomplishment for Sharpe was helping to create The Florida Healthy Kids Corp. in the county. It was established by the school board in 1990 as a partnership to meet the medical needs of approximately 500,000 children in the state who did not qualify for health insurance.
Sharpe was born on May 13, 1937. She moved to Gainesville from Putnam County after she had graduated from high school. After completing seventh grade at Central Academy, she was offered the chance to move up to the tenth grade. However, she wanted to stay close with her friends so she negotiated with her parents to move her up to ninth grade.
She was married to Clevern “Cleve” Sharpe Jr. for 60 years, who survives her. Together the two ran the Pit Stop Convenience Store, on Northwest Fourth Street, in the 1980s.
Sharpe was elected as a school board member in 1992 where she served until 2012 when school board member Leanetta McNealy unseated her in the election.
Sharpe received her Associate in Science degree from Santa Fe Community College, she obtained her Bachelor of Science degree from Nova Southeastern University and was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
However to her three daughters, Debra King, Tami Mckinnon and Leslie Sharpe Chestnut, she was just “Mommy.”
“She took her role as a parent very seriously… it was a role she couldn’t fail in and she didn’t,” Chestnut said.
Chestnut, 58, said growing up she and her sisters thought their mom rocked: she was beautiful, she was someone who was fun to be around and they were proud daughters. Sharpe had always told her daughters to act with dignity and do their best in whatever they choose to do.
“Do your best because you’re representing yourself, and you represent a family, but it’s not like I want you to be a lawyer or be a doctor. It was never that kind of pressure,” Chestnut said. “It was more pride and she just wanted him to make sure she was at everything because she was at everything for us.”
A saying that her mother left that will always stick with Chestnut is “Nobody is better than you, but you are not better than anyone else.”
“The second part of that keeps you grounded. And that is just something that we live by, and we just reinforce with our own with our own kids,” Chestnut said.
Sharpe’s funeral will be held Friday at 11 a.m. at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. The family asks that due to COVID-19, everyone in attendance wear a facial covering.