- Faith & Family
It’s not unusual for residents of small farming communities to move away from their homes in search of a myriad of reasons – from better job opportunities to education to just seeking the more exciting lifestyles provided by other communities. Often memories of their former homes are only kept alive by retelling fond childhood memories to younger relatives.
But for former residents of the northern Florida County, the sense of their former community is kept alive by celebrating Jefferson County Day.
On Sunday, Dec. 19th, the sanctuary of Salter Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Brownsville resembled a miniature community reunion as regular worshippers were joined by migrants from North Florida to celebrate Jefferson County Day.
For the past four years, the 150-member Salters AME Church has celebrated this unofficial holiday. “It’s a yearly function,” explained Rev. Edward Robinson, an organizer for the event. “All the people from Jefferson County in the area get together and we celebrate.”
Other churches throughout Florida have also held commemorations of their hometown community.
Rev. James M. Proctor established a Jefferson County Day celebration at the Hurst Chapel AME Church in Winter Haven in the early 1980s, when he noticed that many members of the congregation hailed from the same county.
He explained, “When people celebrate their past it helps them to pass on their accomplishments to their off spring and instill in their children and grandchildren that they can do even more.”
Jefferson County, known as the Keystone county, is the only county to extend from Georgia on the north to the Gulf of Mexico on the south.
The largely rural county derives nearly a quarter of its income from forestry and agriculture. As of 2011, the population of the county was 14,761, and Blacks make up 36 percent of the people currently living in the community, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And by 2010, the county had nearly 19 percent of people living below the poverty line. For much of the 20th century, many people choose to migrate away from the community. According to Proctor, many of the Blacks moved away from their community in search of jobs.
Proctor, 82, who currently lives in Jacksonville, left Jefferson County Day, when he was only 20 years old. He remembered a community that was socially and economically restricted.
“If you were African American, it was very, very segregated and you worked hard to get an education and to advance beyond the economic station of your parents and your grandparents,” he recalled.
In spite of the hardships, the community also provided a sense of joy.
Robinson, 57, himself was born and raised in Jefferson County before moving to Miami in 1975. “It’s a friendly community and its really small so everybody knew everybody,” he recalled.
Salter Chapel AME’s Odean Plummer, who left the community when she was 18, also fondly recalled her past experiences.
“To me, it was a beautiful life, we would always come together as a community and we would have softball or basketball games,” she said.
Of her nine siblings, three decided to stay, while others chose to leave.
“I think they really enjoy the quiet living and opportunities are better now then it was back then,” she explained.
Many of Salter Chapel’s Jefferson County emigrants have passed on according to Plummer. Of those left, only an estimated dozen direct decedents are currently living.
To celebrate this year’s Jefferson County Day, the church’s usual worship services featured the spiritual wisdom of Rev. Henry Green as well as the artistic prowess of local spoken word artist, Rebecca “Butterfly” Vaughn.
By Kaila Heard