Miami burned all around the pastor as he stood alone in the doorway of his church.
Hours earlier, on May 17, 1980, an all-white Tampa jury acquitted four Miami officers in the beating death of black businessman Arthur McDuffie. By the end of the resulting riot’s third day, 18 had died, 350 had been injured and property damage had exceeded $100 million.
But Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church’s bells never stopped ringing. This was the Rev. Samuel Atchison’s doing.
Mt. Calvary was his spiritual home since he became pastor in its original Overtown lot in 1963. Three years later, after the Florida Department of Transportation forced a relocation to build Interstate 95, Atchison helped move the historic church to the heart of Liberty City on Northwest 62nd Street, where it still stands.
“I remember the day he came home, he was so flustered,” daughter Sandra McKinney said of the McDuffie riots. “He was standing in the door and the guys ran up to him with a pole with fire on it and they all said to him, ‘Get back in the church, Reverend, and close the door.’ ”
“I don’t know what Dad was thinking, but he was going to protect his church,” McKinney said. “Everything around Calvary burned down. But not Calvary. They passed him by. All the power went out around there but the bell kept ringing.”
Atchison, 89, died Aug. 9, nine years after finally stepping down as the church’s spiritual leader in 2007. He had served for 45 years.
“He was such an example in our community of a Christian man,” said Bea Hines, a longtime Miami Herald religion columnist. “He left big footprints. Very hard to follow a man like that.”
Atchison was born April 27, 1927, in Thorsby, Alabama, one of 10 children. He moved to Miami with his wife, Maurene, and their first two children in 1950.
“What fascinated me about Dad is he had nine kids in 11 years and insisted that we … all had to get higher education,” McKinney said. Eight of his children went on to college; one opted for the military. Atchison approved. He had served in the Army during World War II.
“We weren’t allowed to have a car or get a job because he wanted you to get in there and get out. There was no time to mess around,” said his daughter, the fifth born. “It was amazing how he did that. We would get $25 a month and a box sent from home. We learned how to take that $25 and make it work.”
At the time, Atchison, who graduated from the J.T. Brown Theological Seminary at Florida Memorial College in Miami and who later earned a doctorate of divinity degree from Smith College in Tallahassee, was lead foreman for Eastern Airlines, a job he held for 33 years until 1985. Atchison and his daughter, then a senior accountant for Eastern, shared rides to work. Every afternoon, Atchison changed out of his Eastern uniform into a suit and tie for his church job.
He heard the calling in 1957 and preached his trial sermon at Antioch Baptist Church of Carol City. In 1963, he joined Mt. Calvary. There, he was renowned for his energetic preaching and singing, one leg thrown over the side of his pulpit. In 1979, one of his sermons, “Don’t Blow Your Last Chance,” was recorded at the church and became a gospel hit on WMBM-AM 1490.
Soon after, Atchison was one of the founders of the former Peoples National Bank of Commerce, one of the first black-owned banks in Florida.
After the McDuffie riots, Atchison and other community activists, including Arthur E. Teele, a future Miami-Dade commissioner, led the six-year effort to have a $4.1 million police substation built on Northwest 62nd Street in Liberty City.
In 2004, the Black Heritage Planning Committee honored Atchison with its Pillars Award, a tribute given to influential black public officials, religious leaders and professionals. Two years later, Northwest Seventh Avenue from 54th to 95th streets was renamed The Rev. Dr. Samuel Atchison Way.
Atchison is also survived by his wife, Maurene; his children Samuel Jr., Leon, Joseph Lynn, Gloria and Vernon Keith; and brother JB Atchison. He was predeceased by sons Randall, Willie Roger and Timothy. A viewing at 3 p.m. Friday, followed by a memorial at 6 p.m., will be at Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, 1140 NW 62nd St., Miami. Funeral services will be at 3 p.m. Sunday at New Birth Baptist Church, 2300 NW 135th St., Miami.