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Oral History Interview with Dr. Robert Byrd

My name is Robert Byrd and I was born in Orlando, actually at my grandmother’s house on Cottage Hill Road which was a little rock road off of what we then called the Old Winter Garden Highway… It was just a little bit beyond what I think you now call the Citrus Bowl…

LISTEN Part I (19:21) 


How did your family happen to come to this area?

My family came to be living in Orlando and I was born in Orlando. My mother is a native of Decatur, Georgia, matter of fact. And she and her family moved to Orlando about 1915 or ’17, I think. It may have been as late as 1920. My father was actually born in Orlando here on the 22 of July in 1912. One of the things I’ve been doing is recovering an announcement of my father’s birth, and it mentions his father by initials J. O. that stood for James Otis Byrd. But it mentions his father, his grandfather A. S. Drawdy, and his great grandfather, Levi Drawdy. As they had not yet named my father, my father’s name does not get mentioned in the article…


“A Byrd Baby”, Orlando Daily Reporter Star, front page, Tuesday, July 23, 1912.

Orlando High School

So then my dad grew up in Orlando… attended OHS, Orlando High School which I later attended. And he was quite active in some of the sports things; especially men’s softball was quite popular all over the country, not just in Florida, but all over the country in the thirties and forties well into the fifties when I was actually also. A couple of times we played on the same team, same church league team. Church teams developed later. We had A league and B league teams in the thirties and forties that were quite popular and wildly reported on, largely discussed….

Softball State Championships

My father played in the A league. He played for – one of the bus lines had a tournament. Atlantic Ale Company had teams and some of the milk companies. Datson Dairies had teams in the league. And they had big championships. And in a number of years there were even state championships. As a matter of fact, I believe it was 1933 that the Orlando team was picked to represent the State of Florida at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Of course, I hadn’t been born yet at that time so I only remember the stories… I remember Oliver Barker who won national fame as a pitcher from here. And just all sorts of tournaments and traveling teams that they played. Exciting times…

Delivering fresh baked Merita bread and cakes, the Merita bread truck photographed outside the plant on the corner of South Street and Hughey Avenue in Orlando, November, 1933.

What did your family do for a living?

Well, that part of the family [my grandfather] their lives and activities were mostly centered down in Osceola County and they were in the cattle business. But that never really carried over into my grandmother’s family. My father’s family was kind of a produce specialist for many years. He worked for various produce companies. I think worked at one time for the Blue Goose which bought produce in this area and he worked as a buyer. Then my mother’s family were farmers. My grandfather, if he lived today, we’d call him a truck farmer. But he had a mule and a single tree plow. So he plowed and farmed. He was quite a good carpenter. He would do carpentry work and that kind of a thing. Then his older son went in the Navy. Then he later lived down in St. Cloud. His older son stayed at home, Marshall. He worked various places. He worked at Merita Bakery….

Marshall Edwards, pictured right, with Merita bread.

My father got into the wholesale grocery business, had worked for a company selling grocery goods to local stores. That was before the day of Publix Markets, of Kroger, or Winn Dixie. Stores were more family oriented. He worked for a company called C. G. Suarez Distributing Company out of Tampa. I believe his company sold the first Borden cheese product in Orlando….

Staff at the American Bakery Company pose for a company photo holding signs inviting the public to come to the Merita Barbecue and the Merita Weiner Roast. Circa 1930s.

What was a typical Sunday like?

My mom and dad came to live in south Orlando, 1410 30th Street which is out what we then called South Orange Blossom Trail. We were members and attended Holden Heights Baptist Church. Our Sunday was like getting up and going to church. Very often Sunday breakfasts were my favorite because my mom used to shop regularly on Saturday and she would buy special things. We would have special things for breakfast on Sunday morning that she would fix. Sometimes including some leftovers that we considered delicious from Saturday night supper. So we’d have a big breakfast and then a big lunch at home or to my grandmother’s house. We regularly, we’d probably eat at my grandmother’s as many times as we’d eat at home on Sunday. And she, they were farmers so we had chickens. During World War II [they] raised rabbits and other things to provide protein and eggs.


A promotional photo advertising Merita Cakes featuring employees pictured inside the bakery. Marshall Edwards is pictured in the second row, second from the right.

