The life and legacy of Elder Jordan

Elder Jordan

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Residents old and new of long standing Jordan Park came together last Fri., June 6 to honor the contributions of Elder Jordan Sr., a man who lived a few lifetimes ago, but whose gift to the City of St. Petersburg will be remembered forever.

Jordan Park is situated on 26 landscaped acres that includes 247 housing units complete with two to four bedroom models.

But few know of its humble beginnings and the man behind it. Elder Jordan, whom the housing complex is named after, was born into slavery in the mid-1800s, though the exact date is a bit sketchy. According to old stories, family members have estimated his birth in 1848, although a bust on display at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, dates his birth some 15 years later.

jordan pk kitchen cgwElder Jordan is known for erecting, along with his sons, the Jordan dance hall, which is now known as the Manhattan Casino. He was also responsible for the construction of houses and establishing a bus line and a beach for African Americans during the time of segregation here in St. Petersburg.

“Whatcha gonna leave behind,” asked Dr. Basha Jordan, Jr., the grandson of Elder Jordan, who currently splits his time between here and Baltimore. “What memories, what words of wisdom that will propel your family toward excellence [do you have]?”

As he stood in front of a small crowd at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, a place he fondly recalls being named originally after his grandfather, he was flooded with old memories. He didn’t want to recite just the same facts that could be found in any historical book on Elder Jordan, but wanted to share snippets of his past with his own father in the hopes of highlighting what a great man his grandfather was.

“For a black man to live in St. Petersburg during that time and gain the respect of whites and blacks in that era, it had to be God ordained,” preached Dr. Jordan, a pastor for 37 years.

Moving DayIndeed his grandfather started out peddling fruit, sometimes delivering door-to-door. He was even known to own his own livery stable. But it was Elder Jordan’s 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.

Dr. Jordan recalls a story passed down from his father involving a close call with the Ku Klux Klan. “You won’t find this written down,” he said as he told of a night when white supremacists came looking for his uncle for what he did to a white man who whistled at his wife. “When they approached the house that night, they changed their minds when they heard a colored man’s voice shout, ‘keep coming, we’re ready for you all.’”

The voice they heard was Elder Jordan who later used his influence with authorities to settle the dispute and avoid a violent racial conflict because during those times, lynching was still the order of the day.

Before Jordan Sr. died in 1936, he fought for a school to be erected for African Americans and Jordan Elementary, which was opened in 1925, was named after him. He was also the first chairman of the board of trustees for black schools in St. Petersburg.

He also donated land to the city which later became the Jordan Park housing development that has for years been a haven for those struggling to make ends meet and in need of a decent, safe, and sanitary place to live until they could move up and out.

So the legacy of Jordan Park was established. Residents of Jordan Park and its surrounding area attended the forum and elicited a panel discussion about what makes Jordan Park such a mainstay in the Midtown community.

School board member Renee Flowers was born and raised in St. Petersburg. She grew up with her mother and her 11 siblings in Jordan Park. She fondly recalled her summers spent helping her grandmother, who also had an apartment there.

“My grandmother was the community grandmother and mother to a lot of people. She was most known for her flips, her hand churned ice cream that I churned and candy apples,” she recalled.

Flowers reminisced about summer recreation with camp counselor Nixon and her grandmother and Mrs. Carmichael running meals on wheels for the area all out of the very building that the museum is housed in today.

“This entire community has given me so much, which is why I have no problem spending my time not looking at how tired I am or how much I give or how much I still owe to this community because I would not be the person that I am if it were not for those that have helped raised me,” she said.

Reverend Robert Perry moved to Jordan Park when he was five years old and lived there for 12 years. He attended Jordan Elementary school and played football in an open field around where the museum is now.

“I want you to know that there’s a lot of misconceptions about Jordan Park,” he said as he recalled thinking his family had moved up to the middle class when they started living there.

Like Flowers, Perry recalled a time when everybody looked out for everybody. If someone was doing wrong, there was always a neighbor that would set them straight. A community within the greater St. Petersburg community was established and a sort of extended family among its residents began to emerge.

“We cared so much about each other that we could leave our doors open and no one would break into your house,” said Rev. Perry. “I understand that has changed a lot.”

Author and The Weekly Challenger columnist Jon Wilson, known for his knowledge of historical facts involving the African-American community shared a personal story of a little boy from Nebraska who moved to the north side of town.

“The first thing my new classmate said to me was are you a yankee or are you a rebel?” recalled Wilson who admits he had little clue as to what they were going on about. “They soon began to warn me don’t go to the south side.” But being the inquisitor that he is, Wilson grabbed his bike and rode to the south side thinking he might find someone who knew Jackie Robinson.

No ill will befell Wilson that day and years later he had a chance to write some stories for the St. Petersburg Times about how people were losing their homes to eminent domain to make room for the Job Corps building.

From those articles author Rosalie Peck contacted him and asked if he’d like to write a book with her about African Americans in St. Petersburg. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Gwendolyn Reese moderated the panel discussion and kept the questions coming, but the conversation couldn’t help but make its way back to a time when the culture of togetherness was appreciated, to Friday nights of fish and grits, noisy Christmases on the streets of Jordan Park, children running around together.

“Be proud of what you have and cherish it, share it,” Flowers told the current residents explaining that by teaching the kids who live there now about the past can only encourage them to greatness. “This is not the end,” she said, “it’s a pass-through.”

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