Oldest Episcopal parish’s past holds uncomfortable truths in city where African American history began
Posted Jan 22, 2020
[Episcopal News Service – Hampton, Virginia] No Episcopal parish has been a witness to a longer span of American history than St. John’s Episcopal Church in the heart of this coastal city’s downtown.
The city and parish share an origin story that dates to the earliest Colonial beginnings of both the United States and The Episcopal Church. In 1610, some of the British settlers who had been suffering from illness and hunger in Jamestown, about 35 miles north along the James River, attacked and expelled the indigenous Kecoughtan Indians from their village here. The settlers took over this land near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, coveted for its abundant natural resources and proximity to the ocean. They established an Anglican parish, and when the community was renamed Elizabeth City in 1619, the parish became known as Elizabeth City Parish.
Also in 1619, the settlers here were witness to the first arrival of enslaved Africans in British North America. The story told by Jamestown colonist John Rolfe describes “20 and odd Negroes” who were taken ashore at nearby Point Comfort and sold for supplies. That transaction only hinted at how slavery soon would dominate the economy and the social life of Virginia and slaveholding communities like Hampton. Black chattel slavery was codified in Virginia law in the second half of the 17th century and began to surge, replacing white indentured servants as the preferred labor source for tobacco cultivation. In Hampton, black residents, most of them slaves, made up nearly half or more than half of the population throughout the antebellum period.
Today’s Hampton is a city of about 135,000 residents, more than half of them African American. Last year, commemorations marking 400 years of African American history generated renewed public interest in the city. The Episcopal Church joined in some of those commemorations, including a kickoff worship service hosted by St. John’s, and the Diocese of Southern Virginia is planning a pilgrimage in the Hampton area on March 6 and 7.
“It’s a small town, but there are these rich stories,” said the Rev. Charles Wynder, a Hampton native and The Episcopal Church’s staff officer for social justice and engagement. Wynder sees something representative in his hometown and its churches’ struggles to assess the past honestly. “These churches’ narratives reflect stories of other parishes and the witness of Episcopalians throughout the church.”
The St. John’s congregation has been Bob Harper’s “church family” for more than 20 years. “The longer you’re in a church, the more you appreciate the different personalities that make it up,” said Harper, who serves as senior warden.
After retiring from the Army, Harper, who is white, said he chose to move to Hampton because of its racial diversity. But that diversity is not reflected in Hampton’s Episcopal congregations.
St. John’s, with an estimated average Sunday attendance of 125 to 150, remains mostly white, while most black Episcopalians worship at St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, just west of downtown. St. Cyprian’s, which Wynder grew up attending, was founded in 1905 because St. John’s at that time didn’t welcome African Americans.
More than a century later, St. John’s now opens its doors to worshippers of all races and backgrounds, and the two congregations have come together for various special events. But “on Sunday morning, we don’t have a lot of blending of the congregations,” Harper said.
Only in the last 15 years has The Episcopal Church, a denomination with a membership reported to be 90 percent white, taken deliberate steps to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about its past complicity with slavery and segregation and to encourage racial healing.
In 2006 and again in 2009, General Convention called on dioceses and congregations to research their history of supporting and benefiting from racial oppression. They were asked to confront long-ignored truths and, as appropriate, to repent of past sins. Some have done the work, but certainly not all, said Byron Rushing, vice president of the House of Deputies.
“The history of The Episcopal Church is parallel to the history of the United States,” Rushing said in an interview with Episcopal News Service. “That’s a lot of time, and that’s a lot of stories.”
Seeking the truth of the church’s racial past
The Episcopal Church took the additional step in 2015 of identifying racial reconciliation as one of its core priorities, along with evangelism and care of creation, and that year the church also elected Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the first African American to lead the church.
In 2017, church officers endorsed Becoming Beloved Community, now The Episcopal Church’s cornerstone racial reconciliation initiative. “Telling the Truth” about the church’s past is a critical component of the initiative.
“We wanted people to just go back and do their own history of their relationship as organized Episcopalians to people of color,” Rushing said. “Because if you’re in the United States, you are a very, very peculiar Episcopal church if you have a history that does not coincide in any way with people of color.”
Hampton has four Episcopal congregations, including Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which formed in 1897 as a mission of St. John’s, and the smaller parish of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a 57-year-old congregation that last year moved out of its own church building and began worshipping at St. John’s partly due to financial strains.
