What the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum has done in its current exhibition, "Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Rise of Black Churches in Eastern American Cities, 1740-1877," is put memories on its walls. The connections are immediate. The sound of the early visitors was a collective "ahh, yes."
Geneva Brooks, a retired government seamstress touring the exhibit this week`saw the teacher's report from a church school in Charleston, S.C., and marveled over her own education in a church. "They taught us three languages in high school," said Brooks, who attended the four-room school of Free Will Baptist Church in Kinston, N.C.
Harry Burke, chairman of the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage, spotted a photograph of the old Alfred Street Baptist Church and called over four other parishioners to join an impromptu history lesson. "It's the second oldest black Baptist church building in existence, built by freed blacks and slaves in 1855," Burke told them.
In one sense the exhibit elaborates the obvious: The continuing power and influence of the black church is one of the major cultural and political realities of America, past and present. Its sound and poetry are heard in voices from Jesse Jackson to Whitney Houston.
Its history is rich in contemporary lessons. In this exhibition the skilled scholarship of Edward Dean Smith, historian at the Anacostia, has beautifully dusted off some well-known heroes and events and added new names to the lexicon.
Here are the familiar and always stern faces of American history: Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, founders of the African Methodist Episcopal church; Thomas Paul, founder of the First African Baptist Church in Boston in 1805 as well as the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York in 1807; Daniel Payne, founder of Wilberforce University; and Hiram Revels, a Methodist Episcopal Church member elected to the U.S. Senate in 1870.
Well documented are the tasks of the church, bold in their initiation but now traditional. Besides schools, some were insurance companies. They were stops on the Underground Railroad. They were town halls for the abolitionists. Smith of the Anacostia discovered part of his own family history. "My mother attended Gowdysville Elementary School in the Gowdysville Baptist Church in Cherokee County, North Carolina, in the late 1930s," explained Smith. "I didn't have any idea these schools lasted so long and I didn't know the school boards continued to support these schools."
Yet this history of major denominations emphasizes some important contributions from less well known figures, such as Juliann Jane Tillman, an evangelist for the AME church, and Jarena Lee, the first woman to preach in the AME congregations.
Other denominations are included, such as the African Union Methodist church founded in 1805 by Peter Spencer. The work of black chaplains during the Civil War, believed to number about 15, is given special attention.
The exhibit divides the growth of American Protestantism (the powerful bond between the Roman Catholic Church and black Americans is given only a nod) into five areas: the Great Awakening and the rise of black congregations, 1740-1800; black churches in the North, 1800-1860; "visible" black congregations in the South, 1800-1860; the Civil War's impact on the growth of independent black churches; and the impact of the independent churches on politics, education and social welfare.
It includes a brief section on how African beliefs survived: On the wall is a small treasure -- a pearlware dish buried with an infant in the First African Baptist Church Cemetery in Philadelphia in the 1830s. This continuation of a West African custom of burying personal effects was discovered during an excavation in 1983.
Frequently, when the exhibits' explanations begin to overwhelm, a wonderful artifact breaks up all the reading.
They elicit the "ahh, yes" reaction: the 1801 hymn book of Allen; communion cups and marriage certificates; a blue silk banner of the Sabbath school of Ben Salem AME Church in Ben Salem, Pa.; Harvey Johnson's pulpit from Union Baptist Church in Baltimore; a pew from Mother Bethel in Philadelphia, dated 1797-1804; a 1944 deed to a church cemetery; and Henry Highland Garnet's sermon to Congress, delivered Feb. 12, 1865.
As the Afro-American Christian faith evolved, blacks found themselves excluded from the major white denominations and charted their own vibrant, independent course. Best known perhaps is the split of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones from St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia that led to the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal church nearly 200 years ago. An interesting parallel to the action in Philadelphia was the growth in Virginia and South Carolina and other Southern cities of the Separatist Baptists.
Though the church movement in 13 cities is the focus, Washington and Baltimore, as the crossroads for many of the church and social movements, provided a gold mine for the exhibition. Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington was founded by 400 members of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Va., who left the city in 1862, anticipating a Confederate attack. The 1855 cornerstone and a stained-glass window from Alexandria's Alfred are part of a "furniture and fittings" section that includes a rare reed organ from Bethel AME Church in Baltimore. "This is the first classic instrument used in the black church," says John Clark, chairman of the church's museum society. "We believe it was made in the 1840s and Bishop Payne purchased it and used it for many years. In 1911 the church moved to a larger building and we think it was discarded then. We found it in 1976 in the belfry towers."
Under an enlargement of a black-and-white lithograph of a camp meeting, the exhibit provides the quintessential definition of "the shout." It says, "The shout was introduced by black converts into the Baptist and Methodist camp meeting tradition in the 1700s. This religious practice reflected the influence of the 'danced religions' of West Africa. In a 'shout' persons 'struck by the spirit' threw their arms into the air and began to shuffle about."
Because of the physical limits of the Anacostia Museum, the panels and walls that form the pathways through the exhibit are less than a sidewalk distance apart, which cramps things a bit. But the show, which continues through March 20, holds about 170 objects, all eye-catching and most of them small enough to require close examination and another lengthy "ahh, yes."