A living testament
History of black churches in Naples
1380 Fifth Ave. N, Naples, FL
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church
Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of articles in honor of the NAACP’s 100-year anniversary this year, titled “Evolution of Equality.”
Growing up in a segregated world, he needed sanctuary.
When Joseph Williams speaks about that time, he hesitates at first — but soon the stories spill out. His grandmother was a white woman, he says, knowing that you’ll be surprised because his skin is dark. They lived in Lakeland in the 1940s, and when she held his hand in public, people said terrible things.
Turn that boy’s hand loose, they’d say, punctuating the hurtful words with that derogatory racial slur that used to be so common. They didn’t know he was her own flesh and blood.
“It’s something that I don’t even let my children or my grandchildren know ... what happened to me coming up,” Williams says softly, the words catching in his throat. “Sometimes it creates bitter and I don’t do that. I do not do that. I refuse to do that.”
When Williams moved to Naples as a young man in the 1950s it was a divided world. Black children went to black schools, adults bought food from the back door of whites-only restaurants and families rented apartments because buying wasn’t allowed.
Life wasn’t easy, and he turned to God for strength.
“I have asked the Lord to never let hate come in me and he’s done that,” says Williams, 72, who is now pastor of Triumph the Church and Kingdom of God in Christ in Naples. “The church taught me that I could be an overcomer, regardless of what happened or what was going on in my life.”
In the 100 years since the founding of the NAACP in 1909, churches have played an important role in the push for equal rights. Today, they keep faith and history alive, providing support and positive role models as well as a place to confront social, religious and personal crises.
That community atmosphere attracted Carolyn Maxwell to Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) when she arrived in Naples as a young teacher in the 1970s. She wanted a church that felt like family, and when a fellow educator brought her to Bethel, she knew she’d found her home.
“The people of this church care about God, community and family, and ... it provided, for my daughters, positive female and male adult role models,” Maxwell says. “There was often that question of who and what you are. I wanted them to embrace and be proud of their own black heritage and to feel comfortable in their own skins.”
A community of worship: Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church
Voncile Whitaker sits in the church office, her 2-year-old granddaughter gathered in her arms. Just outside the office door, people congregate in the lobby, greeting friends and family and chattering before the service.
“We used to be just a neighborhood church,” she says, quietly so as not to disturb the half-asleep little girl. “But now, people come from all over. We have members from all over Naples and about 25 kids in the youth program.”
But there isn’t much time to talk, now. Whitaker, 57, moves inside the sanctuary and sits in a pew, her granddaughter still held close in her arms. Her daughter joins her moments later. Soon the choir files in and about 60 people fill the wooden pews. Drums start and a man touches the keys of an electronic piano. “Oh won’t it be grand,” he sings, reaching down into the bottom of his voice. “I’m going up to live with Jesus.”
“Oh, won’t it be grand,” the congregation joins him joyfully. The pulsing base drum and sparkling piano fill the room with energy: It’s a sound so big it seems impossible for walls to contain it. And that’s just the opening hymn of this mid-February service.
Sunday service at Macedonia is one part gospel concert and one part spiritual pep talk. This church started in 1929 near where Crayton Cove is now. That part of town was called Ditch Bank back then.
By the 1940s, Naples’ black families left Ditch Bank to make way for development by the Cove, moving to River Park. The church’s current home at 1006 Third Ave. N. opened in 1954, after the Watkins family, owners of the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, donated land.
In those days, that community east of U.S. 41 North was one of the few parts of town where black people were allowed to rent apartments.
“Some come to worship and some come because they didn’t have nowhere else to go,” says the Rev. Warren Adkins, 78, about those days. His voice is gravelly and he speaks with an old-time, rural accent. “They need somewhere to go for fellowship, and the church was the next best place to know peoples. Back then it was a community center.”
Today, the church is still a place for community and worship, but its members are no longer confined to a few square blocks nearby.
Is it important for the black community to have a place like this church to come together?
“Yes,” Adkins says, chewing on the word as he thinks about the question.
“A lot of peoples forget where they come from and that is one thing that you never should do,” he says. “We never should forget where we come from, because you may have to go back that route again.”