In 2013, following the recommendations of General Convention, the Diocese of Southern Virginia held a Service of Repentance, Reconciliation & Healing in Norfolk, just south of Hampton. The diocese also assembled a brief written summary of its history with racism and encouraged its congregations to do the same, and then-Bishop Herman Hollerith issued a formal apology on behalf of his diocese’s churches for their roles in sustaining slavery and segregation.
“Spiritual common sense would suggest that a community of faith cannot move forward in its common life in Christ until it has first confessed its wrongdoing,” Hollerith said.
The four Episcopal congregations in Hampton organized their own Service of Repentance in 2015. It was modeled after the diocese’s service and held at St. John’s, but five years later, the host congregation has only recently begun engaging in deeper discussions about its historic ties to slavery and the Confederacy.
“I don’t know that churches are always good at talking about uncomfortable things,” the Rev. Samantha Vincent-Alexander told ENS. She has served as rector at St. John’s for the past six years, and last fall, she began leading a group of about 20 parishioners through Sacred Ground, The Episcopal Church’s 10-session discussion series on racism and racial healing.
“I think everyone is getting something out it,” Vincent-Alexander said, including the experience of “talking about things we’re not accustomed to talking about.”
In her first years at St. John’s, she recalled it “never occurred to us” that re-examining the congregation’s past ties to slavery might be a necessary step toward racial reconciliation. “I think that’s something you need to lay groundwork for, and I don’t think we were there.” She also senses that some members believe that the church’s past already is well known and that the congregation isn’t trying to hide anything negative, so it would be better to move on and look instead to the future.
But St. John’s also proudly celebrates its long history, and going forward, Vincent-Alexander wants to encourage the congregation to confront less-comfortable stories as well. “If we want to take pride in who we have been,” she said, “then we also have to take ownership in the negative things that we have done.”
In historic church’s cemetery, Confederate markers abound
A chest-high brick wall encircles the cemetery and buildings at St. John’s Episcopal Church, identified by a sign out front as the “oldest continuous Protestant church in North America.” Within the wall, monuments to the dead form constellations that envelope the church and stretch north to a back corner of the cemetery.
An estimated 3,000 people are buried here – native Hamptonians, transplanted Northerners, church rectors, vestrymen, husbands and wives, young children, and 145 Civil War veterans whose Confederate service is dutifully inscribed at their final resting places. Just 15 paces off the path leading to the church’s front door looms a 20-foot monument, its inscription memorializing “Our Confederate Dead.”
“It’s a cemetery, but it’s also a historical landmark, too,” said David Bishop, the cemetery’s administrator, as he walked among the graves. The church and its cemetery are “one of the centerpieces of just about every map that’s drawn of Hampton.”
Wearing a University of Virginia hat over his Ray-Ban sunglasses, the 64-year-old Bishop walks the cemetery’s paths with the unrushed gait of someone who retired in June after teaching history at Kecoughtan High School for 22 years. A St. John’s member since 1991, Bishop is an adept guide. Rectors are buried near the church, such as the Rev. Reverdy Estill, who served here from 1905 to 1911. Over there is Alaska Bishop John Bentley, originally from Hampton. And here are the graves of James McMenamin and J.S. Darling, two Northerners who helped revitalize Hampton’s economy after the Civil War through the city’s burgeoning crab and oyster industry.
A large headstone behind the church marks the grave of Solomon Fosque, the parish’s “faithful sexton” who died in 1936. Another longtime sexton, William Parker, died in 2012 and is buried nearby. Fosque and Parker are the only African Americans buried in the cemetery, as far as Bishop knows. “It would be very unusual for there to be any more,” he says.
Yet African American history and parish history overlapped nearly from the beginning. Two of the enslaved Africans who landed here in 1619 were thought to have been taken into the household of prominent Elizabeth City parishioner Capt. William Tucker. The African couple, Anthony and Isabella, had a son named William, who was baptized either in Jamestown or Elizabeth City – the baptizing church is up for debate, as is the family’s status, whether slaves or indentured servants.
St. John’s, however, makes no reference to slavery in its online history, which instead focuses primarily on the various church sites and the structures that were built upon them. The congregation now worships in a church that was built in 1728 on the parish’s fourth site in the city. In 1830, it took its present name, St. John’s.
