Deborah Edmonds was the first African American to chair the West Kentucky Community and Technical College Board of Regents. Since, the lifelong Paducahan has become the first African American chair of the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce. “Being the first African American has not been something that stood out for me until it was pointed out,” she said. “My intent has always been to give service back to my community and to serve all.”
State Rep. Gerald Watkins, D-Paducah, said Edmonds is a history-maker nonetheless. “Deborah comes from a wonderful Christian family and she has earned and deserves the honors that have come to her for her accomplishments,” said Watkins, a professor of political science at WKCTC. “The fact that she is the first African American to hold these positions of leadership is noteworthy.”
A retired insurance agent, Edmonds won’t reveal her age. “But I’ll give you a hint— I was one of the first black elected cheerleaders at Tilghman High School,” she said.
Edmonds grew up in the tail end of the Jim Crow era in Paducah when segregation and race discrimination were the law and the social order. “But my father taught me that no matter what, you were supposed to give back to your community. That’s what I’m trying to do at the college and at the chamber.”
Her father was the late Harold Alston, a realtor and founder of the first African American real estate business in the city. His daughter is especially proud of his service in World War II as an electronics technician in the Army Air Force’s 332nd Fighter Group. Better known as the “Tuskegee Airmen,” the 332nd and 477th Bombardment group were the first African American aviators in U.S. history.
Edmonds wants to see more owners of small businesses, like her father’s firm and hers, get involved in the chamber. But she confessed that when she joined the chamber a dozen years ago, she wasn’t sold on its benefits to business owners like her.
“I wasn’t active in the chamber at first,” she said. “But Danny Murphy, who was an attorney in town, convinced me to get active—to get on boards and start going to the breakfasts. When I did, I discovered the chamber is a great place for networking for small business people like me.”
Edmonds said her top priority as chamber chair is working to help reopen one of the region’s largest businesses—the giant gaseous diffusion plant that was operated by the United States Enrichment Corp. “We need to get those good jobs back.”
Edmonds said she is open to working with area unions to keep and attract good jobs to the region. Her husband, Eddie Edmonds, works at the Ashland Specialty Chemicals company in Calvert City and belongs to the International Association of Machinists Local 1720.
Edmonds also said that a good transportation network is vital to luring industries to any area. “I’d like to see U.S. 60 widened out to the Commerce Park and to see improvements on the interchange between U.S. 60 and I-24.”
When Edmonds was born, there was no I-24 and the chamber was all white, like most of the city’s business community. “I was born at home because I couldn’t be born in the hospital. The doctor lived around the corner.”
Her father helped break down segregation in the business community. “My dad did not see color but only to help people become homeowners,” she said.
“I know he was a good real estate agent. When I retired, I thought I was a good agent. But now I know I was because several of my clients still call me with insurance questions. When they buy a new car, home, get married or have a new baby, they ask me what kind of insurance they should get.”