The dedication ceremony for the St. Luke’s A.M.E. Church Park was held in Farmington on Nov. 4.
In attendance were members of the Matthews family – who donated the land for the park – as well as city officials and residents noting the important piece of Farmington history.
The park, located at the corner of Franklin Street and Third Street near downtown Farmington, was the site of the St. Luke’s A.M.E. Church – the first African Methodist Episcopal Church west of the Mississippi.
The property was donated to the city by former Farmington City Councilman Bill Matthews Sr. and Charles Matthews in February of 2014.
The gift of the land was given by the brothers for the city to develop the site into a memorial park in honor of the African-American families who played an integral part in the history and development of Farmington.
Parks and Recreation Director Chris Conway introduced Mayor Larry Forsythe, who said completing the park was one of his first priorities after being elected in April.
Members of the city’s tree board implemented the design for the park – utilizing Ivory Silk trees to note the outer walls of the former church and boxwoods in the area where the altar once stood.
Bill served on the Farmington City Council for a number of years and shared stories of how he worked to make improvements for his neighborhood.
“I grew up right on this street….I spent 20 years in the military,” Matthews said. “I come back home (and) still didn’t have a sidewalk,” Bill said. He went on to say his mother, Mary Imogene, was able to walk on the sidewalk in front of her home just months before she died.
“She walked on that sidewalk to the end,” he said. “Took my politicking to get one…but, we got one.”
He used his desire to get the job done by running for city council – to which he noted people would state “Bill Matthews is back in town – look out. He’s the noisiest thing around.”
“Farmington has been great to me. I grew up playing in these streets here and (the city) has done so many wonderful things,” Bill said. “I’m so proud this is the town that I’m from.”
He credited Forsythe for helping make the park a reality – noting the two served together on the city council for a time.
Bill also expressed his appreciation to local historian Jon Cozean.
“Jon, I feel like you’re a part of our family,” Bill said.
Charles addressed those in attendance, noting the growth of the community
“I remember Farmington when we had 7,000 people here," he said. "But, if you had any vision you knew it was going to grow because it was the county seat. Everything has gravitated toward Farmington. With this memorial today, we had this property, we had the church that was here.
“Our efforts to preserve (the church), failed. And this is what we did in lieu of that…we decided to donate (the property) and thanks to the mayor for making this actually come to fruition.”
Charles also acknowledged former Mayor Mit Landrum – who, after the donation in 2014, came out to discuss the possibility of the park.
Cozean said the addition of the park is a “highly significant addition to the Farmington parks system.”
“We are here surrounded by an incredible number of unique parks…all these parks celebrate the wonderful and unique geographic features that surround us,” he said. “Consider this. We are here at one of the state’s most unique and important parks. This park does not focus on geography. Rather, it focuses on people.
“People who helped Farmington grow and prosper. People who helped our city move ahead in commerce, government, religion and education. Indeed, we are here to celebrate our town’s African-American heritage.”
He noted after the Civil War, the African-American community living in Farmington purchased land near the center of town to build homes and businesses.
“We are right now in the midst of that land – between Franklin Street and Jefferson Street,” he said. “The land extended south to the Masonic Cemetery.”
One of the first projects within that area was the construction of the St. Luke’s A.M.E. Church.
The church was built in 1887 and was organized by Rev. Christopher Tayer. The building stood until 2004. Cozean also noted Sarah Barton Murphy is buried in nearby Masonic Cemetery. She is credited with holding the first Sunday School class west of the Mississippi.
“In a way, all of us are standing right now on hallowed ground,” Cozean said, adding current generations and those to come will be eternally grateful for the creation of the park.
Cozean noted the park serves to show a rich heritage of the African American community in the history of Farmington.
“This park make be small – but its significance is enormous,” Cozean said.
He made note of another A.M.E. church once located about a block from the park.
“However, this location should forever be revered and preserved,” he said. “We, and future generations, will be eternally grateful for the creation of this park.
“First, our thanks to Bill and Charles Matthews who donated the land to the city; to Mayors Mit Landrum and Larry Forsythe who appreciated the significance and shepherded the project through the city council.”
He also noted a debt of gratitude is owed the tree board for the design of the park.
Cozean noted the contributions Bill made to the city – recalling a conversation he had at the former Ozark Village Restaurant about city government when Cozean moved back to the area.
“I said, ‘who’s the mayor now’ and they said ‘Ron Stevens’,” referring to the mayor at that time, Cozean said.
At which time Cozean remembers another individual stating, “(Stevens) is the official mayor. But the real mayor of Farmington is Bill Matthews.”
Delivering the invocation for the ceremony was Bishop Ron Luellen, Sr. of Mount Pilgrim Free Will Baptist Church, expressing thanks for the vision of the Matthews family and city leaders in the creation of the park and for “dreams that come true.”