Saving grace in west Winter Park

Like most things that take on a life of their own, Sacred Places, Sacred History: Black Churches of West Winter Park, Rebekah McCloud's new exhibit at Hannibal Square Heritage Center, started small.

McCloud, now settled in Longwood, realized while driving to and from her church in Hannibal Square in west Winter Park about nine years ago that the neighborhood surrounding it was gradually looking different.

"I started noticing houses missing, developers coming in, the complexion of the community changing, and I wondered what was happening to the people," says McCloud, director of Upward Bound at the University of Central Florida and a self-described "type-A personality, a double-A overachiever" with two master's degrees, a doctorate in education and a lifetime of achievements.

So she decided to find out why, just a way to satisfy her curiosity. As McCloud tells it, she began by asking questions, starting with her supreme adviser. "I said, ‘Oh, Lord, what is happening to these people? Where are they going?' Finding out became a task that was given to me by God.

"I asked about the churches because black churches are the heart of the black community," she continues. "This looked like what I had seen in other communities since I moved to Florida in 1976; it happened in Orlando, and in my parents' neighborhood back in Rochester, N.Y.

"Gentrification and urban renewal are never good for most people who lived in those changing neighborhoods, and I thought, ‘Oh, no, here's a little community where it seems to be happening again," she remembers.

Her initial overtures led her to Joyce Swain, who sat down with McCloud in the annex of Bethel Baptist Church and opened a box of about 400 photographs that dated back to the early 1900s. Swain's help led McCloud to another old-timer, Clem Boyce, and, quickly, on to other individuals and the churches themselves, with rich collections of congregations, stories and pictures.

The oldest, Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, was founded in 1886. It, like the other churches in Winter Park — which had grown to a healthy dozen by the 20th century -— got a huge boost in 1935, McCloud discovered. Her research led her to the Chase Papers at Winter Park Public Library, and she learned about William Coursen, an Orlando attorney who willed money to all churches in Winter Park. And to the black church leaders, that meant to them too.

Not everyone agreed. "Clem told me that, first of all, people in Winter Park didn't want money going to the black churches and that no money at all would go to his church, Flowers Temple Church of God in Christ, because ‘We were jumpin', hollerin' folks in a tent,'" she shares. The profile of Flowers Temple, framed and on display in Sacred Places, tells the rest of the story, with a list of pastors and church leaders, history, a brief timeline and photographs.

Pentecostal Flowers, organized in 1929 in Fannie White's home, held services in a tent before moving to its first tin structure, and then, in 1934, a second structure built out of old lumber from a dairy. After presenting its Sunday School quarterly to prove that it was a "legitimate" church, Flowers' leaders got the Coursen funds to build the current construction with wooden floors and ceilings. Since then, the church has undergone only "cosmetic" changes and looks much as it did 74 years ago.

As she delved into archives like the Arlen Papers, met with old-timers and recorded oral histories, a pattern emerged. McCloud saw a big story grow out of her small idea, one that explained a historic community through its sacred places. She needed basics -— a scanner to copy faded papers and precious but crumbling photos, a digital camera and, eventually, a portable scanner for recording documents too old, precious or fragile to travel.

So she applied for and won the Winter Park library's Dr. Rhea Marsh and Dorothy Lockhart Smith Winter Park History Research Grant in 2004. The funding made all the difference, McCloud says. "Back then, I was looking only at the six oldest churches … but then I got a surprise. Folks starting asking me, ‘Where's the book?'"

And they asked when McCloud would do the same for Hannibal Square's newer six churches. The project expanded and led to a second grant in 2006 from the city of Winter Park. From that emerged profiles of the 12 total churches — two of them since closed, as congregations shrink and gentrification's higher property values and taxes put pressure on the residents. Last year, a grant from the Florida Humanities Council came along for walking tours (see sidebar).

The tours will add depth to the exhibit and extend its range, says Peter Schreyer, Crealdé School of Art's executive director and founder of the Heritage Center, which opened in 2007 as a second Crealdé campus. "Everything here is connected; the churches have been one of the custodians for the community, if not actually the community, since the center's founding."

The connections are clear in Sacred Places. Along with McCloud's profiles, enlarged and framed for display on the center's light-filled second-story gallery, are seven black-and-white photographs taken by Schreyer for his 1994 Smith Grant project, Photographic Essays of Winter Park's Westside, as well as a luminous painting of Grant Chapel, one of the now-closed churches.

Sacred Places gives the answers to the questions McCloud — and the circle that formed around her — asked. As Hannibal Square was swallowed into the upscale real estate development, the very people she wondered about continued their exodus to less-expensive areas in town. And, as support for the last churches shrinks, through graying or migration to megachurches, more will close.

The churches won't be forgotten, though. McCloud's stories are growing, reaching out, taking on their own lives. "People from outside our area are asking me now, ‘When are you going to come to my community?'" she says eagerly. "And the answer is, now. I'm already going out to other communities and taking photographs across the state of Florida. … The stories are there."

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