The day after 19-year-old Coco Gauff’s stunning comeback victory in the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, the sanctuary at Saint John Missionary Baptist Church in Boynton Beach might as well have been the teen’s family living room.
The congregation cheered and whooped along to video highlights of the Delray Beach-native’s win. In the front pew, facing the pulpit and a large choir, Gauff’s great aunt wore a white T-shirt that read in bold: “Call me Coco.”
In his sermon, interim pastor Johnny Barber II encouraged congregants to find inspiration in Gauff’s persistence, to “open up their mouths and shout it out: ‘I am determined.'”
Gauff comes from a long legacy of determined Floridians, from athletes to civil rights leaders.
Her maternal grandmother, Yvonne Lee Odom, is a trailblazer who integrated Delray Beach public schools more than 60 years ago. She later became a classroom teacher in the city for 45 years.
“I’m just overwhelmed,” Odom said during the church service earlier this month. She was called to the pulpit to speak on behalf of the prominent family. Her father preached there for 40 years, before his death in 2001.
“I got so many texts and calls, it was like I had won a championship,” Odom said, as laughter rang through the church.
Gauff — who often mentions her mother, Candi, and her father, Corey, as her role models — paid tribute to Odom during a recent U.S. Open tennis press conference. She said her own efforts to raise awareness about athletes’ mental health challenges pale in comparison to her grandmother’s courageous actions.
“She always taught me to approach every situation with kindness and understanding,” Gauff said. “For her to go through what she did during that time is something that I think … what I do — putting out a tweet or saying a speech — is so easy compared to that.
“So that’s why I have no problem doing the things that I do,” Gauff said. “She always reminds me that I’m a person first instead of an athlete.”
When Gauff first started getting noticed as an up-and-coming tennis player, people often referred to her as Odom’s granddaughter, “because people knew me in the community,” Odom said, “all the people I taught and everything … Little League, football, and all that kind of stuff.
“And then it got the reverse,” Odom said, laughing. “So now I’m known as Coco’s grandmother.”
In August, dozens of supporters snapped a group photo in front of a portrait of Coco Gauff hanging on the walls of the Delray Beach City Hall. During a commission meeting that day, the group took up half the chamber. Yvonne Lee Odom was being honored with a “Back to School Day Proclamation.”
Vice Mayor Ryan Boylston shared an anecdote about meeting an Australian fan in a barbershop during a family trip to New Zealand. After a quick chat about Gauff, Boylston told the man he knew her grandmother, Odom, and the man replied, “I’ve read about her.”
“Think about that,” Boylston said in the chamber. “I’m halfway across the world!”
Integrating Palm Beach County schools
In 1961, Odom left the all-Black Carver High School to attend the all-white Seacrest High School. (It’s now Atlantic Community High School.) It was seven years after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools.
The local newspaper headline at the time: “Negro Student Integrated Quietly at Seacrest High.”
Odom, who attended proms and reunions at both Carter and Seacrest, praised the city but stressed how segregation hurt Black students.
“To my white colleagues, we were indoctrinated to believe that we weren’t as good as you, we could not do what you did, we couldn’t think the same way. And, remember, we couldn’t play basketball,” Odom said during a short, witty speech at the meeting.
“But the three years that I spent there with my white colleagues, I was like, ‘I’m smarter than a lot of these kids,'” she said, as she and those gathered in the chamber chuckled along.
William Holland, Sr., of West Palm Beach, was the county’s first Black American attorney. He filed a lawsuit in 1956, when the all-White Northboro Elementary School refused to enroll his 6-year-old son William Jr. It turned into a class-action lawsuit in 1960, which eventually forced the county to comply with the Supreme Court’s landmark legislation.
Odom’s father was on a committee that aimed to “recruit black students to attend white schools in Jupiter, Lake Worth and what was then Palm Beach Junior College” (now Palm Beach State College), according to a 1994 Sun Sentinel report.
Breaking segregation barriers in Delray Beach
Odom said she was deemed the ideal candidate to integrate Delray schools. She was 15, a sophomore. It was just a few months after then-6-year-old Ruby Bridges had broken a similar barrier in Louisiana.
Odom said traffic that day was blocked off when her father dropped her at school, mid-morning, as other students were already in class. A white student, Paula White Adams, volunteered to hold Odom’s hand and escort her to class. The Sun Sentinel brought the two back together again more than 30 years later, as part of a Black History Month project.
They sparked a friendship before Adam passed away a few years ago.
“As a kid, I thought it was nice that she took me to my class,” Odom said.” She took me to my first class. Seacrest had windows that took up most of a wall and I could see the kids looking at me as I walked down the hall,” she added.
“They had a seat waiting for me. It was the second seat from the front. And I made it my business to attend everything [school activities] I could.”
A couple days after the Delray Beach City Commission meeting honoring Odom, city officials and her family celebrated her at a gathering at the Delray Beach Golf Club.
“I look at it like Jackie Robinson,” Odom told me after the gathering, comparing herself to the baseball legend who integrated the major leagues in 1947.
“Jackie Robinson was not the best ball player among all the African-Americans that played the sport,” she added. “But he was the best they felt that could endure the insults, which they knew were coming.” (Baseball historians agree.)
It’s not surprising that Odom drew parallels between herself and a sports pioneer. The family’s athletic legacy looms large: Odom herself played basketball. Her husband — Coco Gauff’s grandfather — is baseball player Eddie “Red” Odom. He owns a local little league and was roommates with baseball legend Houston Astros Manager Dusty Baker.
Candi Gauff — Odom’s daughter, and Coco’s mother — ran track at Florida State University. And Coco’s father, Corey Gauff, played basketball for Georgia State University.
Odom remembers that school administrators at Seacrest told her to use the faculty bathroom.
“And I refused that — I told them I’m using the same restroom everybody else is using,” Odom said. “They didn’t put me in a P.E. class. Now, that, I didn’t have a choice, initially. But later on, I went to my counselor myself. I told her, ‘Look, you gotta put me in a P.E class. Remember, I told you, I was an athlete.’ And so they did that.”
“My feelings were of confidence,” said said with a laugh.
Odom’s younger sister, Brenda Lee Williams, said she was up for the challenge of integrating Delray schools.
“She was always more mature than what her age was. Because of her being the oldest sister, she had a little more responsibilities in the house than the rest of us,” Williams said. “My dad did teach school, and then he went back at night and taught night school. You know, this was our early upbringing.”
Their father, the late Rev. R.M. Lee, raised five kids on his own. In 2001, he was at the pulpit when he had the stroke that killed him. He was 80.
Odom says her father taught her the importance of faith, teamwork and determination.
“He had to sacrifice to keep us together,” Odom said. “I tried to live my life so he could be proud of me.”