Obituaries Preserve Community’s History

Having spent the past two years compiling historical African-American obituaries for a four-volume reference set, Clarence Monette can appreciate a little gallows humor.

As he thumbed through over 1,600 funeral programs and newspaper obituaries detailing the lives of area residents, Monette deadpanned, “I wanted to finish it before I got in it.”

Monette is the chancellor commander of the R.A. Driesbach, Sr. Knights of Pythias Lodge No. 77.

He and other members of the Port St. Joe fraternal organization undertook the project to preserve the personal histories of African-American residents of the north Port St. Joe community and surrounding areas.

“I thought it would be a great addition to the city,” said Monette. “With the declining population of the north Port St. Joe community, it will be a record of the people that lived and worked and died there.”

Monette received obituaries and funeral programs from a variety of sources, including church secretaries, ushers, family members and local funeral director Rocky Comforter.

Comforter supplied the collection’s first entry, a newspaper clipping announcing the death of 23-year-old Manzanella Siples on Feb. 2, 1926.

The collection’s last entry is a 2010 funeral program for “Mama Ruth” Nelson Foxworth. Foxworth, 87, was born in Apalachicola, where her brother, Willie Speed, helmed the segregated Quinn High School.

In between these bookends are obituaries chronicling the lives of African-American teachers, businessmen, politicians and soldiers.

Sgt. First Class Bennie Tiller served in the Army for 22 years, earning a Vietnam Service medal and two bronze stars before retiring in 1984. He later became a Port St. Joe police patrolman.

An article in the Apalachicola Times records the death of James Henry Clay in Vietnam. The 21-year-old Marine Corporal perished in action near Damong on Jan. 3, 1968.

Five noteworthy Port St. Joe residents grace the book’s cover.

At age 111, Lucy Crowell is the book’s eldest featured person. Born in Alabama in 1860, she lived to see six generations of offspring.

Crowell’s great-great granddaughter, Janice Lucas, is a prominent Bay County educator and former candidate for District 6 state representative.

Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sgt. Clifford Sims appears beside Alton Fennell Sr., Gulf County’s first African-American elected official, and R.A. Driesbach, the Port St. Joe businessman for whom the Knights of Pythias Lodge is named.

Lela Gant, a former Port St. Joe educator, also appears on the cover, representing the many African-American teachers who educated area youth during and after the segregation era.

Monette, a former media specialist with 39 years in the Gulf County school system, meticulously organized the records, creating both an alphabetical and chronological index.

“Cataloguing and alphabetizing – all that came in handy,” said Monette, who also included a map of the African-American Forest Hill cemetery, with grave listings compiled by the Gulf County Genealogical Society.

Monette will present copies of the four-volume set, along with the bound index, to North Port St. Joe churches,  area libraries, city hall, the George Washington Elementary/High School museum and the Jesse Ball DuPont Foundation, which provided funds for the project.

To recoup some of their costs, the Knights of Pythias will also sell electronic copies of the book on DVD for $19.95.

As he continues to collect obituaries, Monette will compile the records in binders and update the index annually.

Monette has already presented the finished product to fellow Pythians during a recent workshop in Jacksonville.

He hopes others will follow suit by preserving the obituaries of church bodies, relatives or fraternal organization members.

“There are so many ways you can do it,” he said.

Click for more information

The Dearly Departed

“To let people know from whence they came.”

Clarence Monette had this mission in mind when he embarked on an ambitious post-retirement project.

Inspired by a box of funeral programs shown to him by friend Sandra Lowery, Monette sought to preserve the rich history of the African-American community of North Port St. Joe.

The grand chancellor of the Knights of Pythias Lodge #77, a fraternal club organized in Port St. Joe in 1912, Monette solicited the help of club members in collecting the records of the area’s African-American residents.

A year and a half later, Monette now has five three-inch binders teaming with records, the earliest dating back to 1950.

“After I started collecting these things, it started growing and growing and growing,” said Monette. “It’s gotten much bigger than I thought it would be.”

The records, most of which are funeral programs, provide a wealth of historical and genealogical information, including birth and death dates, ancestral homes, names of kin, occupations and church and club memberships.

