Charlotte Patricia Hill Carter decades later clearly remembers attending fifth-grade at the Minnie L. Brown Family Enrichment Center in Arcadia. Her teacher, Mrs. Bernice Rubin, she said, had one arm that ended at the elbow. Sometimes the Smith-Brown band performed a concert there, she recalled, but the building was not used every day, as it was for her class in 1951.
Completed in 1946, the new Smith-Brown School was built by contractor John A. Christ. Astonishingly, the 8,000 cement blocks used to build the school were made by the students, teachers and parents, under the leadership of Principal Clarence Walton. According to a Jan. 2, 1947, article in the Arcadian newspaper, the new school was dedicated that week, and Supt. L. H. Hancock presented the building to the African-American community. He gave credit to the previous superintendent, Dr. D. G. Barnett, for initiating the project.
The original plans for the school included an auditorium; but it was not constructed due to a lack of funds. That’s why band concerts were held in the Elizabeth Baptist Church Community Center, as it was listed in the 1956 Arcadia city directory.
In April 1947, Mrs. Minnie L. Brown had the idea for a recreation center adjacent to the church. Under the leadership of the Rev. R. J. Cliffin, plans were discussed and decided. The Rev. I. C. Nimmons did the shovel work at the ground-breaking.
The church accepted the bid of African-American contractor James Barnes to construct the nearly 3,000-square-foot concrete block building at the cost of “several thousand dollars,” according to Deed Book 245. On Oct. 5, 1945, Fannie B. Morgan, widow of Lorenzo Lawther Morgan, sold the property to Elizabeth Baptist trustees James Barnes, I. C. Clemmons, Robert Owens, and Minister R. J. Cliffin. The deed was filed on Jan. 12, 1946.
The long history of Elizabeth Baptist Church begins in 1892 with three men — Samuel G. Daniels, a Baptist, E. Tillis and J. R. Lancaster, both Methodists. They had moved to Arcadia to mine pebble phosphate from Peace River. They agreed among themselves to hold weekly prayer meetings in different homes. Others soon joined them, and it became necessary to use “the little school house for the crowd.” Itinerant preachers occasionally conducted a service for the group that continued to grow.
Daniels and Tillis asked their foreman, W. W. Clark, for aid in building a church. He gave them an order for lumber from the company owned by the Welles family in Nocatee. Given time off from work, Daniels walked the four miles to the mill, retracing his steps to Arcadia to get specifications for the boards. He did so, and soon the lumber was delivered to the donated lots.
The group began raising funds for construction, deciding that they were large enough to split and then construct separate buildings for each denomination. Among the Baptists, Elizabeth McLain was so zealous that others wanted to worship and pray with her. On Sundays and on prayer meeting nights, the call was heard, “Let’s go to Elizabeth!” Thus, the Baptist church was named.
Eleven other churches in Florida are named Elizabeth, according to the church histories researched by workers under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. By founding date and location, the African-American Elizabeth Baptist churches in Florida include: 1868, Lloyd; 1888, Monticello; 1902, Jacksonville; 1903, (Second Elizabeth) Quincy; 1905, (St. Elizabeth’s) Pensacola; 1908, Denver; 1918, Quincy; 1921 Eastport.
Service of a minister was pursued by a committee that included: Samuel Goins Daniel, Elizabeth McLain, Addie James, Patsy W. Williams, Fritz Patton, Mollis Patton, Lula Fields, Janie McQueens, Richard Harris, Mrs. Richard Harris, and Francis Harris. They chose Ed McDonald, who served 1893-1896. He was only a licensed preacher, so they requested that Pastor H. Homman of Tampa’s Beulah Baptist Church ordain McDonald. It was done. A widower, McDonald soon married a Methodist woman and moved to the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church.
On June 12, 1912, John A. Rowand and his wife, Mary J. Rowand of St. John’s County, sold the property at the corner of W. Magnolia and Orange for $500 to the trustees of the African Baptist Church of Arcadia: S. G. Daniels, R. L. Owens, W. O. Smith, Randall James, Richard Stebbins, W. Hays, Mack Williams, I. Clemmons, and T. N. Norwood, as recorded in Deed Book 183, Jan. 24, 1923.
The church moved to that site — and pews and other “necessary furnishings” were added — under the leadership of the Rev. Lee A. Johnson. In the 1921 Arcadia city directory, Johnson and his wife Sadie resided at 144 S. Orange Ave., about where the Hickson Funeral Home is today.
Also in the 1921 city directory was the Rev. Asa J. Brown, pastor of the Missionary Baptist Church. He and his wife, Mary, lived at 108 S. Orange Ave., the present-day address of Elizabeth Baptist Church.
In the 1926 city directory, the Rev. G. P. McKinney, pastor of the Missionary Baptist Church, is listed living at 108 S. Orange Ave. with his wife, Sallie R. Their nearly grown children had their own listings: Flora H. and Richard I. were students, and Ethel A. McKinney was a teacher at the Arcadia Grammar School.
Much of this historical information was published in the April 23, 1989, DeSoto County Times, and Oct. 20, 1988, Arcadian, at about the time that the present masonry church was built and the former wooden church demolished. According to the WPA history, the wood church was constructed in 1904, dedicated in 1905, and remodeled in 1935. The remodeling probably included the addition of extra rooms for the choir, Sunday school, and Baptist Training Union (B.T.U.) under the leadership of the Rev. W. E. Gardner, M.D.
Learn more about about this important chapter in DeSoto County history from James Lee Faison III, president of the HCW Foundation, who will talk about the Smith-Brown School before the DeSoto County Historical Society at 12 p.m. Feb. 14 at the Family Service Center Annex (old West Elementary School cafeteria), N. Orange Avenue and W. Effie Street in Arcadia. The meeting is free and open to the public. Lunch is available for $7 at 11:30 a.m. At noon, Society President Norma Banas will conduct a brief business meeting and introduce Mr. Faison. For information, www.historicdesoto.org or 863-266-5774.