“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.