Marshall Keeble’s ‘boy preachers’ still baptizing and saving souls
LOS ANGELES — In 1963, an 11-year-old named Dewayne Winrow…
Franklin Florence moved to Rochester, N.Y., in 1959 to serve as full-time minister for the Reynolds Street Church of Christ. More than 60 years later when he died at age 88, he was called “a giant among giants” by the city’s mayor.
A pivotal figure in Rochester’s civil rights movement, Florence died Feb. 1. Memorial services are planned for 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, at the Central Church of Christ there. A second service will be conducted at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 11, at Rochester’s Riverside Convention Center.
“Minister Florence was a giant among giants in Rochester’s proud legacy of social justice and civil rights,” Rochester Mayor Malik Evans said in a statement shortly after Florence’s death.
“When we use the expression ‘standing on the shoulders of giants,’ we are talking about men like Minister Franklin D. Florence, bar none.”
“Minister Florence was a giant among giants in Rochester’s proud legacy of social justice and civil rights.”
Florence was born in Miami, Fla., on Aug. 9, 1934, to Hozel and Bertha Florence. As a teenager, he moved to Nashville to attend the Nashville Christian Institute and was mentored by evangelist and educator Marshall Keeble.
Florence studied at NCI from 1948 to 1952 and later attended Pepperdine University in Los Angeles for two years before returning home as the minister for the 18th Street Church of Christ in West Palm Beach, Fla.
He was only 25 when he moved with his wife and children to Rochester in 1959 to become the minister for the Reynolds Street congregation.
Like the Florence family, many African American families migrated to the New York area in that era to search for better lives. In 1964 those ambitions confronted a painful reality when a bloody race riot resulted in five deaths, four of which occurred in a helicopter crash. More than 300 people were injured and 900 arrested in two days of rioting.
Violence had begun when the Rochester Police Department attempted to make an arrest during a July 24 block party.
After the riots, Florence led the organization FIGHT, which stands for freedom, independence, God, honor, today. During his career, he took on corporate giants like Bausch and Lomb, Xerox and Kodak, forcing them to do better in terms of hiring and dealing with discrimination in their companies.
Historians credited him with forcing Kodak and Xerox, the dominant employers in Rochester at the time, to train and hire Black people, which in turn spurred changes across corporate America.
In 1971, Florence was an observer during the Attica Prison riot where, on Sept. 12 of that year, he delivered a sermon to the protesting inmates.
Florence was a member of the anti-poverty group Action for a Better Community and the Rochester Northeast Development Corporation.
In his later years, Florence protested against police brutality in Rochester. In a 2018 interview, his son and fellow minister Clifford Florence Sr. told a local television journalist that his father shared a special bond with a number of civil rights leaders, from Malcolm X to Al Sharpton.
“There was great connection and great history with Mr. Sharpton and my dad,” he said.
Clifford Florence Sr., who is now the minister for the Central Church of Christ in Rochester, said Malcolm X’s last stop before his assassination was in Rochester, where he spoke standing next to Franklin Florence and Connie Mitchell, the first African American to be elected to the Monroe County Legislature.
Fittingly, Florence’s name and image are embedded in the city landscape on a mural on the outer wall of East High School alongside Mitchell and Malcolm X and as the namesake of the Minister Franklin D. Florence Civil Rights Heritage Site at Baden Park.
William Jones, minister for the North Greece Road Church of Christ in Rochester, told The Christian Chronicle, “Brother Florence was a central figure in the battle for equity and civil rights in this area.”
New York State Sen. Jeremy Cooney said in a tweet, “Minister Florence was a giant in the fight for equality. He will be dearly missed, my prayers are with his family and loved ones.”
In his statement, the mayor said, “Since his arrival in Rochester in the 1950s, Minister Florence graced our community and the national stage with a dynamic voice that championed the concerns of Black Americans and the universal causes of social justice.”
Alluding to the words of the late Congressman John Lewis, Evans said Florence “was never afraid to get into ‘good and necessary trouble’ to expose racial and systemic injustice across various issues. These included: quality housing; criminal justice and corrections; fair labor practices; equitable education, child welfare and generational poverty.
“The city of Rochester is truly blessed to have been the home and canvas of grace of Minister Franklin D. Florence, a giant among giants.”
Florence’s papers and those of the Reynolds Street Church of Christ are part of the special collections of the University of Rochester.
HAMIL R. HARRIS is a Christian Chronicle correspondent and a veteran journalist who spent two decades with the Washington Post. He preaches regularly for the Glenarden Church of Christ in Maryland.
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