Leadership Gallery

The Reverend John Edwin Culmer, 1891-1963

John E. Culmer

The Reverend John E. Culmer, 1958.

John Edwin Culmer, the son of Edwin James and Ellen Thompson Culmer, was born May 22, 1891, in Savannah Sound, Eleuthera, Bahamas. He immigrated to the United States in early 1911. During his lifetime, he would become a distinguished religious and civic leader on community, state, and national levels. As an Episcopal priest, archdeacon, author, and civic leader, Culmer courageously confronted racial injustices in the Church and society. He also was an advocate of integration and equality.

After a public and private school education in Eleuthera and Nassau, Culmer came from the Bahamas to Miami, Florida, at the age of 19 and settled in the Coconut Grove area of the city. Shortly after his arrival, he was confirmed as a member of Christ Episcopal Church, where he served as an organist, choir director, and Sunday school teacher and superintendent. Although well-educated, Culmer initially found work as a common laborer in road construction. He was later employed as a music teacher and superintendent of the pressing, cleaning, and laundry department at St. Alban's Industrial School and as a clerk at the Burdine Outlet Department Store.

Culmer purchased land in Coconut Grove and built a home. Shortly after, in 1914, he married Nancy Elizabeth Taylor. Five years later upon Culmer’s completion of seminary and ordination to the diaconate, the couple relocated to Tampa, Florida where they remained until returning to Miami in 1929. Nancy died in December, 1941. On July 3, 1947, Culmer married Leome Frances Scavella; five children were born to this union.

Culmer's efforts to pursue the priesthood began when he replied to an advertisement recruiting young men for the ministry. Although his initial attempt to join the priesthood was thwarted upon notification that colored men were not needed at the time, the Reverend Benjamin Soper of St, Stephen's in Coconut Grove later recruited Culmer for this vocation. With a work scholarship and financial assistance from an affluent Coconut Grove couple, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Curtiss James, Culmer completed the requirements for the Bachelor of Music degree at Oskaloosa College in Iowa and the Bachelor of Divinity degree from Bishop Payne Divinity School in Petersburg, Virginia. Bishop Cameron Mann ordained him as a deacon in August, 1919, and, in March of the following year, ordained him a priest.

His parochial ministry began at St. James' Church in Tampa, where he served as vicar from 1919 to 1929. During his ten years there, Culmer successfully completed the red-pressed brick church edifice, installed the pews, built the rectory, paid the mortgage indebtedness of $25,000, and nearly doubled the membership. He also started the mission of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in the neighboring community of St. Petersburg. In 1929 when Culmer was transferred to Miami, the members of the congregation sent letters of protest to the bishop, and Tampa's religious and civic leadership, white and colored, expressed profound regret at the decision.

Seven years prior to Culmer’s arrival at St. Agnes' in Miami, located in the Colored Town section of the city, a foundation had been laid for a new church. As money became available, the walls were built to window height. Four years later, however, the walls were leveled by the notorious hurricane of 1926. Aided by a gift of $15,000 from the National Church, construction had been resumed. Financial and other reverses resulted in additional delays, and hope for the new church's completion had been abandoned by even the most faithful members of the congregation. Fourteen months after Culmer's arrival at St. Agnes' and during the Great Depression, the block-long edifice was completed, and furnishings, including a Moller pipe organ and a marble finished altar, were installed. The first service was held on November 30, 1930. The mortgage of $77,000 was burned in 1942, and the church was consecrated by Bishop Wing. St. Agnes' was elevated to the status of a parish in union with the Diocese of South Florida at the 1943 diocesan convention at Bradenton, Florida, and Culmer was instituted as its first rector.

Culmer was the priest and rector of St. Agnes' for 34 years, until his death in 1963. During his ministry, the parish hall was remodeled, the rectory was renovated, and a new social hall was built. As the rector, he presented 3,000 for confirmation and baptized a like number of infants and adults. Under his leadership, St. Agnes' membership grew to 2,300 congregants in the 1940s, thus making it the largest Episcopal church of color in the South and the third largest for Afro-Anglicans in the country. From 1944 to 1963, Culmer served simultaneously as the rector of St. Agnes’ and as Archdeacon of the Diocese of South Florida.

He started two missions – the Chapel of the Transfiguration in Liberty City, now known as the Church of the Incarnation, and the Church of the Transfiguration in Opa Locka – and inspired several men to enter the ministry, including the Reverend Canon Theodore Gibson, the Reverend Canon J. Kenneth Major, the Reverend John Jarrett, Jr., and the Reverend James Hall. The bishop assigned the following clergy to serve their diaconates under Culmer: the Right Reverend Quentin Primo, Jr., the Venerable Lorentho Wooten, and the Reverend Jarrett Atkins.

Within his diocese, Culmer was an early voice for eliminating segregation from Church functions. His outspoken opposition to segregated diocesan banquets and camps and to the non-participation of blacks at corporate worship services resulted in positive outcomes; segregated banquets were outlawed, and church camps were integrated in 1954. In the early 1950s, black clergy were appointed roles at the diocesan conventions in the opening services and Holy Communion liturgy.

Culmer also was a pioneering leader at the diocesan, national and international Church levels. He served on both the provincial and diocesan levels as a president of the Conference of Church Workers among Colored People, known today as the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE), a confederation of chapters and interest groups throughout the United States dedicated to the ministry of blacks in the Episcopal Church.

