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Florida parade honors Cora Tyson’s 97th birthday amid coronavirus

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

Cora Tyson stood on her porch in Lincolnville on Monday afternoon as people drove by in vehicles adorned with balloons and birthday banners.

People shouted and honked their horns as they drove by.

Tyson, 97, is a well-known figure in the community for her efforts during the civil rights movement and her hospitality.

Because the coronavirus pandemic made it unwise to have a large in-person gathering, family and friends surprised Tyson with a birthday parade.

Several people watched the parade in front of Tyson’s house, including the Rev. Ron Rawls, pastor at St. Paul AME Church, where Tyson plays a key role.

“We love you, lady,” Rawls shouted from the sidewalk.

Police vehicles led the parade with flashing lights, and a long line of vehicles followed.

As the parade came to a close, Tyson thanked those were were still gathered around her historic home.

“Thank you so much,” she said. “I never thought anything like this would ever happen.”

Kenneth McClain Sr., one of Tyson’s grandchildren, said coronavirus lockdowns have been tough on her because she’s still a very active part of her community and she still works.

McClain helped arrange the surprise parade for Tyson.

“I was trying to plan a family reunion, but the pandemic interfered with that,” he said. “We took the energy from that and just ran with it.”

Tyson’s home is part of history. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed there with Tyson and her husband during the civil rights movement. Trolley drivers frequently pass her home and share the story with visitors.

When King came to St. Augustine, he stayed in different locations for his safety, but one of his favorite places to stay was Tyson’s house, historian David Nolan said.

Tyson cooked for King and made him iced tea. While he didn’t eat much because of his busy schedule, he drank a lot of tea.

“I made three pitchers in the morning, and they were gone at the end of the night,” she said in a previous article that shared her glazed carrots recipe.

Her home “was a gathering place for people in the movement, where they could meet, rest, seek solace, and get something to eat,” according to the nonprofit ACCORD, the The Anniversary to Commemorate the Civil Rights Demonstrations. “Those who enjoyed her hospitality obliged her by inscribing their names in her family bible. It read like a 'Who's Who’ of the civil rights movement, including Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, C. T. Vivian, Dora McDonald, Fred Shuttlesworth, Hosea Williams, and others.”

Tyson was a school cafeteria manager during the movement.

“But she did extra work during her off-hours to support the campaign against racial discrimination,” according to a description of her work by ACCORD.

Tyson also served as vice president of ACCORD.

Today, Tyson is head of the culinary ministry at St. Paul AME Church, which is in her neighborhood.

She’s also a steward at the church, which means she's a key source of help for Rawls, he said.

“If I had 370 people that were like sister Tyson, man, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself in this ministry,” Rawls said.

He said Tyson takes care of him and his family, including making sure they’re fed. When Rawls hosts demonstrations for social justice initiatives, Tyson makes sure to get there early and have refreshments ready for participants, he said.

Rawls said Tyson told him she did that for King, so she would do that for him.

For McClain, growing up with Tyson as a grandmother was enlightening and an honor — and he never missed a meal, he said.

He said his grandmother loves others like she loves her family, and he wants to be like her.

“I’d just like to wish her a happy birthday from the world because the world knows her and loves her,” he said.

This story originally published to staugustine.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.