Whew! 2020 is over! 

With the dawning of any new year, there is a sense that we get to start over with a clean slate. As we begin again, there are important lessons we should have learned from 2020. It is not enough to just remember them, but rather we need to find ways to incorporate them into our lives. Two of these have particular relevance to this blog post: 1) it is important to know history and 2) it is important to advocate for the dignity of all people. Adopting or continuing these things in our lives will create radical change for the good. We need to look no further than one of our own members, Mr. William O’Neal, as an example.

There are a convergence of factors that make it apropos for us to be remembering this man and his significant contributions. The start of a new year has already been mentioned, but then there is the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the coming days as well as for us as believers we are in what is known as Epiphany in our liturgical calendar.

The season of Epiphany is about Christ being the light and overcoming darkness as we read in John 1:5:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

While we are all deeply flawed people, stories are such valuable reminders of God’s grace, goodness, and provision in the wake of real difficulty and challenge. I cannot begin to imagine the resistance, scrutiny, threats, and hardship that Mr. O’Neal encountered as he was compelled to help blacks secure their voting rights, to participate in public life, and to lead in his own church. As you will read, you will see that he was clearly light to a dark world.

A Life Well Lived

William R. O’Neal (1864 – 1946), one time Bible School Superintendent at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando (FPCO) and candidate for both governor and Senate, actively encouraged and assisted in the registration of disenfranchised black voters in the early 1900s. For this act of faithful citizenry, he was targeted by the KKK amidst the events of the Ocoee Massacre of 1920. Today his missional legacy continues through his family fund that underwrites many FPCO ministries to this day.

O’Neal features in the current Orange County Regional History Museum’s exhibit: Yesterday, This Was Home: The Ocoee Massacre of 1920. While touring the exhibit with a group of local pastors recently, I read the very letter sent by the Grand Master of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) threatening O’Neal. It is pathetic to read, and terrifying to think that such threats were sent to other citizens. As a side note, everyone needs to see this excellent exhibit to understand the racial tension today in our community and learn the heroic stories of many.

The exhibit curators do an outstanding job setting the racial context. Vivid imagery, historic documents, interactive technology, and reams of investigative research help the participant grasp the divisive times.

Racial violence in the United States during the early 1900’s was high, with the number of lynchings of African Americans increasing from 38 in 1917 to 58 in 1918. In addition, 1920 was a presidential election year, and November 1920 was the first general election held after the end of World War I and the first election where women were permitted to vote after the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

White, Republican politicians in the South were working with local African American leaders to register African American voters who tended to vote for Republican candidates. To counter this effort, the Ku Klux Klan staged Florida marches in Jacksonville and Orlando to intimidate African Americans before the election. (OPPAGA Report)

Doing Good Despite Threats

O’Neal’s work in the black community is seen as commendable today. However, in his day the   prominence and public profile he gained were disrupting the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan to the extent that it triggered a threat by the Grand Master. 

Wikipedia illustrates the many important roles O’Neal held in the community:

William Russell O’Neal was a lawyer and businessman who was involved in banking, insurance, real estate, was a passenger agent for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in Orlando, owned newspapers, and wrote a newspaper column. He was a trustee of Rollins College. A Republican, he ran for governor, U.S. Senate, and Florida Superintendent of Public Education, losing each time to the candidate of the then dominant Democratic Party.

As if these roles weren’t enough, he served as Orlando’s postmaster, president of the City Council for ten years, and wrote regularly for the Orlando Sentinel.

The KKK kept pressure on progressive community leaders to support the white supremacy system. Leading up to the presidential election of 1920, the KKK first sent a threatening letter to former judge John Cheney. He was told that, “if any African American residents attempted to vote ‘…there would be serious trouble’” (ibid).

Judge Cheney is carbon copied on the typed letter (seen here) which O’Neal received on September 20, 1920, a month and a half before the election. In his letter, the Grand Master threatens doom if O’Neal continues “…going out among the negroes of Orlando and delivering lectures, explaining to them just how to become citizens, and how to assert their rights.” The Grand Master concludes, 

…your kind of a game is handling edged tools. We shall always enjoy WHITE SUPREMACY in this country and he who interferes must face the consequences.

The letter had an additional carbon copy notation at the bottom. It was to the local KKK chapter with the words, “Watch these two”.

O’Neal, and Cheney, survived the events of 1920 without any physical assaults, but his prophetic work cost him politically. Wikipedia notes that “[O’Neal’s] political campaigning in 1920 for the Republican Party after the Ocoee Riots was seen as a threat to the White Supremacy promoted by the dominant Democratic Party.” He never was elected to statewide office. Today O’Neal is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

For William O’Neal the lines were always blurred (as they should be) between his faith and his work. This was evident everywhere you looked in his life from the courage he took as he actively promoted the right to vote for all people to his love for the community to his love for his church. William provided great leadership and served as the Superintendent of the First Presbyterian Church “Bible School.” The Sunday School movement emerged in his era, and swept through many churches across the US. What originally began for the Christian education of poor children in a community branched into serving all the children, and then adults, of the church. It is a staple of many church activities to this day.

Examine Our Own Lives

O’Neal impact during his lifetime is undeniable. The beauty and grace of a life well lived transcended generations through his daughter’s vision who established the Mabelle O’Neal Trust. This almost two million dollar fund resides in the Heart of the City Foundation and helps to underwrite a number of FPCO ministries like The Collaborative’s Orlando Fellows. 

O’Neal’s life and legacy teaches us all to stand for justice, love one’s community through one’s vocation, and redeem that which is broken. There is a question in the larger Catechism that asks, What is the chief end of man? And the answer is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. William R. O’Neal’s life, albeit imperfectly, is a wonderful and tangible example of what it means to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.  

In remembering the life of William R. O’Neal, we are appreciating history, but it shouldn’t stop there. His story should help us to see the numerous marginalized people all around us along with better understanding that our communities and churches need the engagement of faithful, committed believers.  As we begin a new year, may we examine our own lives and pray for the grace to live in such a manner that is called forth in Micah 6:8, to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

(Ocoee Election Day Violence, November 1920 Report 19-15).

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