Profile: John P. Ellis

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On occasion, the parents involved in the lawsuit to desegregate Orange County schools would meet at the house of John P. Ellis, whom everybody called J.P. The house — designed and built by Ellis — was unlike any other.

Three sides of the house were largely glass with sliding-glass doors on the front, back and carport. The back glass wall looked out on a long, green lawn that stretched to the banks of Lake Mann. An atrium poked through the roof to bring in even more sun to the open, sunken living room that featured a large planter with a tree in the middle.

The kitchen showed Ellis' skills as a cabinet maker and craftsman.

The house was his showplace, a home that reflected a man who defied convention.

Of the eight parents named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit to end segregation in Orange County public schools, J.P. Ellis was by far the most flamboyant, charismatic and troubled. He was a snappy dresser, a hard drinker, a man with a quick wit and equally quick temper.

He had courage, intellect and chutzpah.

"J.P. was really the spark plug. He was part of the [ NAACP] chapter, he worked for the school system, and then he put his family in the middle of it. You have to say he had guts," said the Rev. Nelson Pinder, a civil-rights activist.

J.P. Ellis had a long involvement in civil rights in Orlando, serving as president of the Orange County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and hosting Thurgood Marshall in his house.

At the time of the lawsuit in 1962, J.P. Ellis had left his job teaching woodworking and cabinetry at Jones High to become one of the first black building contractors in Florida.

Though most of the other families involved in the lawsuit were working men and women with little education themselves, Ellis was college-educated — a graduate of Florida Memorial College in St. Augustine who later served as one of the Tuskegee Airmen in Alabama.

His best friends were attorney Paul Perkins, physician James R.Smith, teacher Grover Walton and dentist Robert Hunt, said Perkins' widow, Jackie.

'Didn't go out a lot' On weekends, they would get together at one another's houses to drink, play cards and talk politics.

"You didn't go out a lot in those days. There was nowhere to go," said Jackie Perkins, 76. "We found our entertainment in each other's houses."

Perkins remembers Ellis as tall, slim, handsome and witty. He wore sport coats, thin ties, shirts with tab collars and cuff links, and a jazzy hat. Every year, he bought a new Ford Fairlane.

Others remember a man who spent much of his time at the BB Club down Lenox Boulevard from his glass house on the lake. His relationship with his wife, Audrey, an elementary-school teacher, was stormy.

John P. Ellis II remembers in second grade watching his father trying to burn a pile of Audrey's clothes by the curb of their front lawn. After that, Audrey fled Orlando with her son, eventually settling in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Two years later, John Ellis said, his father showed up in Chattanooga and brought him back to Orlando, leaving Audrey behind. They divorced but then remarried in 1976, only to divorce again. Ellis married another woman and then divorced her. Audrey would eventually marry her ex-husband's elderly uncle, Sidney Riley Tillinghast, and move from Orlando.

Toward the end of his life, the man who provided a bed for Thurgood Marshall lived with his mother in a small house he built on Columbia Avenue. He lost his home on the lake, his money, his dignity.

'His demise came quickly' Before his death in 1981, J.P. Ellis was reduced to panhandling his old friends for money — a five here, a ten there, said Allen D. Holland, 54, an Orlando attorney who was raised by the Ellis family.

"His drinking problem led to him not getting construction jobs. That ruined him financially," Holland said. "His demise came quickly. He got sick and, bam, he was gone."

J.P. Ellis was 60.

That broken man is not the one Robert Ellis remembers. J.P., to him, was the uncle who would stop by their house, sit at the kitchen table and grill you about your schoolwork.

"You would try and make yourself invisible," said Robert Ellis, 68. "He would question you about your studies. You would have to stand there and recite things. If he didn't like it, he would correct you."

Many years later, when Robert Ellis was a grown man living in New York, J.P. Ellis would go out of his way to play the gracious host to Robert and his family, who were in Orlando to visit Disney World.

When Robert told J.P. he shouldn't go to such trouble, the old civil-rights activist replied: "If you haven't gone out of your way to do something for somebody, you haven't done anything."

Jeff Kunerth can be reached at jkunerth@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5392.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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