The Rev. Dr. Willie Oliver Wells Sr.–- pastor of Greater St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, in Cocoa, Florida, for more than 50 years, well-known civil rights leader, and great servant of the Lord in church and civic affairs –- died on November 4, 2015. He was 84.
Rev. Wells was an inspiring leader who identified with the struggle for decency, justice and security for all people. The U.S. Army veteran served the church and his country with fearless courage and was a champion of all causes he believed to be right. His kind, friendly spirit will be missed, especially by those who worked closely with him.
Rev. Wells rendered faithful service and will long be remembered for his many contributions to the betterment of our community. Not the least of these is the part he played in the development of affordable housing for local residents, equal opportunity employment, and his leadership and courageous support of racial justice.
Rev. Wells was born on April 11, 1931, in Miami. He was the youngest of seven children born to Lillie and Rev. Oliver W. Wells Sr., pastor of Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church, Fort Lauderdale.
He graduated from Dillard High School in 1949 and attended Bethune Cookman College on a football scholarship. During his sophomore year, his father passed, and he entered the U.S. Army. He attended leadership school in Virginia, and was stationed in Germany for two years. Afterwards, he attended Fisk University and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. Also, he attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, and graduated with a Bachelor of Theology degree in 1955.
In 1955, he married Annie Ruth Collins of Cocoa. The couple lived in Tennessee, and he was pastor of Westwood Baptist Church, Nashville, for two years.
In 1959, when there was a vacancy for a pastor at Greater St. Paul Baptist Church, Rev. Wells was selected to fill that position. Then, the couple moved to Cocoa.
At that time, blacks were barred from public beaches, parks, restrooms and restaurants, in Brevard County and elsewhere. Rev. Wells worked to change the oppressive “Jim Crow” laws. During the early 1960’s, Rev. Wells was a Freedom Rider who led non-violent civil protests. He was an original member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -–along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–- and during his lifetime Rev. Wells spearheaded many projects to combat racism, poverty, drug abuse and crime. He was instrumental in bringing about desegregation in Brevard County, where he led anti-segregation campaigns and held various civic leadership positions.
He served as president of the Brevard County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, vice-president of the Florida branch of the NAACP, and chairman of the Redevelopment Commission of the City of Cocoa.
Rev. Wells established the Community Action Agency of Brevard, which provided low-income day care centers; Project Uplift, a fund for interest free loans to the church’s members; and in 1968, he constructed two low-rent apartment complexes, Shull Manor in Melbourne and Tropical Manor in Merritt Island. In 1978, Dr. Wells led Greater St. Paul Baptist Church in building a $1.2 million complex.
Dr. Annie Ruth Wells passed in 2008. Rev. Wells retired as pastor of Greater St. Paul Baptist Church in 2011. He leaves to mourn his passing his four children, Rev. Willie Oliver Wells Jr. (Jimmie Lee), Rev. Oliver W. Wells (Linda), and Annette O. Wells, all of Cocoa; and Dee Dee Wells (Michael) of Maryland; and 10 grandchildren.
Florida civil rights leader Rev. W.O. Wells had roots in Wilson County. His grandfather Burt Wells was born in Toisnot township circa 1872 to Alexander and Nancy Joyner Wells and migrated to south Georgia in the late 1800s. Burt Wells’ son Oliver W. Wells, born in 1895 in Willacoochee, Georgia, was Rev. W.O. Wells’ father.
On 28 May 1868, Ellick Wells, son of Kain and Milly Wells, married Nancy Joyner, daughter of Polly Joyner, at Harris Winstead’s in Wilson County.
On 19 December 1868, Isaac Wells, son of Cain and Milly Wells, married Clarky Farmer, daughter of Ben Dowley and Ellen Dowly, at C.C. Barnes’ in Wilson County.
In 1868, Cain Wells obtained a license to marry Sarah Braswell, daughter of Quincy Braswell. The license was not registered with the Wilson County clerk and, presumably, the couple never married.
Toney Wells, son of Cain and Milly Wells, married Laura Ethridge, daughter of Julia Ethridge, in Liberty township, Nash County, on 30 January 1869.
In the 1870 census of Upper Town Creek township, Edgecombe County: Ellick Wells, 26, Nancy, 18, Clara, 2, and Milly Batchelor, 70.
Nancy died in the early 1870s, and, on 3 August 1879, Alex Wells, 33, married Easter Parker, 22, in Wilson County.
In the 1880 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farm laborer Al’x Wells, 35, wife Easter, 19, and children Delpha, 10, Birt, 8, and Arnold, 7.
Delphia Wells married William Drake on 1 July 1888 at A.F. Williams’ in Toisnot township.
In perhaps the early 1890s, Burt Wells and perhaps his father Alex moved from Wilson County to south Georgia. The 1900 census of Pearson township, Coffee County, Georgia, shows: Alexander Wells, 60, born in North Carolina, with his wife of seven years, Mary Ann, 40. Burt is not found in the 1900 census, but the World War I draft registrations of his oldest sons Willie, Oliver and Dewey show that they were born in Coffee (now Atkinson) County, Georgia.
In the 1910 census of Pearson township, Coffee County, Georgia: farmer Burt Wells, 45, wife Susie, 34, and children Sindy, 15, Elisah, 14, Willie, 12, Oliver, 11, Duey, 10, Oscar, 8, Delphy, 7, Squire, 6, Arnold, 4, Felton, 2, boarder Solomon Street, 21.
In the 1920 census of Pearson township, Atkinson County, Georgia: on Columbine Road, Burt Wells, 50, wife Lela, 30, and children Dewey, 22, Arnel, 13, Felton, 10, Osie, 3½, and Odom, 1 1/2.
In the 1930 census of Military District 1026, Atkinson County, Georgia: North Carolina-born Bert Wells, 60, wife Lelia, 37, and children Ocie, 13, Odom, 11.
Photograph credit to and obituary adapted from www.blackchristiannews.com.