Greater Mt. Zion’s Black History Worship Celebration

BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Pastor Clarence Williams and the Greater Mt. Zion AME family pulled out all the stops last Sunday with their fifth annual Black History Worship Celebration.

Although this congregation celebrates African-American history all year long, bringing some of the greatest minds to St. Pete during their MLK Lecture Series every January, this year Chairperson Orlando Pizana and the black history committee secured education activist and noted scholar Dr. Yohuru Williams, Ph.D.

Before Williams electrified the congregation, D’Errica Daniels paid tribute to former slave turned entrepreneur Elder Jordan Sr., for whom the Jordan Park Housing Development is named after.

Unsure of his birthplace and the exact birthday, Jordan, Sr. was born into slavery and was manumitted at the age of 15 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Proclamation Emancipation in 1863.

Leaving behind a successful farm in North Florida in fear of reprisal for hiding a black man from white vigilantes, he and his wife along with their children settled in St. Pete in 1904. He sold fruit and vegetables, owned a livery stable and operated a bus line that carried African-American passengers all over the Tampa Bay area long before there were bridges.

This self-made man bought land by bidding on tax deeds, and he and his five sons: Elder, Jr., Basha, McKinley, Christopher and Harry built single-family homes, rooming houses, opened Jordan Beach, the first black beach in St. Pete, and cleared the land on 22nd Street, which paved the way for other businesses to open, many with his financial help.

In 1925, he and his sons contracted with R.L. Sharpe to build a 12,000 square foot two-story building on the 600 block of 22nd Street. Originally meant to be apartments and a service station, it came to be known as the Jordan Dance Hall. By the mid-1940s, it was renamed the Manhattan Casino.

“It was his demeanor and apt for business that earned him respect amongst the races during a time when racial tensions were high and segregation was the norm,” said Daniels.

In a personal effort to assist low-income residents, he donated land to the city that eventually became Jordan Park public housing.

Before he died in 1936, he fought for a school to be erected for black children, which became known as Jordan Elementary. Jordan Sr. is buried in the historic Lincoln Cemetery.

Jordan’s grandson Basha Jordan, Jr. gave some insight into the life of African Americans living in Jim Crow St. Petersburg when lynching was the order of the day.

“After they lynched him they cut off his fingers and toes and gave them to their children for souvenirs,” said Jordan, Jr. about the murder his father witnessed in downtown St. Pete as a child.

“We are living in an age today where there are still some semblances of that type of activity only it’s covert rather than overt. I thank God for Mt. Zion and your pastor and for you all addressing these issues.”

Once Williams took the microphone, the church had no idea they would be getting a sermon wrapped up in a history lesson.

“We like to talk about people as if they achieved greatness solely by the fruits of their own achievements or their own education, but not by their faith,” said Williams. “Every one of the great black leaders that I talk about were all men and women of faith.”

Greater Mount Zion Black History Month youth, featured

Much of his lecture was focused on the youth. He warned of the dangers of telling young people that they stand on the shoulders of giants and creating unreasonable expectations for them to follow.  He feels this will lead them to believe that people that came before them were somehow superheroes.

“We talk about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. as if they were the Avengers, as if they wore capes as if magically they had courage and strength that allowed them to overcome simply because they were exceptional human beings,” he averred.

The fact of the matter is, he said, they were afraid in those moments when their faith was tested. They asked for guidance through prayer and sought solace in the company of others.

“To overcome, they had to believe that there was a power greater than themselves leading that struggle,” said Williams, who is a dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

He focused on three definitions of the word “giant.” The first definition said a giant was an imagery and mythical being of human form but of superhuman size.

“Martin Luther King was not a giant. He was shorter than me,” Williams laughed, noting that God gave him the gift of captivating his audience with his words.

“He realized the importance to speak in the social justice truth of power and he used that power to manifest glory on earth and to edify a people who have been downtrodden. That’s what made him a giant.”

The second definition of the word “giant” he gave was an abnormally tall or large person animal or plant.

“Rosa Parks was a tiny woman,” he said.

Despite the fact that she’s usually portrayed as an old woman whose feet were tired, Parks was only 42 years old when she refused to give up her seat.

“This wasn’t some act of defiance that grew out of the fact that her feet were tired on this particular afternoon,” said Williams, as he explained Parks was an activist and her actions were deliberate.

She was a member of the Women’s Council that was looking for an opportunity to raise the issue of segregation on the buses; she was the secretary of the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and she was a member of the NAACP.

“It wasn’t an accident what happened on that bus,” he said.

The third definition said a giant is a very large company or organization.

“You don’t need an army to start a revolution,” he stated, citing the four young men who sat at the lunch counters in North Carolina and the two young men who started the Black Panther Party.

“I don’t need 600 people; I’ll take 60 as long as you’re committed.”

Still focusing in on young people, Williams said we often talk about the Civil Rights Movement in the contexts of great men and woman, but rarely are the children mentioned.

He gave the example of the Little Rock Nine. These nine African-American students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957 but were initially prevented from entering by the governor of Arkansas. Not until President Eisenhower intervened were they allowed to attend the school.

They had food thrown in their faces and were subjected to physical and verbal abuse every day. The youngest of the group listed in her New Year’s resolution that she would do her “best to stay alive to May 29.”

Melba Joy Pattillo Beals recognized how deadly it was for her to attend school.

“All she wants to do is go to school and have the opportunity to get that education,” said Williams, who told the children to think about her words when it was time to get up for school on Monday morning.

He went on to talk about the historical amnesia our society has developed and the dangers of not remembering our history.

“It is a travesty that the King Holiday is an occasion for a white sale at Macy’s. People that know nothing about Dr. King, nothing about his message or the legacy of the movement, but we’re celebrating 20 percent off,” he said, noting that they don’t even have people of color in their ads.

Williams said the danger in historical amnesia is when people like conservative talk show host Glenn Beck in 2010 made a speech saying that it was time to reclaim the Civil Rights Movement because it has been so distorted and turned upside down that it’s an abomination.

“What Civil Rights Movement is he talking about,” asked Williams. “This is what I mean about losing the connection to our history to the point that the people in the past somehow become movies and the violence becomes unreal.”

Williams went on to discuss the Trump presidency, the Black Lives Matter Movement, social and economic injustice and the importance of the black church.

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