ST. PETERSBURG —In appreciation of Black History Month, Faith Memorial Missionary Baptist Church honored long-time resident and Congressional Gold Medal recipient John T. Ayers.
The 13th annual Black History Honorary Program got underway Fri., Feb 12 with members of the congregation, the community and veterans from almost every branch of the United States Armed Forces present for a night of celebration.
“African Americans have participated in every war involving the United States including the Revolutionary War,” said Black History Ministry member Betty Johnson.
She spoke of how with every war African Americans freely volunteered to fight for a country that had once enslaved them and segregated them from the rest of society under harsh Jim Crow laws that terrorized blacks in the South.
Honoring an American Hero: Video Playback
Ayers was well acquainted with the Jim Crow South being born 92 years ago in Jennings, Fla., and growing up in St. Pete. He decided to leave the segregated South and its government-sanctioned racial oppression behind and traveled north at the age of 18. He found work as a cook and as a construction worker.
Drafted by the military at age 19, he was sent to a segregated training facility in North Carolina, which was given the name Montford Point. These marines were met with racial prejudice and open hostility both in the military and in the surrounding communities.
Ayers was trained at Montford Point and was one of the first 1,000 black marines sent to fight in the South Pacific.
Speaking at an event last year honoring veterans of color, he said he enjoyed his stint in the Marine Corps as an ammunitions specialist.
“My job was to learn the types of ammunition and pass it out to the whites,” he said. “They were the ones doing the fighting and we were the ones dodging the bullets.”
Ayers was honorably discharged in 1946 after four years of service.
Living in Gary, Ind., he became a husband and father and worked in a steel mill. He operated a colossal sized crane, which ran on a track about a block or two long and on a foundation approximately half a block deep, lifting tons of steel from a furnace and placing them on an assembly line.
Misplacing the steel by as little as an inch would have had deadly consequences. Ayers was the first and only black man known to run such a crane, and he did so without a single accident for 35 years.
In 1998, Ayers returned to St. Petersburg and joined Faith Memorial Missionary Baptist Church where he has remained an active member.
It was not until 2012 when more than 400 Montford Point Marines were honored for their service in the military during World War II. They were presented with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, but Ayers and two other St. Petersburg residents were overlooked.
The City of St. Petersburg wrote to the United States Congress and advised them that Ayers and two fellow Montford Point Marines did not receive their honors. Congress forwarded the medals to the city and on Nov. 8, 2013, representatives from MacDill Air Force Base attended the ceremony at Wildwood Park where Ayers, William Scott and Samuel Blossom were recognized for their service and presented with their medals.
President Barack Obama even dropped him a quick line to thank him for sacrifices.
Senior Pastor Reverend Clark Hazely, Sr. from Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church was on hand to provide spiritual thought for the evening. Fresh off a plane from Washington, D.C., where he was on Capitol Hill fighting for the rights of veterans and everyday citizens, he told the church that there is a group of people trying to take away their heritage.
“There are some people that say, ‘Why are we taking the time out and giving a whole month to celebrate black history? Let’s just remove that off of the calendar. Don’t they know who they are by now?’” he said.
Hazely said the story of African Americans is unique and no one can relate to it even if their “daddy was an immigrant.”
“Our heritage month is not going to be sung by anybody else. Our heritage is not going to be lifted up by anybody else if we don’t lift it up. If we are not singing the songs of joy of what God has done for us…nobody else will,” he said.
He encourages all black people to get involved with matters that concern them.
“I heard one senator say, ‘If you’re not at the table, then you are the meal.’ If you’re not at the discussion making some decisions about what other people think you ought to do then you will be “cut up, sliced up, take away with just the bones left,” he exclaimed.
While at the nation’s capital, accompanied by his daughter, Hazely was lobbying for veteran’s rights. Since President Obama told governmental agencies to hire more veterans, agencies such as the Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense and many others have increased the hiring of veterans.
“But what they are not telling the president, and what they are not telling Congress and what they are not telling you is that no sooner than they hire them, they fire them,” he said.
Being a veteran himself, that struck a chord. He thanks God for the protection he has been given, but he said there are voices so silent out there that people cannot hear when they cry.
“I think that we have a duty to continue to raise our voices…I’m tired of people whispering to other people about how bad it is and when it’s time to talk to the people that can make a difference, then we’re quiet,” Hazely stated. “God has brought us too far for us to be silent now.”
Hazely urged everyone to get to know the veterans living in their communities. “I don’t mind going to Bay Pines, or the National Cemetery or celebrating veterans wherever they are, but why isn’t there something going on in our immediate community,” he asked?
Last Veterans Day, Hazely and his congregation held a family fun day to celebrate and honor local veterans and their families.
The more than 30 veterans that were present received a token of appreciation from the Black History Ministry, and all were invited to partake in a delicious home cooked meal.