Father Nelson Pinder led the peaceful integration of Orlando’s community during the Civil Rights Era. In this 2013 interview, he credits the City of Orlando Police Department for preventing civil strife, community leaders for positive media messages, and the youth in our community for their peaceful activism.
Part I 14:53 LISTEN Oral History Interview with The Reverend Canon Nelson Wardell Pinder
What was a typical Sunday like for you growing up?
We got up we got all prepared to go to church. We went to church. We came back. We had family dinner. We had young people’s service league. When it was late we went to evening church. If we wanted to visit anybody between the time of Young People’s Service League and dinner, well, we did that. But it was just a typical family day.
Earliest memory of Orlando.
When I was in high school we came up here to play football and we played in the old Tangerine Bowl, that was in the forties, 1940s. Dorsey High School from Miami, FL played Jones High School from Orlando, FL, that was my earliest memory of Orlando.
Episcopal Church of Saint John the Baptist
Oh, I was probably in high school when we came this way for a conference, that was at St. John, when it was located on the corner of Terry and Pine in downtown Orlando. It had a two story building, typical Florida Gothic church, downstairs was the library and upstairs where the priest stayed. That’s my earliest remembrance of St. John’s.
The next remembrance was when I was in college and I used to ride over here with the priests on Sunday.
I came to St. John’s, I was really, I was happy to get someplace to go to work that’s number one. Number two is that I saw St. John’s as a great missionary opportunity and being a missionary opportunity meant that we had to use our imagination to do a couple of things. One is to be a witness to what God’s love and grace could be and then we had to be a minister of reconciliation of calling people to love each other and to love the Lord. So that’s my opportunity I thought we had here at St. John’s and God was good to us because that’s what we did and by doing that things just worked out the best they could.
White Ministries and Black Ministries Collaborate at the Christian Service Center
We lived in two worlds: black and white… They had two ministry alliances like they had two of everything. One black. One white. And the Christian Service Center efforts was an effort of both blacks and whites to come together because we had a tremendous problem growing downtown. And we came together to do a ministry for people who were in need: spiritually, financially, and materially….
Civil Rights Leadership in Orlando
I think that Orlando offered a tremendous missionary opportunity for people who are willing to trust the Lord. Orlando needed an awakening. We had no idea that Orlando would be the great city that it is today. But, in thinking back, this happened that I got here at the right time to help people and myself to try to bring an outreach ministry to those who were locked up in the old way of life. So it was hard and yet an attempt to do the Lord’s work and God was good to us in leading us and guiding us along the way.
So we begin to create this ministry. We find there are other people on the other side of town who’s willing also to help create this peaceful coexistence. So in trying to coexist peacefully it was both a spiritual attempt, a social attempt, a financial attempt, you name it, that we tried to do. And we had to train minds both places, on both sides of the tracks, the railroad tracks they called it in those days. And this was not a war. This was not a war. It was a ministry of trying to bring people together to do the right thing at the right time for the community.
And it wasn’t an easy job. It took some training, some deputization, we had to deputize some people to do certain things. Had to supervise them and begin to work on the missionary opportunity. I told them I could not deal with it if it was not a missionary opportunity. I didn’t want to deal with it on a political scale. If it came to be a political thing through the efforts of the mission of God then that’s fine…
And therefore it became much harder in teaching older people – young people were no problem. But there was some risks involved both black and white. Who knows what the risks were – I didn’t know. But one of the risks I didn’t want to take was people hurt. That’s a risk I didn’t want to take. I thought that was stupid to hurt people because of meanness.
Orlando Police Department and Community Leaders
So we stayed within the city. We didn’t go to the county. We stayed within the city. And we were blessed because we had a police chief named Stoney Johnson who was a great man. He really kept the police in order. Where many cities police departments were out to beat people and punish them for wanting their rights, he was not that way. And I praise him for it. Because if he was not the kind of person he was we would have had all hell breaking out in the city. But the city police department did a great job in prevention. You know that was one of the keys.
Other things that we had some people like Clive West who was then the manager of Central Florida Sears & Roebucks….
Then a man called Brechner [Joseph Brechner] who was head of Channel 9, who did a tremendous job in public relations. He didn’t show the negatives. He showed the positives. It was so great because he showed – you know we could be like this tearing themselves up and you have to rebuild. He showed how we can do these things and work peacefully on TV.
Clive West was really one of the leaders who took the business community and told them this is foolish to try to tear up the city and he did a tremendous job.
And then Jerry Bornstein, who is a lawyer, and he really got the Jewish community behind us. He and Marion Brechner [wife of Joseph Brechner], they got the Jewish community behind us in trying to make the internal peace that brought the kind of things we need into influence.
There are some other people too, whose names I can’t remember right now, black, white, Jews and Gentiles, who did a tremendous job in this effort. But more important than that were the children, youth, who really made this thing go. Who really looked forward to going downtown and demonstrating. It was really tremendous. In spite of the warnings from their parents and in spite of the warnings from other people. They said, “The hell with that. We’re going.”
And we trained them what to do and what not to do. And they were the ones who really made this thing work. They were the ones who took the risks. Some of them were told to step back because they may not finish high school and what not. They said, “What good is me finishing high school if I don’t have any place to go?” So it was more to them, this having fun going downtown into the city. They were thinking about their future in more ways then one.
The job market that was the main thing they were concerned about. There were two job markets, one black, one white. Two different pays: one white pay which was about 30, 40 percent more than black pay.