My Grandfather Edward

If we were at my grandparents, we usually had to play some quiet game. My Grandfather Edward was a little stricter about how Sundays were to be used. He was a farmer and he worked outside six days a week. For him, Sunday was like a Sabbath, a day of rest. It meant sitting on the front porch in the swing with his Bible. Reading his Bible and dozing Sunday afternoon after church. So if we went there we had to do quieter things. But in the neighborhood where I lived there were a number of us who were then about the same age and we would play different kind of ball games; wear ourselves out on Sunday afternoon. And then usually, it was back to church on Sunday night. And then, getting ready for school on Monday.


LISTEN Part II (20:34)


Grand Avenue Elementary School

I attended Grand Avenue Elementary School for six years with a great faculty. I remember the principal was Annie B. Lord and she was one, one steel magnolia, I’ll tell ya. I remember my first grade teacher was a lady named Thunderbird, Elizabeth Thunderbird as I recall…. And my sixth grade teacher, a lady named Mildred Wheeliss, a lady who was just a bundle of energy. A terrific, terrific lady. My mom was involved in the PTA. So I was there six years. My mother’s full name is Bernice Rebecca Edwards and then Byrd when she married my dad…. I don’t think I mentioned my father’s name. He was named after his grandfather his initials were A. S. Drawdy and that was for Andrew Sherman so my father was named after his grandfather Sherman and after my own father Otis. And I’m named after that same, my middle name is Otis.

High School

But she was quite involved in the school that I went to. There were only two junior high schools. We hadn’t heard of middle schools yet, Memorial and Cherokee. And I went three years to Cherokee High School and had great experiences there. My first year of high school and there was only the one high school I went to OHS one year.

Orlando High School

So my junior year there were two high schools: Boone and Edgewater in Orlando who immediately became rivals. And I’m happy to say that I played on the baseball team that won the first city championship against Edgewater High School. Had a great team, great athletes, good friends there. So that was a great experience. I was involved a lot in choral activities. I had dreams of maybe becoming a professional musician.

Leadership Influences

Julia Campbell had been the choral director at Orlando High School and came to be the director at Boone for many years. [She] had a lot of influence on my life and made a major contribution to my life. By that time I had developed a calling to ministry and I was a Baptist and a great influence from the pastor of my church, George Brown, was his name. Great influence on me. And I went to Stetson University. I was there for two years and at that point I wasn’t disciplined enough and wasn’t prepared enough to be a good college student so I lost my scholarship as a matter of fact. I wasn’t able to maintain my scholarship and I was the oldest of six children and my parents weren’t able to help me a lot. It was long before any kind of student loans and so I dropped out. And eventually after a number of years I graduated from Belmont College in Tennessee and that took me to Tennessee… My undergraduate degree was in history with a minor in psychology and philosophy.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

I went into graduate work. I went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. And I earned a Master’s Degree and a Doctor’s Degree at Southern Seminary. And then after that I met and married my wife who was from Nashville, Tennessee Joyce Tubbins was her name before we married and had four children.


I became a professor at what was then Belmont College which is now Belmont University. I was in the first Department of Religion and then it became the School of Religion. And I taught primarily New Testament related subjects. I taught primarily for students particularly planning to go into ministry or to go on to graduate school. I taught Greek to enable them to turn to their Greek New Testament more readily….

Did you have males and females in your classes?

We had males and females. I helped my school work through that. You have to understand these days we have all sorts of recovery programs to help people to recover from things. Sometimes we forget that some of us who have lived a long time are recovering from lot of things. I’m a recovering male chauvinist. I grew up in a world where some of the distinctions to be made about and for males and females were so much built into our lives that it took some doing. Because in so many ways, if nothing else, we had to learn vocabulary to think. If you were to write the story of your life, you cannot do it in any way except in language you know. There’s no way to use language you do not know. I suppose you might use it mistakenly or falsely or something like that.


