Lilly Lawrence McKnight: 84 years young

By Allen A. Buchanan, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Lilly Lawrence McKnight was surrounded by friends and family who came from as far away as Boston to help the family matriarch celebrate her 84th birthday at Ricky P’s last Saturday.

Frances Lawrence, one of McKnight’s five daughters, said that her mother’s birthday party is an annual family event.

“I’ve been planning this for months,” said Lawrence as family continued piling into the restaurant.

Born in Manning, Ga., she was one of eight children who include Beatrice, Eddie Jr., Mary, Elijah, Loretta, Jimmy and Dorothy.

As a child McKnight picked cotton, and by the time she was eight years old, she had picked as much as 260 pounds of the fluffy stuff.  When she became a young adult, McKnight moved to Florence, Ga., where she began working as a maid. During this time, McKnight had her first two children, Larry McKnight and Janice Spann.

A job opportunity presented itself to McKnight in St. Pete, and she headed south in January 1957. She would go on to marry Willie Lawrence and have five children: Willie, Mary, Edith, Frances and Cynthia.

Here in St. Pete is where she began to champion for civil rights.

“I would become an activist and work with my good friend Winnie Foster in campaigning for the Democrats,” said McKnight, who fought for equality and against segregation.

McKnight’s running buddies included Judge James Sanderlin, the first African-American judge in Pinellas County and Cleveland Johnson Jr., the founding publisher and editor of The Weekly Challenger newspaper.

“Celebrating your 84th birthday with my mom (McKnight’s sister) means so much to me,” said niece Velvetta Lawrence Jones who drove seven hours from Sparta, Ga., to make it to the celebration.

Grandson Chas McKnight and great-grandson Justin McKnight drove from Manning, S.C., to celebrate the family matriarch’s birthday. Chas said the last time he saw his grandmother was 14 years ago on a beach in Miami.

Dorothy Plowden, McKnight’s sister from Miami, said she has been coming to St. Pete the last seven or eight years for her sister’s birthday.

“It’s just three of us left- two girls and my baby brother- and we have a grand old time,” said Plowden, who calls her sister three times a week to keep in touch. “We’re just close, and I love her very much.”

Close to 40 family members and guests occupied half of the restaurant space on the ground floor of Ricky P’s. Family and friends drew closer together to witness McKnight blow out candles on her birthday cake, with a little assistance.

Nakesha, Christina, brother-in-law Shlomo, goddaughters Pat and Maxine and sister-in-law Naomi were among the many relatives who attended the birthday party to honor the matriarch of the family.

McKnight’s smile in pictures with her family reflects the power, beauty and longevity of family love. The distances people traveled to be with her on her 84th birthday also revealed how she is valued as a family treasure.

To reach Allen Buchanan, email

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