Florida Folklife Program
Folk Heritage Awards Recipient: Theophalis May
Theophalis MayCourtesy of Florida State Archives/Florida Folklife Collection. Photo by David Reddy.
Theophalis May (1928 - 2006) - 1991 Florida Folk Heritage Award
Theophalis May was an outstanding architect/builder. He overcame early adversity to become not only a skilled craftsman, but a key member of his community. His mother died when he was nine days old, and his father died when he was 5. He then moved from Castleberry, Alabama, to live with relatives in Pensacola. By 9, he began doing yard work to pay rent and buy food. May served five years in the Navy as a cook. After leaving the military, he received the call to the ministry, and graduated from Florida A&M University with a degree in philosophy and religion.
May entered the construction business in 1950 doing landscaping, new building construction, wrecking, and restoration. He developed a reputation as an expert in moving, demolishing, and restoring old buildings for his company, May’s Construction Co. After 1970, he devoted most of his energies to restoration and preserved numerous buildings in northwest Florida. As local author Linda Shiell wrote: “Without photographs, without markers, without pencils or blueprints or an architect’s advice, Theophalis May has taken apart, relocated, and accurately reconstructed historic Pensacola landmarks to the amazement and delight of preservationists and citizens. His expertise is not certified by a college degree. His education has been by the hand-hewn board, by the cut of a saw, and the wisdom earned by someone whose experience has taught him that excellence in craftsmanship is simply knowledge, hard work, and patience, lots of patience.”
May restored landmarks such as the L&N Marine Terminal and Rafford Hall in Pensacola and the Imogene Theatre in Milton. In 2005, Pensacola recognized him for "Dedicated Commitment in Affordable Housing." May also built and restored Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, where he preached for nearly 40 years. In addition to restoring buildings, he was known for restoring lives through his faith in others and his assistance to them.Reverend May came to understand and appreciate the methods, expertise, and materials of earlier builders through restoring their work. He also was mindful to teach his skills to the many young men who worked with him.