Old Mount Carmel Church designated a historic site

Old Mount Carmel Baptist Church, which is now home to Prayers By Faith Family Ministries, will be recognized as a Florida historical landmark.

AIDA MALLARD/Special to the Guardian
Published: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 3:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 3:35 p.m.

When Pastor Gerard Duncan of Prayers by Faith Family Ministries roamed the historic Pleasant Street neighborhood as a tough guy a few years ago, he never imagined he would one day return to those same streets as a pastor and become the leading force behind an effort to get old Mount Carmel Baptist Church, located in the heart of the neighborhood, designated as a historical landmark by the state of Florida.



* What: The Historical Landmarker Dedication Service for old Mount Carmel Baptist Church.

* When: 4 p.m. Sunday.

* Where: Prayers by Faith Family Ministries, 429 NW 4th St.

* Information: Call 352-283-2185.

But that is what has happened.

And at 4 p.m. Sunday at Prayers by Faith at 429 NW 4th St., Duncan and his congregation will host an Historical Landmarker dedication service to unveil a state historical landmarker plaque recognizing the building, which formerly housed Mount Carmel and Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, for its role in the civil rights movement in Gainesville.

Duncan said during the service a marker will be placed on the north side of the church near a sidewalk along NW 5th Avenue. The keynote speaker will be the Rev. Dr. Willie G. Mayberry, pastor of Pleasant Hill.

"On June 11, 2013, the Mount Carmel Baptist Church historical marker application was approved by the State Historical Marker Council, and shortly thereafter, the marker was sent to Pastor Duncan," said Brittany Lesser, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of State.

"We were approved in three weeks and we got the marker in six weeks," said Duncan, who did the research himself to apply for the marker.

"I used to hang out on these streets doing wrong when I was younger, and it is by the grace of God that I returned here to do something good that will last here forever for future generations to always know what took place here."

He said Jessica Taylor of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida edited the application.

To qualify as a Florida Heritage Landmark, a building, structure or site must be at least 50 years old and have regional or statewide significance in the areas of architecture, archaeology, Florida history or traditional culture, or be associated with an event of statewide or national significance that took place at least 50 years ago, according to the Florida Historical Marker Program's website.

Duncan said the Mount Carmel congregation built the church in 1946 and held services there until 1984, when the church built its current location at 2505 NW 8th Ave. He said Pleasant Hill later held services in the building, and in 2010, Mayberry invited him and his congregation to share the sanctuary, at no cost. Pleasant Hill has since moved to 2611 NW 68th Ave. off U.S. 441.

Duncan said he started his research by talking with the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Wright, who pastored Mount Carmel from 1962-2006 after becoming a vocal civil rights activist in St. Augustine and throughout the state of Florida. He relocated to Gainesville, and shortly after arriving, became president of the Alachua County branch NAACP.

Duncan said Wright talked to him about the mass community meetings that used to be held at Mount Carmel to discuss school and housing desegregation. He also said he was aided in his research by Mayberry, who guided him in the right direction, and by Charles S. Chestnut III, owner of Chestnut Funeral Home, who was president of the NAACP Youth Council in the early 1960s in Alachua County.

Chestnut said Wright replaced A.J. Alexander as president of the local NAACP and began to push for school desegregation in Alachua County at mass meetings held at Mount Carmel. In fact, one of Wright's children, LaVon Wright Bracy, was one of a small group of black students to integrate Gainesville High School in 1964.

Chestnut said the NAACP mass meetings at Mount Carmel played a key role in Tiny Tolbert, then the elected superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, enacting a "Freedom of Choice" school policy that allowed the students to attend Gainesville High School. Before that, schools in Alachua County remained segregated, despite the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled the doctrine of "separate but equal" unconstitutional.

Philoron Wright, another of Wright's children, said he has many memories of the mass meetings held at Mount Carmel.

"Mount Carmel was the hub for all of the activities of the civil rights movement in the Gainesville area after my father moved here and became president of the NAACP," he said. "Meetings were held weekly and often, sometimes two and three times a week."

He said many NAACP strategy and training meetings that taught children how to be nonviolent took place at the church and were attended by many people from throughout the city who wanted to participate in demonstrations and other NAACP activities.

"Many high profile people came in and spoke, some from around the state, and it just was a period in time where black people were strategizing and trying to figure out how to get their liberties and how to move forward in a nonviolent way," said Phil Wright.

Mount Carmel was founded in 1896, and Duncan said in 1946, the church built the sanctuary his congregation now occupies. Duncan said he plans to restore the building back to the prominent status it once had in the community.

"When it is all said and done, this will be a resource center for the community where people can come and get help," Duncan said. "We also look forward to being able to host weddings and banquets here like they did 50 years ago."

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