By Karli Barnett

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – It was a joy-filled celebration Sunday, beyond the usual weekly worship, at Greater Bethel AME Church.

Located in Overtown, Miami’s historic Black district, congregants came together for the church’s 125th anniversary.

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That makes it older than the city of Miami itself.

“One hundred and twenty-five years ago, Greater Bethel was first established at the home of Alex Lightbourne,” said church member Mya Ferguson, speaking from the podium. “Three years later, Greater Bethel was established here, where we all are today. Greater Bethel has stood the test of time, and we continue to stand tall and strong and proud.”

Even though people could not actually gather in the building because of COVID safety protocols, they still raised their voices.

Lightbourne’s great-great-great granddaughter, Allison Lightbourne Jones, was there to receive the honor on behalf of her family.

Coming from New York, she said she was not even aware of her family’s Miami history until 2019, when she was contacted regarding a documentary about the church.

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“At first I was shocked,” she explained. “Then, it started to make sense to me – this feeling, this spirit that I could not explain of why I was so drawn to Miami.”

Alexander Lightbourne had an integral role in Miami history, as he was one of the signers of the charter that incorporated Miami as a city on July 28, 1896.

In an article from FIU, which referred to him as “Miami’s Forgotten Forefather,” a local historian said Lightbourne gave an impassioned speech in favor of incorporation. This was a time still far from racial equality, when Black voices were rarely considered. But his voice was.

“You need to research your heritage,” Lightbourne Jones said. “There’s a lot of stories like myself, where you don’t know your great-great grandfather or what they contributed to their surrounding neighborhood or community.”

In the midst of a year of tragedy and uncertainty with the pandemic, this day marked a celebration of hope for the future, as well as a reverence for the past.

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Last month, the city of Miami recognized Alexander Lightbourne’s legacy at a commission meeting. His great-great-great granddaughter was there to accept the proclamation.

Karli Barnett