Some of the earliest details of St. John’s complicity with slavery are presumed lost to history. Surviving vestry books go back to 1751, leaving a gap of more than 140 years from the founding of Elizabeth City Parish. Other documents begin to flesh out the lives of ministers, vestrymen and parishioners, but “the life of the slaves owned by these gentlemen and other residents of Elizabeth City County went unrecorded in the pages of history,” historian Rogers Whichard wrote in 1959.
Though details of their lives may have gone unrecorded, those early African Americans left lasting marks on the community – including presumably in the bricks that have formed the walls of the church for nearly 300 years. Though no one knows for sure, slave labor likely was used to build the church.
“I would be surprised if it didn’t,” Harper said.
Billie Eiselen also assumes so. She is a member of the parish’s Heritage Working Group, which formed after St. John’s celebrated 400 years in 2010. Its main tasks are to sort and manage the church archives and assist outside researchers, but the group is doubtful that the archives contain any details about the church’s construction.
“I would think that slaves would have helped in this,” Eiselen said, but she can say for certain only that Henry Cary Jr. was the contractor hired to oversee the job. She thinks the group might be able to find documentation of Cary’s projects, possibly including use of slave labor, at William & Mary College in Williamsburg, though the group hasn’t undertaken that research.
Congregations around The Episcopal Church, both in the North and the South, have similar unanswered questions about their racial history, Rushing said, and as the highest-ranking, most prominent black lay leader in The Episcopal Church, he believes that researching such uncomfortable details is a crucial task in a Christian denomination that describes itself as anti-racist and reconciling.
“We are doing this in order to get to a point where we can talk to each other about how we understand where we are right now. Because that is completely based on where we have been and what we have been,” he said. “We need to be on the same page, and the same page is truth.”
More history to be told
Other researchers have found ways of confirming and quantifying The Episcopal Church’s complicity in slavery. Julia Randle is one.
The Diocese of Southern Virginia split from the Diocese of Virginia in 1892, but during the era of slavery there was just one Virginia diocese. Randle, who serves as registrar and historiographer of the Diocese of Virginia, confirmed with census records that at least 84 of the 112 Episcopal clergy in the diocese owned at least one slave in 1860. Her research was published in a diocesan article in 2006 and presented to General Convention that year.
“In a slave society, in a slave economy, you cannot escape it. You are a part of it no matter what you think,” Randle told ENS. “It is a rare congregation that has really looked hard at it.”
The Hampton congregations, though still unlikely to blend most Sunday mornings, have attempted to bridge their racial divides on special occasions, such as a joint potluck dinner in November that drew about 60 people to St. John’s parish hall. Harper, the senior warden, collaborated on planning that dinner with Stephanie Kendall, the senior warden at St. Cyprian’s, and they hope to partner on more events in the future.
St. Cyprian’s worships in a modern church building about five minutes west of downtown Hampton. Kendall doesn’t have to look back far to recall who built St. Cyprian’s. She remembers bringing them “lots of chili and Brunswick stew,” a regional specialty.
She and other parishioners volunteered their time for three years to complete construction of the congregation’s present building. It hosted its first worship service in 1985.
Wearing a pendent cross over her black shirt, Kendall stood in the aisle at the rear of the sparsely appointed nave and recalled those days of transition. “We had a lot of sweat equity on the weekends. The men of the church would come and lay the brick and do lots of things, except what had to be contracted like the electrical and plumbing,” said Kendall, who now serves as senior warden.
In 1905, the Rev. C. Braxton Bryan, rector at St. John’s, was among the local leaders credited with helping 10 black residents of Hampton found St. Cyprian’s. Bryan made no effort to hide his own paternalistic views toward the black community, which were based in a since-discredited belief in white racial superiority. But he and his congregation were willing to support St. Cyprian’s in its early years as a mission of St. John’s.
“St. Cyprian’s was born in a different time from today,” the historically black congregation says in a brief written history. “It was a time of strict segregation of races in all areas of life’s activities.”
Kendall has called Hampton her home nearly all her life, and her spiritual home has always been this church. Now 68 and retired after a career in clinical pathology, she proudly took time out of her afternoon to point out the features of the church, parish hall and offices.
She grew emotional recounting two childhood experiences she had with segregation and integration – neither of which she wanted shared publicly. And when asked whether she thought St. John’s could do more to face its own historic complicity with slavery and segregation, she declined to comment about another congregation’s decisions.
Instead, she framed her response in terms of her own congregation.
“If there were more history to be told about St. Cyprian’s, I would want to know it,” she said, “simply because it’s my church and I love it.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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