A Heritage Worth Celebrating

I recently sent a link to my comments in Charleston’s daily newspaper on the sesquicentennial Civil War observance to a few friends and colleagues. Many thanks to Bishop Adam J. Richardson, who presides over the Second Episcopal District of the AME Church, for reading the column and making a suggestion that led to the thoughts herein.

Bishop Richardson agreed that while the Civil War is a matter of historical fact, sesquicentennial events should be historically accurate commemorations, not celebrations like the planned December 20 Sons of Confederate Veterans’ “Confederate Ball” honoring the signers of our State’s Ordinance of Secession. Bishop Richardson and I saw no wisdom in those who now try to rewrite history celebrating those who committed an act of treason against America. He said, “We ought to celebrate what the AME Church was doing 150 years ago.” I agree.

The AME Church was born when our founders refused to accept religious discrimination, and that spirit of liberation spread to the south in the years before, during and after the Civil War. The Reverend Morris BrownThe Reverend Morris Brown established an African Methodist Episcopal congregation in Charleston in 1818. The congregation grew to a membership of 4,000 and flourished until 1822, when one of its members by the name of Denmark Vesey was accused of plotting a slave uprising. Vesey and his companions were arrested, tortured and lynched, the church was ordered to disband, its building was eventually burned, and Reverend Brown was forced to flee Charleston for his life. He went to Philadelphia, and became the second elected and consecrated Bishop of the AME Church when Bishop Richard Allen died in 1831.

Although Morris Brown died in 1848, his Episcopal tenure fanned the flames of liberation. AME Clergy and laity were active in the movement to abolish slavery and the Christian Recorder, our denominational newspaper, made literary and theological arguments for emancipation that prodded America’s conscience and helped to make emancipation a reality. The AME Church also pressed for the right of African-Americans to serve in the Union Army and aided in the recruiting effort. The first black Chaplain in the United States Military, Henry McNeal Turner, was a South Carolina native who also went on the become a Bishop of the church.

When the tide of battle turned, AME missionaries came South on the heels of the Union Army. Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, who also fled Charleston for his life for the “crime” of opening a school for black children, returned to his native state in 1865. He first established Queen Chapel AME Church on Hilton Head island and then came home to Charleston, where he reactivated the original congregation that never disbanded but quietly stayed in business. That congregation, now called Mother Emanuel AME Church, became the staging ground for the growth of the AME Church across the southeastern United States and is to the AME Church in the south what Mother Bethel is to the denomination. The Reverend Richard Harvey Cain, the founding pastor of that renewed congregation and of Morris Brown AME Church in1866, served in the South Carolina legislature and later became a United States Congressman.

This column is simply a “snapshot” of a heritage of liberation and of faith driven courage displayed by true Americans against incredible odds – that’s worth celebrating, and the best way to celebrate is to take a stand for freedom and justice today. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and we can’t afford to drop the torch they passed to us, play it “safe” and simply go through the motions of religion. We have to be instruments of God’s power, working with others of like mind to make a positive difference in the present age, and we’ll soon have a unique opportunity to do so.

The South Carolina NAACP has scheduled a protest and rally against the “Confederate Ball” on December 20. We’ll begin at Mother Emanuel AME Church – across the street from the site of the “ball” – and march to Morris Brown AME Church for a rally. Those who show up, participate and encourage others to do so will honor our ancestors in the faith, make it clear that we don’t celebrate insurrection, and proclaim that ours IS a heritage that’s truly worth celebrating.

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