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.