LIMA — Dr. Melvin J. Woodard II, who became the 23rd pastor of Lima’s Second Baptist Church in January 1965, would become the first African American to run for mayor of Lima when he filed his petitions with the county board of elections four years later.
Although the results of that vote in May 1969 left Woodard embittered, he continued to serve his church community and the Lima community for four more decades.
Woodard was born Jan. 4, 1937, in Columbus to the Rev. Melvin James Woodard Sr. and Bertha Lee Stephens Woodard. He was the first minority student at Indianola Grade School in Columbus. He received his bachelor’s degree from Ohio University and his degree in ministry from the Chicago Institute and served in the Army as a medic and chaplain.
He also was graduated from the Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg, Virginia. It was while attending the Virginia school that Woodard, on Christmas Eve in 1957, married the former Edith Mary “Edie” Harris, and the couple had five children.
His wife proved an able and affable partner for Woodard. “I feel God put me here to be a mom and a minister’s wife,” she told The Lima News on July 4, 1987. “I love people.”
Woodard arrived in Lima early in 1965 after serving as associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Chillicothe. “Obviously making an impression on the Lima scene is a new minister — Rev. Melvin J. Woodard — being installed at Second Baptist Church by his minister father from Chillicothe,” the News wrote on Feb. 27, 1965. “The personable young man … has business interests that take him out of the city several times weekly but nevertheless in the few weeks he has been here no grass has sprung up under his feet … or should we say, no snow left untrampled. Besides speaking at several churches as guest, Rev. Woodard has stepped up programs and activities at his church considerably …”
Lima’s newest pastor was taking over one of its oldest churches. Second Baptist Church was organized in 1873. Early church meetings were in a hall over a Public Square grocery store before the congregation moved to the nearby Stamets Hall at Market and Union streets. A wood frame church was constructed in 1890. The current church, at 520 W. Spring St., was dedicated in 1918.
Woodard, who also worked as a salesman at the Laibe Motor Mart on West Grand Avenue, soon was a popular speaker on race relations, which, in the mid-1960s, were coming to the forefront in the United States. “The biggest difference we see is the color of our skin,” Woodard told a youth group at Trinity United Methodist Church in 1965. But he added, according to a story in the Aug. 5, 1965, edition of the News, “We all have a heart. We have disappointments. We cry. The problem is misunderstanding because we see with the eye but not with the mind or heart.”
In April 1968, with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the racial divide widened. Woodard was part of an informal group that organized a community memorial service for King at Lima Senior High School auditorium. About 1,200 people, including religious leaders of all faiths, attended the memorial. “Truth will go on, even though they have killed one great man. They cannot kill them all,” Woodard told them, according to the April 8, 1968 edition of the News.
It wasn’t long before Woodard found himself taking an even more active role in trying to resolve local racial issues. Woodard, who already was serving on the race relations committee of the Lima League of Cooperation and Improvement, was appointed to the county’s Human Relations Committee in the fall of 1968. As a member representing the Allen County Ministerial Association, he often took the side of tenants in disputes with landlords.
On Jan. 31, 1969, the just-turned-32-year-old pastor filed petitions to begin a run for mayor of Lima in the May primary. Although the first black family arrived in Lima around 1837, a century before Woodard was born, a black person had never run for mayor. Woodard joined incumbent Mayor Christian Morris and City Council President Harry Moyer in the three-way race for two spots in the general election.
“In the strongest statements of the three-sided campaign, Woodard rammed into high gear his efforts to gain a berth on the November general election mayoralty ballot,” the News wrote on April 23, 1969, of a Woodard speech to Lima’s Breakfast Optimist Club. “You have only one clear choice for mayor if you are truly interested in the total well-being of people,” Woodard declared. “I am the only candidate that has shown any sympathetic understanding for people.”
In the May 6 vote, however, Woodard finished a distant third. “Woodard, obviously disappointed over results of Tuesday’s balloting, said he’s renouncing ‘all public life’ and severely criticized the minority groups from whom he had expected support.”
Woodard told the News, “We apparently don’t have as many ‘little people’ in town as I thought. I thought these people were disgusted with their present situation, but apparently they are not so I’m going to leave their problems with them.”
In a letter dated May 6, Woodard resigned from the Human Relations Commission. “It is my fervent prayer that the people of this town wake up before it is too late, but I personally refuse to play the role of Paul Revere,” Woodard wrote.
Although he had renounced public office, Woodard continued to work for the public good. When racial unrest broke out at Lima Senior High School in December 1969, Woodard spoke out against an ordinance dealing with assaults in the city’s schools, which he considered short-sighted. “Woodard said passage of the legislation would be a serious mistake” because he believed it “does nothing to keep a situation from developing in the first place,” the News wrote on Dec. 16, 1969. Woodard then wrote a sensitivity training program for teachers.
Woodard also served on many advisory boards, among them the Bradfield Community Center board, Lima Technical College advisory board, Minority Pastors conference, the Mayor’s Clergy task force, Minority Business Association and the Rehab/Bankers/Clergy advisory committee. He was president of the Democratic Minority Caucus and attended the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
In addition to serving as pastor of Second Baptist for 35 years, he also served as pastor of Community Baptist Church for eight years. He opened the Mel Woodard and Associates insurance agency in 1981. He was joined in that venture by his wife, who was claims secretary for the business.
Woodard died July 25, 2012, at the age of 75.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.