So our language was filled with Chauvinism about what could boys do and what could girls do and all of that. Although I’m deeply committed to equality, there are times when I observe something happening, and I think he shouldn’t be doing that or she shouldn’t. And I think why? Simply my preconditions. They’re a part of my living for so long that I have to pay attention to them and come back. So when I started at Belmont, the Religious Department and the Religious Studies were strongly leaning toward male domination, but with many women…

Only Males are Ministers

When I was going to Stetson, there were attractive young women there. I was an unattached young man. And I was not there very long until there were certain young ladies that let it be known that they did not want to date anyone who was not a ministerial student. Well, at the time, I thought, that’s strange. As I’ve developed a little vocabulary, I’ll tell you what I think. I think that a lot of those young women were feeling some kind of sense of call, a need for commitment on their lives. But they were like me. I came from Orlando, Florida. I did not know any church that had a woman on the staff. I did not know any church of any denomination that had anybody but a male on the staff that was called a minister. Nobody that I knew of had a youth minister, a minister of education, a worship minister. I mean, we had not learned that vocabulary.

Callings Come to People Regardless of Gender

As I grew and matured and began to think. I realized it is my personal belief that callings come to people regardless of their gender. So, I began to think about some of those women, some of those young ladies. Many of them married ministers. But some of them kind of grew out of that and became strong people on their own. And they don’t even like for me to remind them that there was a time when they too were that limited in their thinking that they couldn’t think of a way for a woman to respond. I mean, they didn’t have any vocabulary in their mind to identify a woman responding to a sense of call. You had to be a preacher. And, in a lot of Baptist life you still can’t.

Belmont University

But when I went to Belmont University we started off with a minister’s alliance and I quickly began to change that to identify that more broadly rather than just for ministers. We began to think more in terms of church leadership kind of language and titles. So, that now, by the time I graduated, we had more females in the school of religion than we had males. Sending them to graduate schools all over the country. As we learn, we learn vocabulary. I still can’t necessarily get over, when I look at my granddaughters doing something, I’m thinking, is that what she ought to be doing? My mother’s voice. So, I’m a recovering male chauvinist. I’m a recovering religious fundamentalist. You know things that I’ve tried to put aside….

Dr. Robert Byrd, Belmont University Professor of New Testament Theology


LISTEN Part III (5:39)


Belmont University Professor of New Testament Theology

I was there 40 years. When I retired I’d been on the faculty 40 years. What have you enjoyed most about your career? Being with students and the opportunity, the challenge for me, to grow along with them. That’s one of the things about education that’s changed since I went to college. When I started college, I remember Stetson University, you know, when you have orientation and the message was essentially we’re going to offer you education, but it’s up to you to get it. And one of the things that I learned about education is that the professor had to – I mean there’s always the process of getting it on both ends. I mean, I used to make a joke about students class notes were simply the words of the professor being transferred from the notes of the professor to the notes of the student without going through the brain of either. And truth is, there was a lot of that in education in my day. And what I really enjoyed is, when I along the way reached the point where I said, “Oh, I’m in this learning business, too.” And it’s about my learning and growing and I had a good time. I’m still best friends with a number of my students…

You mentioned that your uncle, he only got to go – it was his choice – he only got to go to the third grade. Would you tell us about how that happened?

What happened is, he was the older brother. Actually, I understand from the family, this happened before they left Georgia. Actually, as you know, one of the changes that’s happened in America is we’ve become less agriculture where children are not necessarily part of the work force. He was in that time… he was part of the work force. And, as his younger brothers and sisters came along to start school, he became burdened in some way, that it was his responsibility to help them get as much education as possible. And so, he dropped out of school in the third grade so he could work on the farm year around… and to make sure the others received more education. I’m certain that none of them were smarter than he was. I mean, I think it was his assessment and recognition of the reality of the situation that kind of led him in that direction. And, his insistence – the family story is – he just insisted to his dad – as a matter of fact – stood up to his dad and told him he wasn’t going back to school anyway; so that, he began to help work on the farm, and when they came here continued farming.

Merita bread baker, Marshall Edwards, pictured, second row, second from the right, in this company photo at the Orlando plant, November 22, 1936.

And then later on took on, I think I shared with you the pictures of him working in the bakery, the Merita Bread Company, seems like it was on the corner of Hughey and I can never think of the other street.

According to Eve Bacon’s Orlando A Centennial History: The American Bakery Company purchased the Reed Baking Plant in May of 1925, located at the corner of South and Hughey Streets. Merita Bakery Company broke ground September 21, 1960 for its plant at Harding Avenue and Division Street.

Yeah, it seems like it was just part of his sense of responsibility in the family.

Marshall Edwards

Interview: Dr. Robert Byrd

Interviewer: Jane Tracy

Date: August 12, 2016

Place: Orlando Public Library

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