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Mount Vernon, NY — When I was six, my family moved to Mount Vernon, NY. Our new home was a few blocks from the Grace Baptist Church, one of the city’s most famous buildings. The huge building, made of white bricks and looming stained glass windows, was baptized months before I moved and is the only church house I’ve ever known.
I was always busy reading church programs while the cathedral choir was singing during the Sunday service. Grace Baptist followers told the same founding story for 132 years. “In 1888, five black Baptist women, with faith and courage, founded the Grace Baptist mission in Mount Vernon, NY.” I read the line every Sunday and someone in the name of the woman. I’m waiting every week to update it.
Their name never appeared.
And last year, when I went to graduate school and was looking for thesis material, I discovered their identity myself.
Grace Baptist is a powerful and influential church. The congregation supported the political careers of many pastors, with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson on the pulpit. In 2016, we welcomed Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. A long list of cultural icons of Ruby Dee, Earl Graves Sr., Heavy D, Ossie Davis and other African-Americans have walked the red carpet of the sanctuary.
Grace Baptist and his current minister, Rev. W. Franklin Richardson, set an example primarily in black cities, building affordable homes, feeding the poor, and working as an advocate for black life. I will.
Yet for more than a century, the founders of the church were only known as “formerly enslaved black women.” I’m deeply committed to changing that.
I searched for them for 122 days and prepared to eradicate the lessons I had about internalized black women — black women are often driven into historical subtexts. The path to understanding and overcoming my fear of erasure was directly parallel to my journey to find the names of these women. I wanted to name them and prove to myself and future generations that these resulting black women will be unforgettable.
A black woman has guided me through months of research. The church mother was one of my first calls for information. Butler Mary Dolberry helped operate the microfilm machine in the periodicals section of the Mount Vernon Public Library and introduced us to the history room.
Church genealogist Debbie Daniels has helped us understand how these women’s names disappear from their stories. Daniels taught us about American history through census data and demographics, where black history is the most dangerous.
She told me about the erasure of her family’s ancestors. For generations, her family told her children that she was a descendant of Sally Hemings, a woman who had been enslaved at former President Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. After pedigreeing her family, she realized that they were really descendants of Hemmings’ sister, Mary, and the first freedom of Hemmings’ children.
Black women always had to cross racist and sexist terrain. Few people saw the value of recording the activities of blacks and women. And in the 1880s, illiteracy could have made it difficult for five women and their communities to write down their stories.
I also had to leave room for the possibility of oral tradition. Maybe these women didn’t exist at all.
Fortunately, I was in an era of American history where blacks were simply not listed as numbers or property. Through the 1880 census, I had the opportunity to find evidence of their lives in Mount Vernon.
It was early in my archive study that I discovered the first mention of these women. The 1903 clerk’s book from Mount Vernon’s First Baptist Church had the names of members of the White Congregation who undertook the Grace Baptist mission. The “five-colored women” are responsible for seeking their help, and they are allowed to open a Sunday school in the annex of Willard Hall, the meeting space for women’s Christian women’s abstinence. The president of this moderation union was a member of the congregation of the First Baptist Church.
The first Baptist church and the Grace Baptist church were in a turbulent relationship. The white congregation locked the chapel door when the mission was delayed by the rent illegally charged by First Baptists. There was a physical conflict between their minister and deacon, and local newspapers had several notices in the early days warning them to donate directly to members of the Grace Baptist mission.
In the middle of the search, I created a sociological and demographic portrait of the person I was looking for. I knew that five women were founded in the community, married, probably in their thirties, and would take years. They were also likely working in social organizations to attract the attention of white community activists.
In an article in 1894, a journalist in the local newspaper The Daily Argus reported that the “colored mission” laid the foundation for a new chapel. Early members of the Grace Baptist placed copies of their city and church documents in the hollow center of this cornerstone. I was convinced that the names of the five women were among these relics.
The original Grace Baptist building, built in 1894, still remains. This is a small white portable chapel that survived the 1939 fire in the fire just before the Grace Baptist moved to its current monumental location.
Since 1941, the chapel has been remodeled and occupied by two churches, the Unity Baptist Tabernacle and the White Rock Baptist Church. When the Mount Vernon Housing Corporation wanted land for an affordable housing project, it was disassembled and moved to a new location in the city in 1968. White Rock still occupies the sanctuary of the chapel, just a 10-minute walk from Grace Baptist.
Pastor Whiterock and I briefly talked about opening the cornerstone before the coronavirus crisis that began last spring forced us all to quarantine. However, due to the uncertainties of the new pandemic, we were in the church and were wary of bringing people in to help access the church.
After all, after analyzing 100-year-old newspaper articles, census reports, journals of handwritten conference notes, maps, and city directories, I finally named it. Emily Waller, Matil Doublex, Helen Clayborn, Sahar Bennett, Elizabeth Benson. They were 25 to 40 years old when they founded the church. Waller and Benson were neighbors and the only black family in their block.
I haven’t found their offspring, but I’m sure they are there. Finding them and talking to them about their heritage is my next goal. And because they haven’t returned to direct service since the pandemic began, their names haven’t been added to the church newsletter yet, but soon their names will be printed out for all congregations to see. I will.
In the year that brought about a pandemic and national conversation about race and racism, I am proud to identify five vital women and shed light on a legacy that will not be lost in history.
[Read about the search for the five women in Ms. Pilgrim’s thesis and website.]