It was a light drizzle on April 4, 1968, while Elton Wilson was trying to get subscriptions for the Washington Star. Although just 13 years old, Wilson still remembers the day Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated and looks back on as if it were yesterday.
When he returned to his family’s apartment from his route, which at the time overlooked downtown Washington, D.C., people were already starting to gather throughout the city.
“Going back across the city, up 14th Street we saw the crowds starting to gather. He made it a point to get us home. In the apartment building where we lived at that time we could see the city, downtown Washington up 14th Street start to glow,” Wilson said.
Growing up in Northwest Washington, D.C. Wilson, 56, says the city was one in transition, and that African Americans were about one generation removed from experiences like Jim Crow or segregation. Wilson recalls seeing signs for whites and colored only bathrooms. But growing up with a pastor father, there were limitations of what he could do.
“I think the uniqueness of my experience was that my father was a minister and subsequently a pastor and that has blessing and curses that are built into being a preacher’s kid. So there was always a fine line that I had to walk as a young person,” Wilson said. “And of course growing up in Washington there was always that opportunity to be one step removed from historical events - the March on Washington. In fact I remember very vividly the night that Dr. King was assassinated. Living in the 14th Street corridor at the time, the people who elected to take to the street and vandalize and demonstrate their anger in destructive ways, had an effect for years on the city.”
Wilson remembers his first exposure to the National Guard after King’s assassination, when he was taking a trip to his neighborhood Safeway. He said the guardsmen threatened to shoot and kill him if he took a step closer to the store – so he went home.
“I went to the Safeway and I was denied access to the Safeway or even being on that particular part of the street by the National Guardsmen,” Wilson said. “I remember he said to me, ‘get out of here or I’ll shoot you.’ Because I was on the street. So I went back home. But, I still remember that to this day … not doing anything, not vandalism, not rioting, nothing.”
Wilson currently serves as the pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church of St. Louis outside of Middleburg. It’s a post he’s held for the past eight years.
David Stewart, Middleburg Town Council member, has attended Wilson’s church for years and is now working under him in the ministry. He considers Wilson as his father in the ministry.
“I do believe that since he’s been [pastor of] the church in Middleburg that he’s made a difference. He’s actually gotten this church back to where it’s supposed to be. We’re going to try to do things this coming year,” Stewart said. “We’re going to have a community garden at the church. We want to be community- oriented. It’s not all about what’s going on in the church, but the church should be involved in the neighborhood and that’s the way Pastor Wilson is. He has a good sense of communication with the people.”
“I think, and as a man this is something that we don’t usually say, he’s a beautiful man. He practices what he preaches. When he preaches about the love, the love of Christ, that same love is in him. That’s why I go to that church … because of him,” Stewart continued.
Wilson, who lives in Fort Washington, Md., commutes to St. Louis daily to serve as the village’s pastor. Although not a Loudoun County resident, Wilson remains a prominent figure in the county and his influences range throughout the area, through different Baptist churches.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like him … he’s that kind of guy. I haven’t heard anyone say anything bad about him,” Stewart said.
Carter Howard, whose ancestors founded the church, has attended services since he was baptized there in 1965. He says Wilson has brought more people into the church.
“He’s a wonderful man, a child of God and the church is moving. We’re growing,” Howard said. “This is a small congregation and now people are coming in from the community.”
Wilson remembers retreating to southern Virginia for the summers to his grandfather’s farm as a child. By spending so much time there, it helped him transition to a position in in St. Louis.
“Of course, the culture in rural Virginia was significantly different than it was in Washington, D.C. and of course our grandparents certainly briefed us on the rules of engagement,” Wilson said. “I guess to me growing up in Washington, having that experience in rural Virginia and then after some time the Lord as a minister brings me out here. This culture wasn’t foreign to me. But, being here in St. Louis ministering and pastoring for the past eight years has been an enriching and rewarding experience.”
Growing up, Wilson was taught that the color of his skin was not an obstacle. His parents instilled the idea in him and his sister to be whatever they wanted to be in life.
“But the truth of the matter is that there was still limitations, spoken, unspoken, limitations put on people just because of the color of their skin. I’ve seen the transition, not that I’m old enough to have vivid memories that said for whites only and for colored here,” Wilson said. “But, in my lifetime we have transitioned through those things. Today we have an African American president, who I think is doing a fine job.”
Wilson said that when President Barack Obama was elected, it was like his forefather’s dreams being realized.
“It’s encouraging to know that in one generation that we, the United States of America, can move from segregation and vestiges of Jim Crowism to actually not by coercion or force or by military coo or takeover but by the free voting of the people, exercising their constitutional rights,” Wilson said. “To put a person, an African American in the seat of the president.”
As a father
Wilson met his wife after leaving the U.S. Air Force in the mid-1970s. They had moved to Sumter, S.C. - which he said was an entirely different experience than that of growing up in Washington, D.C.
“Sumter, South Carolina really had an impact on me. It really truly did. That was a culture shock. I mean you talk about infrastructure, across the tracks, was really across the tracks – a marked difference,” Wilson said. “On one side of the tracks the stores and the homes, the conditions of the roads and the streets. Then there’s the other side of the tracks where there are factory-built homes for the workers on stilts or pillars. Very, very well delineated point between the cultures.”
He said he raised his children the same way he was brought up – the same guidance that was instilled in him by his own parents.
“I have always tried to teach them first to be good children, secondly don’t get in trouble, thirdly if you do bad things don’t get caught, because those things stay with you,” Wilson said. “And do your best to get an education. Self-sufficiency, always have your own. I learned that from my grandfather.”
“That really had an impact on me. My wife would say that it had such an impact on me that it works to my detriment,” he continued. “That self sufficiency, that independence and I’m relatively confident that I’ve instilled that in my children. I guess all of that goes to make us and we pass those things on to our children.”
In his community
Stewart, who describes Wilson as a mentor, says the pastor’s impact on the community has been of great importance.
“For someone that’s not originally from here, he has more interest in what happens here than a lot of the people that live here,” Stewart said.
Wilson humbly admits that he doesn’t think he’s done an incredible amount for the church, but has tried to teach the congregation the same ideals he’s taught his children.
“I’ve tried to instill in the congregation to be giving not to be selfish. The desire, the vision that God has placed in my heart as pastor of these people is that we need to be doing everything we possible can to make God’s presence known in the lives of these people,” Wilson said. “To address needs not just be a place of convenience because it’s too far to drive somewhere else. But to be a kind of place that people come to because they are being satisfied here. We all have needs and we go to those places that satisfy needs. Quality of life, I guess, could sum that up. We need to have a positive and significant impact on the quality of life in our community.”
Stewart and Howard both said that Wilson’s influence in the church has brought a greater meaning to the community of St. Louis. The church’s attendance, according to all three men, has skyrocketed and will continue to work toward a more community oriented angle.
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