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APEDF board president Ona Zené Yeshitela speaks at press conference following fire at The Sanctuary church in St. Louis

The following statement was delivered by Ona Zené Yeshitela, Board President of the African People’s Education and Defense Fund (APEDF), at a press conference on Monday, January 16—Martin Luther King Jr day—following a fire that destroyed The Sanctuary church, which APEDF was under contract to purchase for renovation as a community center.

My name is Ona Zené Yeshitela.

I’m the Board President of the African People’s Education and Defense Fund.

APEDF is the sponsor of the Black Power Blueprint that has been transforming and building economic and political power to develop the north side of St. Louis since 2017.

We renovated a 9,000-square-foot building on W. Florissant Avenue to create the Uhuru House community center with a beautiful events venue that is popular for conferences, birthday parties and weddings.   

Across the street from the Uhuru House, we built an outdoor event venue and the Gary Brooks Black Power Garden, which has completed its third season of planting and harvesting.

Our One Africa! One Nation! Farmers Market completed its 2nd year at the end of October.  We worked with black growers and farmers locally and in the region to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to a community living under food apartheid. 

The market also provides opportunities for economic development for community members that build their business through vending their products and services. 

We worked for two and a half years to raise over $150,000 to build the Black Power Vanguard Basketball Court where our children now have a safe place for recreation that promotes health and uplifts the whole community.

We have taken a dilapidated property and renovated it to provide quality housing to community members coming out of the prison system. Under the slogan “Our Labor! Our Future!,” the African Independence Workforce Program Housing is designed to reverse the negative economic impact of prison on the north side of St. Louis. 

All you have to do is just look down W. Florissant and you will see the mark we have made, including the beautiful murals that we have created to uplift and inspire the entire community!

This is not everything we’ve done. We have a commercial kitchen and bakery under construction, a Black Power Square retail center coming and more!

Just like in the times of Martin Luther King Jr., we have had to overcome nonstop obstacles and even violence.

On July 29 of last year, when the FBI raided seven of our Movement’s homes and institutions in violent pre-dawn 5am military-style raids, we held strong and went ahead with the doula training program set for that day at the Uhuru House. We trained 14 African women to become doulas.

Now we see the violence and destruction of this historic church in our community. 

Last October, the African People’s Education and Defense Fund signed a contract to buy the Sanctuary Church here at 4443 Red Bud Avenue in order to transform this space into a larger community center to serve our people.

The seller asked us to extend the contract twice, pushing the closing date to mid-December, and then suddenly without explanation demanded an additional $50,000. 

Then on Sunday morning January 9, I looked out the window of my home on Red Bud Ave., the one that the FBI raided on July 29, and saw this church completely engulfed in flames!

The burning of this church is an assault on this community, that in a few short years has worked with APEDF to build and invest in our future! 

We want to know who burned this church! Where is the investigation? The attacks on our community and our Movement must stop!

We will not be set back. We are continuing our projects. Our major project for 2023 is building the Uhuru wa Kulea, which is our African Women’s Health Center on property we have already acquired. 

Uhuru wa Kulea will not only impact the women and families it serves, but also train women to be entrepreneurs. Economic empowerment is the foundation of a healthy life.

APEDF’s mission and mantra is to defend the human and civil rights of the African community and we believe African people have the right to self-determination!