Florida Baptist Historical Society’s Gallery of Historic Baptist Leaders
The story of Florida Baptists is a saga of God’s people who migrated to the Florida Territory and brought with them their missionary Baptist perspective of Christianity. It is also a story comprised of native born Floridians, who as God-called men and women used their talents, skills and resources to share the claims of Jesus Christ to a spiritually lost world. The following person is representative of those men and women that comprise the great multitude of historically significant Florida Baptists.
Historic Florida Baptist:
Born in Richmond, Virginia, on August 13, 1808, James Page’s mother was a slave owned by John H. Parkhill. Page’s father had been a free man, who was drowned while attempting to go ashore in Liberia during a colonization movement. Little more is known about James Page’s early life other than he married another slave named Elizabeth sometime before 1828.
John Parkhill, along with his family and contingent
of slaves, migrated to Leon County, Florida. There he acquired land
south of Tallahassee that Parkhill developed into a farm plantation
called Bel Air. This site became the permanent home for James and Elizabeth
Subsequently, Page was ordained in August, 1851, in an ordination service conducted by a presbytery comprise of Anglo Baptist ministers who assembled at the Newport Baptist Church of St. Luke, Wakulla County. This action would have made Page the second known African-descendent person in Florida to be ordained as a missionary Baptist minister. As noted in Chapter Two, a slave named Austin Smith was licensed and ordained by the Baptist Church in Key West in 1843.
By 1853, Page began conducting prayer services for bond servants inside Tallahassee, while continuing his pastoral responsibilities at Bel Air. [This ministry in Tallahassee would ultimately result in the establishment in 1870 of another uniquely African-descendent congregation called the Bethel Baptist Church.] Page expanded his itinerant ministry by visiting most of the plantations in Leon County at least one Sunday a month.
With the untimely death in 1854 of plantation owner John Parkhill, James Page was designated as the “protector,” business manger and confident of Parkhill’s widow, roles Page would fulfill for the remainder of his life. Probably because of this position of trust, Page was granted a rare freedom of movement experienced by few bond servants in the South. In response to the demand for his ministerial services, James Page was permitted to travel freely throughout middle Florida, and eventually traveled to Key West and as far north as Thomasville, Georgia.
Emancipation for James Page probably did not come any earlier than it did for all of Florida’s slaves. Freedom officially did not come until many years later on May 20, 1865, when Confederate Florida formally surrendered to Union Brigadier General Edward McCook at the state capitol in Tallahassee. And for many slaves full citizen rights were not officially sanctioned until passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which finally outlawed slavery. But until that day, Page continued his steadfast itinerant ministry of proclaiming the gospel of Christ among middle Florida’s plantations’ bond servants.
James Page, who had benefited from a tutorial education provided by John Parkhill, sought to provide educational opportunities for the recently freed slaves. In 1868 he started a school in Bel Air called the Page School Society which was one of the first schools for African-Americans in Florida. The school subsequently closed. However, the educational interests of James Page did not stop there. He helped the predominately African-American Bethlehem Baptist Association #1 establish in 1879 at Live Oak the first African-American Baptist school that did survive. It was first called The Live Oak of Florida Institute, and with the help of the American Baptist Home Mission Board, opened in October 1880. The school was the forerunner of the present Florida Memorial College located in Miami.
Page died in Leon County at the age of 75 years old. Having been actively preaching right up to the week of his death, the Weekly Floridian reported that he died “quietly and peacefully” on March 16, 1883. Page is buried in Tallahassee’s Old City Cemetery.
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