Monette hopes the project will provide a permanent record of a community that has changed dramatically in recent decades.

“I think it’s important that we preserve the history of North Port St. Joe,” said Monette. “It can’t exist as it is because a lot of people are leaving for job opportunities, and a lot of people who have left are selling their property and not coming back.”

The Knights of Pythias plans to publish the material in a multi-volume collection entitled Historical African-American Obituaries. A release date has been set for next February, in commemoration of Black History Month.

Copies will be given to North Port St. Joe’s churches, area libraries, the Washington High School Museum and St. Joseph Historical Society.

DVDs will also be sold to private individuals, with funds going back into the project.

To collect the material, Monette wrote letters to all of North Port St. Joe’s churches and met with church secretaries, usher boards and community members.

He hit the jackpot when, upon hearing of his project, Zion Fair church secretary Cleo Bess told Monette to “come by the house.”

There, Bess produced boxes of funeral programs that she’d accumulated during the last several decades.

To supplement his findings from churches and community members, Monette spent countless hours at Comforter Funeral Home, searching through death notices and funeral records.

In assembling the volumes, Monette, a former media specialist with 39 years in Gulf County schools, organized the obituary records chronologically, with an alphabetic index for easy record retrieval.

The funeral programs of some of North Port St. Joe’s most prominent citizens can be found in the volumes – educators Lela Gant and Maybelle Whitley, businessmen Damon Peters and R.A. Driesbach, Port St. Joe’s first African-American elected official Alton Fennell and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Clifford Sims.

Monette was pleased to receive Sims’ funeral program, which records a few facts about his life in modest type face.

One of the more unusual programs details the life of Lucy Crowell, age 111.

Crowell, born in Alabama in 1860, lived through six generations. She left to mourn her passing seven children, 125 grandchildren, 200 great-grandchildren and a host of great-great-great-grandchildren.

Other obituaries convey the hard facts in flowery terms.

Mary McNeal (1905-1978) “slipped away to a land of pure delight,” while Thomas McNair, 69, received a heavenly calling: “On November 3, 1981 at 9:23 a.m., a name was called; Thomas, my servant, well done, come on up a little higher and I will make you ruler over many.”

The funeral programs provided by Bess have the added benefit of Bess’ marginal notes, which record scripture citations and eulogy comments. 

In the funeral program for Pinkey Thomas (1893-1975), Bess cited Acts and Revelation, and two quotes describing Thomas’ godly existence: “This woman was full of good deeds,” and “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”

To round out his collection, Monette is seeking the obituaries of the city’s African-American residents, particularly those from the 1960s and earlier.

He would also like to include obituaries of those who were born or raised in Port St. Joe but left the city as adults.

“We’re trying to encourage people to loan or give me obituaries they have so we can make copies of them and include them in the book,” said Monette.

Those interested in assisting may contact Monette at 850-229-8860.

Click for more information

Knights of Pythias Donate to Food Pantry

The R.A. Driesbach, Sr., Lodge No. 77 of the Knights of Pythias last week donated several boxes of non-perishable foods to the county Food Pantry.

“They gave a lot of food, it was a very nice donation,” said Jerry Stokoe, director of the Food Pantry.

The Knights of Pythias is an international fraternity first organized in Washington, D.C. in 1864.

The first African-American Lodge was organized in 1880 in Vicksburg, Miss.

Today, the role the Knights of Pythias plays in the community is far different than when the order began. That role has extended far beyond taking care of widows and orphans and burying the dead, to become much more of a catalyst in creating strong communities through a wide range of social and service activities.

Pythianism represents a human ideal build upon Americanism, Patriotism and the Brotherhood of man.

Friendship, charity and benevolence are the cardinal principles of the Pythian Lodge, but more than this, it teaches the Fatherhood of God, love of country, obedience to law, purity of the home, obligations of clean citizenship and man’s duty to man.

The donation of food for the Food Pantry is part of that mission, just as with the recent donation of 30 used bicycles and more than $100 to Bikes for Boys and Girls of Gulf County.