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There’s more to do to achieve racial equality, pastors say

There’s more to do to achieve racial equality, pastors say

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

There’s more to do to achieve racial equality, pastors say

By J.A. Buchholz | Aug. 16, 2009 {1066}

NOTE: Headshots of the Revs. S.S. Robinson and William W. Roughton are available at

The Rev. S.S. Robinson doesn’t have to read the history of two separate Florida conferences merging 40 years ago because he lived it.

Demonstrators protest segregation during the 1968 uniting General Conference in Dallas. Photo courtesy of the Commission on Archives and History. Photo #09-1287.

Before June 3, 1969, Methodists in Florida were not united. Instead, they were part of two racially segregated Methodist conferences, the Florida Conference of the Central Jurisdiction and the Florida Methodist Conference.

Each conference had its own bishop and district superintendents, and the two interacted very little. One conference met annually at what was then Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach and the other at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.

Initial plans to merge the two conferences began in 1964, when the General Conference of The Methodist Church resolved that the denomination’s Central Jurisdiction should be eliminated as a separate conference structure. Created in 1939, the Central Jurisdiction included all African-American Methodist congregations, regardless of their location. By contract, the denomination’s white churches were organized as jurisdictions based on geographic location.

Robinson, an African-American pastor in the Central Jurisdiction, initially supported the idea of the two conferences merging, but later requested that his name be removed from all documentation related to it because he could no longer endorse it.

Rev. S.S. Robinson

His objections stemmed from the reality that despite good intentions to unite the two conferences, African-Americans would lose not only their African-American bishop and district superintendents, but also representation on conference boards and agencies.

Robinson’s objections are stated in a detailed history of the merger that’s included in the 2009 Florida Annual Conference workbook supplement, and he reiterated them in June during a break in the business of the annual conference session, held at Bethune-Cookman University. He vividly and in great detail recalled the events of 40 years ago.

“I bitterly opposed the merger once it was clear what we would lose,” said Robinson, now retired. “I just didn’t understand why we couldn’t keep just one of our district superintendents. We had leadership within our jurisdiction, and then it was just gone.”

“We united, there was a merger, but we are still praying and looking for inclusiveness that does not exist,” he added. “I think there is still a strong line of segregation when it comes to boards and agencies, even today in the conference.”

The Rev. J.D. Johnson, pastor of Paradise United Methodist Church in Alachua and Little Chapel United Methodist Church in Ocala, said he also did not support the merger because African-American members would lose their identity. He said the conference struggles even today in terms of finding a balance of inclusion.
Striving for better than ‘separate but equal’

The Rev. William W. Roughton, now a retired Florida Conference pastor, drafted the resolution that was approved to join the two conferences. He said he worked hard to compile merger information from several different sources for inclusion in this year’s conference workbook. The merger was highlighted at the annual business session.

Then the chairperson of the Christian Social Concerns Committee, Roughton felt that even if problems were encountered along the journey toward equality it had to be better than “separate, but equal.” He took a break during this year’s conference session to talk about that historic time in Florida Methodism and stated once again why he was involved in the movement.

“My Christian faith propelled me to work for the appropriate changes,” he said.

Amidst opposition to the merger, Roughton pressed forward with the belief it would strengthen both conferences. He was buoyed by the fact that African-American churches were paying higher per capita apportionments than their Caucasian counterparts, there was a huge overlap in district superintendents covering the same areas, causing duplication of administrative costs, and there was great disparity in salaries and pension plans. It was time for change to come to Florida.

Rev. William W. Roughton

Roughton said he was pleased and thankful when the vote in favor of the merger passed.

“Change is not easy,” he said. “This was a big change for a lot of people.”

Pressing on

Despite the changes and progress that has been made, Roughton agrees there is still much work to be done in terms of race relations within the conference.

Roughton, who was a district superintendent in the former Tallahassee District when the merger took place, became the first superintendent in the newly merged Gainesville District. He had been a member of the Inter-Jurisdictional Committee and was acquainted with many of the pastors and lay leaders of both conferences. Roughton had even been a guest speaker at the Central Jurisdiction Annual Conference.

Roughton was in for a challenge in managing the district.

Prior to the merger there were 72 churches in the Gainesville District. Once the merger took place there were 110 churches. The increased number is attributed to a high concentration of farmers who moved from south Georgia to north Florida. The majority of the laborers on those farms were African-American.

The Rev. Bill Ferguson, who was then pastor at Bartley Temple United Methodist Church in Gainesville and previously a Central Jurisdiction superintendent, was designated as an assistant to Roughton since many of the African-American churches were hard to locate. The churches were so far off the usual thoroughfares, Roughton jokingly said, that without Ferguson’s help he would still be trying to find some of the churches.

The partnership between Ferguson and Roughton worked so well the two men are considered to have greatly contributed to the success of the merger and the development of an authentic spirit of Christian unity within that district.

The African-American churches were not a chore, Roughton said, but places at which he looked forward to preaching on any occasion.

“They really encourage a pastor,” Roughton remembered. “They tell you, ‘Preach it; take your time.’ I’ve never in my life had a congregation tell me that.”

For Roughton the recollection of those early days is fond, but he doesn’t dismiss that the tomorrow many thought would come in terms of racial reconciliation has not been fully realized.

“We need to know about our past,” Roughton said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a better future.”

Roughton said he did his best to ensure the historical information about the merger in the workbook supplement is accurate, including reconnecting with Robinson about the long road the two have traveled in the creation of the Florida Conference.

“He (Robinson) is the oldest African-American pastor in the conference,” Roughton said. “I wanted his perspective.”

So many years later after the official merger, Robinson confesses his deep conviction that two conferences exist today under the umbrella of the Florida Conference. He concedes that two bishops and district superintendents no longer cover the same territory, but says African-American pastors have not been embraced at the conference level. He said a cursory glance at conference boards and agencies reveals few faces of color.

“I don’t think much has changed after 40 years for a church that wanted inclusiveness,” Robinson said. “They talk a lot about it, but practice it very little.”

Roughton is more optimistic about the church becoming more accepting of not only African-Americans, but everyone.

“We are all brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said.

The Rev. Verona Matthews, pastor at Simpson Memorial United Methodist Church in Riviera Beach, said the merger happened because of the realization that everyone is one in Christ and it was God’s timing. She was a child when the merger took place.

“There is work that continues today,” she said. “It’s a growing process. I think it gets better and better every year.”

The history of the merger is included in the section titled “40th Anniversary of Florida United Methodism” in the workbook supplement, available at under general information.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla