Born on the 4th of July

By Holly Kestenis, Staff Writer

St. Petersburg – The Driftwood community is known, or unknown, for its unique neighborhood. Mostly people just drive through. They like what they see, but with only some 50 homes in the area that tend to be passed on to family members or sold word of mouth, it resembles a gated community, hard to access, but without the gate of course.

On holidays they tend to get together and celebrate. New Year’s get-togethers steer toward dinner celebrations; even daylight savings time is cause to celebrate with neighbors all pitching in with potluck dishes. But on the Fourth of July, all the stops are pulled out. A neighborhood parade is the choice way to celebrate—southern style. Neighbors parade down the street on lawnmowers, bikes and even wheelchairs.

A neighborhood consisting of artists, teachers and other creative minded individuals, Driftwood is also the home to Mordecai Walker. For the past six years after the ragtag parade through its streets, Driftwood residents have flocked to Walker’s house to celebrate another auspicious occasion. Walker’s birthday.

Born July 4, 1924, at 91 he still likes to open his doors to neighbors, and who doesn’t like a gathering where food and good conversation are in ample supply?

“I’m just the oldest one over here,” he laughed. Deemed the Grand Marshall of the parade, Walker is loved by many but he takes it all in stride. “It’s just my birthday,” he humbly added.

Nibbling on grilled hotdogs, macaroni and cheese or one of the plentiful salad choices brought by visiting neighbors, Walker held court as friends listen to his stories of days gone by.

Walker remembers with great clarity his life as an educator. He made the rounds around Pinellas County Schools. “It just so happened I stayed at each school four years,” he said. He seemed to get a kick out of that.

During his tenure as an educator he worked at Perkins Elementary, Lealman, Northeast High School, Sixteenth Street Middle School, along with Southside when it was a junior high housing grades seven, eight and nine.

Walker remembers Southside as being the first school to integrate in Pinellas County, and although the act of doing away with segregation in schools couldn’t have been easy, Walker doesn’t recall any issues.

“They bussed the kids from Coquina Key, the white kids,” he said remembering down to the year it all took place. He told of the black children being residents of the neighborhood and his secret to making the integration a success.

“I didn’t bring any problems to class,” he recalled.  “I didn’t have no hang-ups.”

He remembers no matter which school he was working in, having a different way of looking at education. Although he enforced the rules of the school, Walker feels he was more laid back than some, recognizing that students were there to learn, not to spend their time in the office dealing with disciplinary issues.

“If I see a kid chewing gum, they took it out,” he explained. “But some teachers, they write a referral and send them to the dean.”

He started as a fourth grade teacher, but soon grew into his true calling—agriculture. He even implemented the program when he skipped from one school to the next.

Walker remembers the teacher walkout back in 1968, which he said lasted for roughly 28 days. “I spoke against walking out,” he said citing that teachers had just signed a contract and were set to see a raise in their paychecks. But a few months later, Walker said the Executive Secretary of the Florida State Teacher’s Association called for a strike.

“And the thing about it was he didn’t have something definable like more money or less work,” recalled Walker who said the reason stated to him back in the day was to gain quality education. “Today nobody still knows what quality education is,” he stated laughing.

Before teaching, he spent three years in the army, drafted while attending Bethune Cookman College. After being relieved of his duties, Walker gave up his dream of being a dentist citing difficulty getting into dental school and attended Tennessee State University where he pledged Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, which he is still an active member today.

“I haven’t missed a meeting since 1962,” he said proudly.

Walker also took the time to educate neighbors about his time in the Ambassadors Club, an organization formed in 1954 that was dedicated to recognizing outstanding citizens in the community. Although they became inactive in 2004, Walker recalled the group ensuring that African-American children never went hungry at school, always providing funds for them to eat.

“At that time there was no free lunch; that was before integration,” said Walker. “We did some great things.”

And those memories and many more are shared each year in one quiet community’s annual celebration to revel in the glory of living free and spending time with old friends.

To reach Holly Kestenis, email hkestenis@theweeklychallenger.com

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