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For black youths, a lesson in community

Mentors spend a day educating teens about the history of bay area African-Americans.

Published January 19, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Spicing a gray and chilly Saturday, wood smoke drifted through the vines and canopies of the Driftwood neighborhood. In his back yard, Mordecai Walker tended oak logs in a barrel-sized smoker.

"I'm not the king of barbecue, but I'm the unchallenged prince," said Walker, 80, who is a retired schoolteacher.

To a group of high school students, Walker showed off artifacts of bay area African-American history and demonstrated lore handed down through generations - and as an added attraction, he supplied the barbecue lunch.

The occasion was an informal education session. In collaboration with the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, Walker's Omega Psi Phi fraternity mentors young African-Americans and helps them make the transition into adulthood. The AKA AKAdemy has a program for girls called the Exquisite Gems; the boys group is the Pathfinders.

Saturday's event focused mostly on chunks of community history. Walker's back yard is filled with artifacts left from the Tampa Bay area's late frontier era, which in some sections extended into the 1920s.

Walker showed the youngsters a cast-iron cauldron he said has been in his family for 150 years. His father, Charles Walker, brought it to Citrus Park in Hillsborough County in 1922 from Fort Valley, Ga.

The cauldron was used to heat water for a variety of uses: bathing, washing clothes, making soap, boiling the bristles off pig skin and making "cracklins" from parts of that same swine.

Walker showed off an augur bit used to drill the holes for the dynamite needed to blast out tree stumps. A resin scraper recalled the days of the turpentine camps, when African-American crews bled from pine trees the sap needed for naval stores.

A plow with a rare left-handed shank, or blade, rested next to a "mule scoop" Walker said his father used to help clear land for the Gandy Bridge.

There was a hand pump from the Citrus Park Colored School from the 1930s, a buttermilk churn and an old-fashioned school desk with an inkwell.

"He has a lot of history in his house. It's like a museum in your neighborhood," said Justin Miller, 17, a Boca Ciega High School student bound for Florida State.

"I've never seen anything like this before," said Kevin Rose, 14, a Gibbs student.

Corey Henderson, 15, who attends Lakewood, tentatively thumbed the sharp end of a bull's horn. Walker explained how a long-horned bull is less dangerous than a bull with short horns. It's easier for a man to grab a long horn and wrestle the bull down, Walker said, than to face an aggressive short-horned beast moving its weapons in quick, tight arcs.

Later, Walker demonstrated the art of air-layering, a method of propagating plants. He let Miller cut a notch in a variegated croton, then used foil to pack moist sphagnum moss around the slice.

Antaeus Henry, 14, a Gibbs student, raised his eyebrows in surprise when Walker pointed out a 31/2-foot croton that was produced from air-layering less than a year ago.

That part of the demonstration was a natural for Walker, who taught horticulture for 36 years before retiring from the Pinellas County school system in 1987. In his front yard, he still grows lemons the size of grapefruit.

[Last modified January 19, 2005, 00:33:17]

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