The Unfinished Agenda
This whole thing hindered around freedom. You know in the Gospel St. Luke’s the fourth chapter the 16th verse at the end, Jesus spoke about that. About the agenda he left for us to work on and we tried to work on that agenda. (Look it up when you go back and read it.) And that agenda, and what it was saying about what to do and we try to work on that agenda that Jesus left for us to do. And these young people understood that this was a ministry. It wasn’t a political thing. It was a ministry for themselves to other people and they took this ministry serious. And because they took it serious Orlando did not have the trouble other cities had.
The other key element was that we didn’t let anybody come in and run our city for us. We knew that when they left we had to still deal with the establishments and everything else. So we took charge of our own destiny. That’s another secret. We knew they’d come here and do what they had to do and then leave. The people didn’t know us. So they had to know us in order to make things work.
Head Start and the Churches
Another part of that was that, the Head Start did more to under, to unleash segregation. Let me put it this way, Head Start was the key in getting some people who were in neutral to saying, “Wait a minute this couldn’t be true”…. We challenged clergy who have these great educational buildings – Why can’t we have Head Start there? And that’s why we needed other clergy. Unitarian Church, I don’t remember the pastor there, Unitarian Church was a great leader in this. St. John’s, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a lot of the white churches, Winter Park, All Saints, Pine Castle, St. Mary of the Angel Episcopal Church, whites and blacks, clergy came together and said, “Well, we do use these buildings, but not during the week mostly”. And so, Head Start began to come in and white housewives began to volunteer in the situation. And they began to feel part of the ownership of Head Start which also softened the blow.
Racial Segregation and the Medical Community
So if you look back at the history of Head Start in Orange County it had a lot to do with opening up the opportunities for all people. And Head Start also did something that we couldn’t do. If medical people were to participate in Head Start they couldn’t segregate. It was good money in Head Start. So when I came here they had a lot of these great medical doctors had black folks standing outside the back door to come in and get medical services. So they found out there was a lot of money in Head Start, but they couldn’t segregate. So they began breaking down them doors and saying, “You know, you can come.”
But then we found out they wanted blacks to come on special days. So that became another little battle. Then on top of that you see, the hospital, Orange Memorial Hospital, was awful. They used to put black folk down in the basement with all the hot pipes and all that stuff.
So I remember when my wife was expecting our first baby and I told her I didn’t want my child to be born here, either be born in Miami or Jacksonville. I couldn’t stand it.
Then I began to work on the hospital and, Mr. Frank Hubbard gave me great help with that. Frank Hubbard, he was the big road contractor here. He gave us great help with that.
Equal Pay for City and School Employees
We also tried to attack the double standard of pay both in the city and the school system. We won the city battle easier than we did the school system. A lot of people stood up with that and lost their job.
And then they were after the NAACP roll. You know who was a member of the NAACP? I told them it was easy to get the members of the NAACP roll what about the Ku Klux Klan roll? And so that became a verbal discussion. You want the NAACP roll give me the Ku Klux Klan roll. There were just so many things that went on, that took place. We had to fight our many battles.
And then I could remember the day I went to Edgewater to talk about cheerleaders. They had some blacks on the football team who were stars and they didn’t have any black cheerleaders. I went out to talk to the principal, who’s since died, died about a year ago, maybe not that long, and he was given us all kind of excuses why it wasn’t at this time the right time to have black cheerleaders. And so, before leaving we reminded him all of his football stars were black and that cheerleaders like football stars. And he turned white as a ghost. And he said, “It’d be all right if the cheerleaders start going with the football stars, that will be fine with us.”
And then he began to understand where we were coming from. Immediately the next day he had all kind of girls out there – black – fat, ugly, pink, stink – all out there trying out for cheerleaders.
Then there was Linton Allen and Beau Duncan who saw me one day in First Bank and said to me, “We need to see you.” So I went over to talk to them and they said we need someone in the bank here who could take abuse and whatnot – we’re going to break the bank down. But they got to be mature enough, sort of like a Jackie Robinson. I said, “Okay.”
So the girl who had just come back from overseas, a member of our church who did some work in the PX she had some idea about machines and whatnot. And so I sent her down to talk to them. Her name was Catherine Briggs. And she went there and she worked her way through that bank to become a branch manager when she retired. She was the one who really began to open up banks for us.
So many people involved in this movement but to me the key was really the youth and the children, who really, not the guinea pigs, but Head Start did a lot. And those kids going downtown did a tremendous amount…
Part III Question and Answer with Father Pinder
Father Pinder shares his views on a number of contemporary issues in church and community life today.
…I support women’s ministry. I support it. I don’t want anybody being held back because of age, race, sex, or anything like that. I don’t want anybody held back. There are two levels really. You got to think of freedom and Christianity. I don’t want anybody held back because people don’t understand….
….the entertainment and the sports world have almost knocked down most of the barriers that separate people. They are way ahead of the church….
Part IV A Message to Future Generations
Reflections on serving as a priest for over 50 years and a message to future generations.
…God called me into this ministry not man. And I responded to God’s call and I accepted this role as a priest and friend. And I’ve enjoyed it being a priest and friend given when sometimes its gloomy I know the Lord. And I hope the Lord will always remember me….
…Well, I hope that generations to come will understand that this is not their world. The world was made for generations to come. Each generation has to make its own contributions to make the world work. But I tell people all the time – you know they say well, you could have been rich Father Pinder, oh, you could have been this, people would have bought you off, you could have been rich – I always say, this statement – I’ve never seen an armored car in a funeral procession…. I’ve never seen and I’ve lived 80 years, I’ve never seen an armored car – cash money – in a funeral procession. And then I learned too, that money is exchanged for good or for bad. I want mine to be for good.
Father Pinder, Part II
Father Pinder, Part III Question and Answer with Father Pinder
Father Pinder, Part III Question and Answer with Father Pinder
Father Pinder, Part IV A Message to Future Generations