In the lifetime of this church, race relations have shifted from forced segregation to legally mandated integration — and now the Sunday bulletin includes a quote from the country’s first black president.
“The younger peoples today do not have a problem with worshiping where they worship or being with whoever they wants to be with, white or black, unless the old ones spill it into their minds about the old days,” says Adkins, who has been a member of Macedonia for 58 years and its pastor for 36.
Back at that Sunday morning service, he takes the stage about halfway through. If you need help from the lord, come forward, he says, and a teenage girl rises and moves toward the front. Kamora Johnson, 15, kneels with her elbows resting on the seat of a chair.
She bows her head and the pastor half sings, half shouts the Lord’s Prayer over her, stretching and emphasizing every word. Her hands cover her face and tears escape between her fingers. Two older women clasp her on either side, and others gather round, praying out loud.
When it’s over, Kamora rises, hugs the women and thanks the pastor. After the service she chatters and smiles with her friends, crushed tissues clasped in her hand.
Her father had heart surgery, she says. It’s been a stressful, scary time, and she needed to ask God to keep him safe.
Persistence and hope: Triumph the Church and Kingdom of God in Christ
The old, wooden church still stands, barely. Weeds sprawl over the front steps, tree trunks encroach on the walls and holes gape in the steeple.
Loggers came to this isolated place in the 1940s with plans to profit from the swamp’s cypress trees, and along with them came workers and their families. In 1944, the Lee Tidewater Cypress Co. built a church on the black side of Copeland for the 50-some families who lived there.
“It was a pretty small church, but enough room for everybody,” says Joyce Bowles Parker, who grew up there. “The Baptists would have it one Sunday, the Methodists the next, then my mom. Everybody just came in, no matter what Sunday you had.”
Parker’s mom, Madeline “Mother” Bowles, started Triumph Church in that shared sanctuary. Mother Bowles worked picking crops and her husband worked in the logging camp, but on Sundays she preached and he played hymns on the piano.
When the family moved to Naples in 1952, Mother Bowles took to the street with a tambourine, singing and preaching. Soon, Triumph’s members started meeting in the family’s living room in McDonald’s Quarters.
From there, Triumph moved into a small wooden shack, but by the late 1960s the building was falling apart and flooding. A new church was planned at 1380 Fifth Ave. N. in River Park East.
The Watkins family, the same family that donated land to Macedonia, sold Triumph the land for $3,200, with a down payment of $800, says Joseph Williams, Triumph’s pastor. When the congregation couldn’t pay the balance, Watkins forgave it.
“Back then they was not selling blacks and Jews property in Naples,” says Williams, who joined the church in 1957. “Mr. Watkins gave us the chance to have this property. I never will forget him.”
On a Sunday morning in February, the pastor sits in a wooden pew at the front of the sanctuary. Joyce Bowles Parker, 64, stands in front, her eyes closed and a microphone clasped in her hands.
“Through it all,” she sings, her alto voice dark and sweet, savoring the notes. “Through it all, I’ve learned to trust in Jesus. I’ve learned to trust in God.”
There are only five people in the pews, so you hear each voice as it joins the song: Williams’ deep baritone, and the four other women’s higher, lighter sounds. It’s joyful and melancholy at the same time. Meditative.
Today, Triumph faces new struggles. As times changed and people bought and sold land regardless of color, many black families moved out of River Park to other parts of town. The congregation aged, members died and numbers dwindled.
“For the future I hope this church, being in the position that it is now, that everybody will see that this is the place to go and not get your feelings hurt,” Williams says. “Our door is always open.”
Drugs are a problem in the community surrounding the church, especially for the young people, he says. They need positive role models.
“When you have young peoples trying different stuff, like drugs, you have to have an understanding person dealing with (them),” he says. “If they’re going to be abused by the church they’ll say ‘Well, I might as well and stay out doing the same thing I’m doing.’ ... You got to know how to deal with people and most important, show them love. Love is great. Love is powerful. Love can stop death.”
No matter whether the pews are near-empty or full, there is always a handful of people at Triumph on Sundays, preaching that love.
At one point in the service this week, everyone in the sanctuary approaches the wooden rail. They face the empty pulpit, five members and their pastor, singing and speaking private prayers out loud.
Their hearts open to their God and their words are not lost in a crowd.
“We’re going to ... make sure our light is shining and that we do reach out to people,” Parker says later of the church her mother started more than 60 years ago. “Even if there’s only one person here, you know, it started with one.”
Shared history: Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
“I have a family who last Sunday showed a concern,” says Pastor Edward Stewart, as the service nears its end. “They would like to become a part of the Bethel family.”
He walks down the center aisle and reaches his hand out to a white couple sitting in a middle pew. The congregation stands as Larry and Theresa Muirhead walk to the front of the church.
Most of Bethel’s members are black, but there are also whites scattered here and there — and you can tell by everyone’s reactions that they welcome new members, regardless of race.
After a few words from the pastor, the congregation stands and greets the Muirheads like a receiving line at a wedding — hugs, handshakes and smiles.
“You just can’t find any more loving people than the people here,” says Theresa Muirhead, 55, after the service. “The first day that we were here they just opened their arms and gave me the biggest hugs. I knew this was the right place. I felt like I was home.”
Her husband, 58, nods. “Race has nothing to do with it,” he says. “You could be purple, green, we don’t care.”
The nationwide church that this Naples congregation belongs to began in the late 1700s, when black members of a Methodist church in Pennsylvania went to the front to pray and were pulled aside to make way for white members.
“They wondered why, since they were all worshiping the same God,” says Stewart, a fourth-generation preacher who took over the Naples church’s leadership in 2008. “They started their own church in a livery stable.”
Long before Stewart came, Bethel faced its own difficulties. It started in McDonald’s Quarters in the late 1950s and moved to the original River Park recreation center — an old post office building that was moved into the black neighborhood from Third Street South.
Years later, they purchased a piece of land just off Golden Gate Parkway. But residents on the street collected signatures against a zoning change, according to a Daily News article dated April, 1980. They said they objected to nonresidential use of the land — but at the time the area included a different church, a mini-mall and a roller-skating rink, the article states.
“They said, ‘That’s a black church, it ought to be built in a black community,’ ” says Herbert Cambridge, 81, a Naples leader who, along with his wife Alma, helped found the church.
The Cambridges live next door to the church, and they remember how one of their neighbors, a white woman, led the opposition against Bethel’s building.
“She and I taught together,” says Alma Cambridge, 77, laughing. Then her voice turns more melancholy. “Both of us taught at Pine Ridge Middle School and she used to grow the most beautiful roses that you could ever find. She would bring me one to school, and I’d say to myself, ‘Now here we are (arguing over a church).’ ”
But Bethel got its zoning, and by 1985 it opened off Golden Gate Parkway at 2935 64th St. S.W., just west of Interstate 75.
At one of the church’s Sunday services in March, member Carolyn Maxwell steps up to the pulpit. Today is Bethel’s black history month celebration, and Maxwell is one of many adults and children who speak during the service.
Her niece is struggling with racial bullying at school she tells the congregation. After two years of bullies and intimidation, the fifth-grader finally stood up for herself, only to get in trouble, too. Maxwell, 57, pauses, and then reads a poem off a paper in her hands.
“What shall I tell my children who are black, of what it means to be a captive in this dark skin?” she reads, voice clear and strong as if she’s teaching one of her high school English classes at Barron Collier. “What can I say, therefore, when my child comes home in tears because a playmate has called him black, big lipped, flatnosed and nappy headed?” she reads. “What will he think when I dry his tears and whisper, ‘Yes, that’s true. But no less beautiful and dear.’ ”
She continues, and people in the crowd of about 70 react. Some lean over and whisper in their neighbor’s ear and others listen, intent. Maxwell’s voice is melodic and earnest. Her presence commands attention.
“I have drunk deeply of late from the fountain of my black culture,” she reads. “And I find I have much to say to my black children. ... I must find the truth of heritage of myself and pass it on to them. ... For it is the truth that will make us free.”
Silence for a few heartbeats. Then murmuring between members and a burst of enthusiastic applause.