St. Paul African Methodist Episcopalian Church founded Marathon’s first Black school in the 1950s; the Keys were segregated at the time.

In the early 1950s, Marathon resident Grace Jones took a bus down to Key West to talk to Horace O’Bryant. He was the superintendent of the county’s schools at the time, and Jones was hoping that she could get his permission to send her children to Key West to study. Due to segregation laws, the sole school in Marathon was just for white students, so the only way for Black children to get an education was in Key West.

But as her granddaughter, Charlotte Robbins, told Keys Weekly, when Jones got on the bus, the driver told her to sit in the section designated for Blacks in the back. As she walked between the rows to the section, the driver suddenly took off and the bus lurched — and she fell and broke her arm. 

In spite of all this, Jones accomplished her mission: She was able to send her kids to stay with relatives and study in Key West. And later, she started the first school in Marathon for Black students at her place of worship, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopalian Church, on 41st Street.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Larry White, the current pastor of the church, which still stands at the same location. 

This past Saturday, he was sitting inside the chapel’s small sanctuary with longtime members Robbins, Doris Hawkins and Burnette Jones to discuss their upcoming Black History Month events. They want the community to hear stories about people like Grace Jones and remember how things used to be. And celebrate.

“Our young people don’t understand the struggle our great-grandparents went through,” said Hawkins. “This time of year, we tell our young people to read about Black history. Kids need to know it wasn’t always like it is now.”

“I am South Carolina born and raised,” said White, “and I know what it is to pick cotton and the struggle of segregation.”

“Me too,” agreed Jones. (Burnette Jones is not a direct descendent of school founder Grace Jones, though she is connected to the family by marriage.) “I’ll be 80 next month. I remember certain behaviors. But we had great pride in who we were.”

Jones spoke of picking a bolt of pretty cotton fabric at the local general store and having a new dress sewn from it for Sunday church, where congregants who couldn’t read or write could still feel moved by songs about the holy spirit called “spirituals.”

“The church was a beacon for all Black communities,” she said.

Robbins explained that in addition to fighting for a Black school, her grandmother Grace Jones helped found St. Paul AME Church along with her grandfather, church deacon Harry Jones, in the 1940s. 

“William Parrish donated the land, and the first church was made from wood,” said Robbins. Since the structure had a bathroom, it was selected as the perfect place for Grace Jones to run the school.  

The wooden chapel was eventually replaced on the same plot of land by the current church, which was constructed out of cement that was purchased, one bag at a time, from pennies that parishioners donated when they could. It was finally completed in 1954.

Though at one point the congregation was a large one, these days, said Hawkins, attendance at the weekly Sunday service has been about eight people. Ten or 12 tops. 

“Except when all of my grand- and great-grandchildren attend, then it fills up,” she said, laughing. 

But the group remains undaunted. After they posed for a photo under a picture of Martin Luther King Jr., White pointed out a poster next to the front entrance. 

“Look, this is our dream,” he said softly. On the poster were blueprints for a new fellowship hall, for which the church is currently accepting donations.

“It would have a kitchen,” he said. “If you think about it, every church has a kitchen.”

The words next to the blueprints were large, and you couldn’t miss them. They said: “The best is yet to come.”

All locals are invited to Marathon’s Black History Month events, which kick off Saturday, Feb. 24, with a health fair (sponsored by Monroe County Coalition, Thriving Mind South Florida and the Florida Department of Children and Families). The fair will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Jessie Hobbs Park, 4104 Overseas Highway. Attendees can partake in free health examinations, then enjoy food and a bounce house for the kids. The first 25 adults will receive a Publix gift card for $25. 

On Sunday, Feb. 25, St. Paul AME Church, located at 208 41st Street Gulf, will have a Black History-themed service starting at 11:30 a.m. Church service attendees are invited to have lunch at the home of Doris Hawkins.

Photos by CHARLOTTE TWINE/Keys Weekly.

Charlotte Twine
Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines; Elle.com; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.