Culmer is credited as the first black within the Diocese of South Florida elected as a delegate to the Provincial Synod and was elected as a provincial synod delegate more than a dozen times. In 1943, Culmer was the first person of color, in more than 50 years, elected as a deputy to General Convention. He also was elected as a deputy to the 1946, 1955, and 1958 General Conventions and was appointed to the Interim Committee of the latter. On the international level, Culmer was one of two black clerical delegates (there were a total of 20) selected to represent the Episcopal Church of America at the 1948 Church Union International Conference in Surrey, England. He was invited to sit on the dais and was privileged to attend some of the meetings at the Lambeth Conference which followed the Surrey meeting.

His intense interest in race relations provided Culmer the opportunity, as one of 50 national leaders, to attend a Washington Conference at Howard University, sponsored by the Department of Race Relations of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ. In 1935 he was invited by Bishop Clinton S. Quin to facilitate a workshop on race relations in Galveston, Texas. Presiding Bishop Henry St. George Tucker appointed Culmer to an interracial commission which consisted of four bishops, four priests, and four lay people to study race relations within the Episcopal Church; he was the only Negro appointee. In the late 1950s, he was elected to serve as a member of the American Church Union (ACU).

Committed to quality and service beyond his parish and diocese, Culmer sought to improve the lives of people within the larger south Florida community. During his tenure in Tampa, he served as the Acting Executive Secretary of the Tampa Urban League and the Chairman of the Booker T. Washington Branch of the Tampa Chapter of the American Red Cross. Culmer also was a probation officer, counseling male juvenile delinquents and men; this work was continued after his move to Miami.

During the early 1930s, he organized an interracial committee in Miami. In 1934 as the volunteer chairman of the Fact-Finding Committee of the Greater Miami Negro Civic League, Culmer initiated a campaign for better housing and sanitation improvements for Miami's Central Negro District, now known as Overtown. Culmer’s efforts interested the editor of The Miami Herald, Judge Stoneman, who published an expose of the conditions in the newspaper. This series of articles, which appeared over a two week period, ultimately led to the construction of Liberty Square, dubbed as "the million dollar project," which became the first public housing project in Florida and the second in the nation. The first was built in New York after President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration determined the existence of greater need there. The first section of liberty Square opened in February, 1937.

Citing constitutional provisions for protection from Ku Klux Klan members, Culmer also worked to enforce black suffrage and citizens' voting rights. In 1944 he assisted with the forming of the community's first black police force, which was designed to cut crime and police brutality by white officers; Culmer also was behind the movement to establish the Negro police precinct in 1950. As a class instructor for the naturalization of aliens in the 1930s and 1940s, his community work impacted a broad spectrum of people.

Another of Culmer’s contributions to Miami was the establishment of a kindergarten for pre-school children in the early 1930s. Starting with five children, the kindergarten, over a period of time, grew to an enrollment of over 100. The inaugural graduating class of 1934 probably was the first in Miami to don caps and gowns. 

A charter member of the Southern Regional Council on Interracial Cooperation, Culmer also was a member of the Regional Commission on Interracial Cooperation. Culmer was one of ten black leaders designated and appointed by Florida Governor Sholtz as a member of Florida’s delegation to the Texas Centennial Exposition Committee and became its publicity director. In 1952 Governor Fuller Warren appointed him as a member of the Dade County District Board of Social Welfare, believed to be the first major governing board appointment of Negro in the state since Reconstruction.

A tireless advocate, Culmer was a part of the Citizen's Service League, a group of citizens who met to strategize about securing adequate recreational facilities when the community's colored people were denied access privileges at all Dade County beaches. This and other efforts resulted in the opening, on August 1, 1945, of Virginia Key Beach, specifically developed for the area's colored residents. The site today is known as the Historic Virginia Key Beach. Culmer also was selected as a participant in Dade County's 1956 Little White House Conference, a sub-committee of the national conference asked to study and bring about peaceful integration in public schools; Miami began its integration of public schools in 1959.

In 1958 as the spokesman for the members of local civic organization, the Delphian Club, Culmer effectively advocated the need to "speed up" the integration of the area's public buses in order to avoid chaos. The mayor of Miami, in 1960, appointed him as one of a five member interracial committee, consisting of two Negroes and three whites, given the responsibility of bringing about the smooth integration of the community's lunch counters. The committee members successfully accomplished the assigned task within the year. One of his final appointments was as a member of the City of Miami's first Senior Citizen's Board.

As a columnist, Culmer was a regular contributor to The Miami Times, New York Amsterdam, and Palm Branch. He authored several books, including The Responsibility of the Negro in the Defense Program, Born in a Washtub, and A Manual for Catholic Worship, the latter of which was widely used in Episcopal churches throughout the country. An able speaker and preacher, Culmer was in demand and received numerous invitations from churches, institutions, and organizations to appear at local, state, and national occasions and events. In 1938 he was the first from Florida invited to speak on the then popular CBS national radio program, Wings Over Jordan, broadcast from Cleveland, Ohio. Culmer also was the founder and moderator of a local public radio program, The People Speak. St. Agnes' Sunday choral mass and sermon service was broadcast in Miami for a period of years.

Both the Church and Culmer's community recognized his dedication and accomplishments with numerous awards, gubernatorial appointments, and honorary degrees, including a Certificate of commendation signed by U.S. President Harry Truman. In 1955 Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida, bestowed upon him the honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Five years later, as the institution's first living black priest recipient, Culmer was awarded the honorary Doctor of Divinity from the Virginia Theological Seminary and was recognized as "one of the nation's greatest humanitarians." John Edwin Culmer is remembered today as one of the chief architects of an integrated Episcopal Church.

Written with assistance from Leome S. Culmer, widow of John E. Culmer. [Sources]