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MOUNT VERNON, NY – My family moved to Mount Vernon, NY when I was 6 years old. Our new home was a few blocks from one of the city’s most recognizable buildings, the Grace Baptist Church. His huge building, made of white brick and drilled stained glass, was baptized just a few months before our move, and it is the only church house I have ever known.
While the cathedral choir sang during Sunday services, I was mostly busy reading church programs. For 132 years, the Baptist Congregation of Grace also told the story of its founding: Five Negro Baptist women, with great faith and courage, established the Grace Baptist Mission in Mount Vernon, New York. ”I read that verse every Sunday, week after week, waiting for someone to update it with women’s names.
Their names never appeared.
So last year, when I started my master’s studies and was looking for a subject for my thesis, I started to discover their identities.
Grace The Baptist is a powerful and influential church. Her congregation supported the political careers of many of its pastors and welcomed Priest Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Priest Al Sharpton, and Priest Jesse Jackson. 2016 On the way to the campaign, she adopted Hillary Clinton. Ruby Dee, Earl Graves Sr., Heavy D, Ossie Davis, and a long list of other icons of African and American culture walked the red carpets of their sanctuary.
Grace Baptist and his current pastor, Fr. Dr. Following the example of Franklyn Richardson, he dominates the black city, creating affordable housing, feeding the poor and working as advocates for black people.
And yet for more than a century, the founders of the church were known only as “previously enslaved Negro women.” I was very determined to change that.
I spent 122 days searching for them, ready to uproot the lesson about black femininity that I had noticed – that black women are often transferred to the subtext of history. The path to understanding and overcoming my fear of erasure directly matched my journey in search of the names of these women. I wanted to name them to prove to myself and future generations that these black women will not be forgotten.
Black women would lead me in months of research. The mothers of the Church were among my first calls for information. Deacon Mary Dolberry helped me operate the microfilm machines in the periodical section of Mount Vernon Public Library and introduced me to the history room.
Church genealogist Debbie Daniels helped me understand how these women’s names could disappear from their own history. Mrs. Daniels taught me American history through census data and demographics, where black history is the most insidious.
She told me the stories of erasing her family ancestors. Her family has told the children for generations that they are descended from Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved in the plantation of former President Thomas Jefferson Monticello. After a genealogical search of her family, she discovered that they were indeed descendants of Heming’s older sister, Mary, the first of the Heming children who were free.
The black woman always had to overcome the severe terrain of racism and sexism. Few have seen it worth recording the activities of blacks or women. As early as the 1880s, due to illiteracy, five women and their community were also able to make it difficult to write their stories.
I also had to leave room for the possibility of an oral tradition. Maybe these women weren’t there.
Fortunately, I was in a period of American history when blacks were not only listed as numbers and property. 1880 At the time of the census, I had the opportunity to find evidence of their life on Mount Vernon.
I discovered the first mentions of these women in the early stages of archival research. 1903 The book of clerks of the First Baptist Church on Mount Vernon listed the names of members of the White Congregation who undertook a mission of grace to the Baptists. The Five Women of Color was responsible for the request for help and was allowed to hold a Sunday school in Willard Hall, an annex to the meeting room of the Women’s Christian Sobriety Union. The president of this sobriety union was a member of the First Congregation of the Baptist Church.
The First Baptist Church and Grace The Baptist Church maintained a turbulent relationship. White gatherers locked the chapel door when the Mission was behind the first Baptist’s illegally taxed rent. There were physical conflicts between their pastors and deacons, and several newspaper reports warned that in the early days they simply did not offer mercy to members of the Baptist mission.
Halfway through the search, I had the working sociological and demographic portraits I was looking for: I knew that five women were entrenched in the community, married and probably over thirty years old, donating or lasting for several years. It is likely that they were also actively involved in social organizations, drawing the attention of activists in the white community.
1894 In an article, a journalist for the local newspaper The Daily Argus reported that the “colored mission” laid the cornerstone of her new chapel. The first members of Grace Baptist placed copies of their city documents and church documents in the hollow center of this cornerstone. I was convinced that among these artifacts were the names of five women.
Grace Baptist original building, built in 1894, Tebestovi. It is a small white portable chapel that survived in 1939. Furnace fire before Grace Baptist moved to the current memorial site.
Since 1941 The chapel was rebuilt and occupied by two more churches – the Unity Baptist Tabernacle and the White Rock Baptist Church. 1968 It was dismantled and relocated to a new location in the city when the Vernon Hill Housing Administration wanted land for an affordable housing project. The White Rock still occupies the shrine of the chapel, just a 10-minute walk from the Baptist of Grace.
The pastor of White Rock and I spoke briefly about opening the cornerstone before the coronavirus crisis that began last spring forced us all to quarantine. But unaware of the new pandemic, we were careful to be in church and attract people to help us access it.
After all – after analyzing centuries-old newspaper articles, census reports, handwritten meeting notebooks, maps, and city catalogs – I finally had their names: Emily Waller, Matilda Brooks, Helen Claiborne, Sahar Bennett, and Elizabeth Benson. They were 25 to 40 years old when they found the church. Ms. Waller and Ms. Benson were neighbors and the only black families in their neighborhood.
I haven’t found their offspring, but I’m sure they’re there. Their next goal is to find them and talk about their heritage. Although their names have not yet been included in the church bulletin because we have not returned to personal services since the beginning of the pandemic, their names will soon be printed out for all to see.
In the years that have sparked a pandemic and national conversations about race and racism, I am proud to have discovered five key women, shedding light on a heritage that will not be lost in history.