AfriGeneas Schools, Organizations, Churches and Institutions Forum
Black church has rare history
Black church has rare history
The Rev. Paul Wilson (left) spoke while Silas Gillespie prayed during yesterday's re-enactment of an 1865 service.
By JAMIE C. RUFF
Basil Gooden stepped from a horse-drawn carriage in his dusty black boots and walked into the late 19th century.
Before about 250 onlookers, Gooden and other re-enactors yesterday portrayed the Rev. Gabriel Palmer and his congregation of newly freed slaves in 1865 as they worshipped outdoors under a brush arbor, a covering of limbs and bushes supported by stilts.
Palmer and about 500 followers organized Alexander Hill Baptist Church, the oldest standing black church in Buckingham County. They moved from the arbor into a log building in early 1867. The church is still standing, though the logs have been covered with boards.
Still present is a rare preaching mound -- an outdoor pulpit -- from which the minister would speak to his congregation gathered under the brush arbor. It was featured in yesterday's program.
"I bet if you research, there would be one or two in the country," said Martha Louis, chairwoman of Jamestown 2007 of Buckingham County, which co-sponsored the program with the Buckingham African American Life and History Society.
"Jubilo, my children," Gooden called out as he approached the re-enactors gathered to hear his portrayal of Palmer, a young minister at the time. "The day of freedom is here. We are gathered here as free people."
From the mound, Gooden quoted Palmer as promoting a message of education, pursuing the right to vote and recognizing the need for landownership.
The text may not have been authentic, but the message was, said Buckingham resident Charles W. White, an author and historian.
"We do know Gabe Palmer was interested in education and he was involved in voting," White said.
At the end of the Civil War, Alexander Mosley, a prominent lawyer, gave each of his former slaves a parcel of land. Included was an area for a house of worship to be built.
Among Mosley's slaves was Littie, who became Palmer's wife. Palmer and his family were free blacks who lived near the Mosley plantation.
Before the re-enactment, Katherine Hairston of Martinsville, who grew up in the church, reminisced to the audience about church life in the 1940s until the early 1950s when she left for college. When there was a death in the community, someone would ring the bell at the church and everyone would come to hear who had died and learn the plans for the funeral, she said.
Hairston had to shorten her talk, so she said there was no time to elaborate on stories of having to take off her shoes because of the dust on the road and of being baptized in the creek.
The church today has no minister and only three members but "there are a lot of people that church influenced," Louis said. Three other county churches that continue today grew out of it.
Historic Buckingham Inc. owns the building and sees it as an extension of a historic village planned to open in July, said Louis, who is also a vice president with the organization.
Supporters hope that yesterday's program will help preserve the church, the mound, the memory of the congregation and its story for generations to come.
"We want people to take away a strong sense of the history," Louis said, "a strong sense of what these people went through just to worship."
Joyce Gooden, vice president of the county's life and history society and Basil Gooden's sister, said she hopes that attendees also left with a sense of community.
"I hope they walked away with . . . a recognition of what a jewel they have here in the history of a building they pass and don't notice too much."
It is striking that what Palmer talked about then is still relevant today, said Basil Gooden, principal deputy director of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.
Joyce Gooden said it shows how much work remains to be done.
"Voting isn't new," she said. "We need to educate our children, that isn't new. We need to own land, and move on."