ST. PETERSBURG – As part of this year’s Black Heritage Festival, the inaugural Legacy Luncheon took place at Empath Health Sat., Feb. 6. Thinking that they were there to celebrate the legacies of their fathers, the honorees were surprised to hear their names called by former Mayor Rick Baker to receive their awards.
The Legacy Award for Business went to Lyn Johnson, publisher and editor of The Weekly Challenger newspaper. Her father, Cleveland Johnson, Jr., scrapped up $40 to buy a weekly advertiser back in 1967, changed the name and almost 50 years later it remains the number one news source for African-American news in Pinellas County.
Cleveland focused on positive news in the black community and repeated said that if you wanted to read bad news about African Americans to pick up the St. Pete Times, but if you were interested in the heart of the community, pick up The Challenger.
Johnson passed away in 2001 and Lyn became publishing editor in 2012. Since her time at the helm, she has succeeded in expanding the paper and increasing its presence online.
“It’s not just a newspaper,” Baker said in lauding The Challenger’s role in the community, “it’s a voice.”
Pastor Ricardo Welch received the Legacy Award for the Faith Community. Ricardo, the senior pastor of Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ, comes from one of the city’s oldest families. His grandparents, Flagmon and Gussie Welch, arrived in St. Petersburg in 1917 from Alachua County, and his father, Clarence, pastored Prayer Tower from 1964 until his death in 2013.
Last year Ricardo suffered a devastating loss as his three daughters were all killed in a car accident.
Rafael Scuillo, CEO of Empath Health, presented a Special Recognition to Ricardo along with memorial plaques of his daughters, LaMour, India and Tehira, to hang on the wall of Empath Health next to the fountain dedicated to his father.
“They constantly gave back to our community, really in line with the mission of Empath Health,” Scuillo said, “whether it was through school giveaway programs, working within the churches, or certainly volunteering for Suncoast Hospice and helping us positively impact the way people live and the way they die. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
“He has served our community in so many ways,” Baker said of Ricardo before presenting him with the award.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch received the Legacy Award for Public Service. Also descended from Flagmon and Gussie Welch, Ken’s father David was the second African American to serve on the St. Pete City Council, and also owned a successful accountant firm.
“I had the honor of serving as mayor at the same time he was serving on the county commission. And what I was able to observe was his heart,” Baker said in lauding the efforts of Commissioner Welch.
Keynote speaker for the afternoon was Dr. Forrest Harris, Sr., president of the American Baptist College in Nashville, Tenn. He is an associate professor in the practice of ministry at Vanderbilt University and Director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies.
In his speech called “Faith and Fire,” he noted that American’s legacy is one racism and hate.
He said America has been caught up in the “Obama reality,” explaining that the reality is our nation’s inability to be honest with itself and to face the hard truths of its own weaknesses of resurfacing and recycling racial scarring never healed by justice.
“The hard reality is,” he said, “that we are living and possibly will die with illusions of our justice and our democracy.”
We as a nation must recognize “our better selves,” he said. And if every generation is to have a better self, it must reconnect with the legacy of faith and fire.
“Fire that illuminates the faith, and a faith that keeps the fire burning,” Harris said. “Faith can grow cold and dead. And I think what is happening in America is we don’t have faith in ourselves anymore—as a nation, not as individuals.”
Referencing such figures as activist James Lawson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he noted the need for a new moral existence that will serve the next generation. What can be said about a legacy of fire and faith? I think it has deep roots in the character of those whose immortality and witness remains audible even today, Harris said. They may be dead, yet the legacy of their fire, the immersion in love and devotion they left with us still speaks today.
“For those that you immortalized today with memorial plaques, we ought to celebrate their fire!” he said, to applause.
That’s what our Legacy Luncheon is all about, proclaimed Karen Davis-Pritchett of Empath Health. Recognizing and honoring those who are not afraid “to take that baton” from their ancestors and continue to make an impact not only in the African-American community but also for all Pinellas citizens.