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Uncovering the History of St. James’s Involvement in Slavery & Racism — Part I, 1830 to 1865

Uncovering the History of St. James’s Involvement in Slavery and Racism

Preamble:  This project is an effort to begin reckoning with racism in the history of our church. It arose from the Racial Justice and Reconciliation Formation Team and is a result of research conducted by a committee of volunteers, none of whom are historians. We are dedicated to telling our parish’s racial history, both positive and negative, to determine the involvement or investment of St. James’s and its leaders in the institution of slavery and systemic racism from the beginning of the Church in 1830 to the present.  We also want to tell the story of St. James’s role in the founding of St. Philip’s, one of Richmond’s first African American Episcopal Churches.   In uncovering the history and telling more of our story, our goal is to educate and edify ourselves about the reality of our racial history, and to begin the healing and reconciliation process that will hopefully culminate in our desire as individuals and as a church to take proactive racial justice action.   It is a work in progress, and we welcome others to join this effort, as researchers, writers, editors, teachers, etc.  Following the call of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, we are seeking to become beloved community.

A book was written in 1986, Not Hearers Only, to celebrate the 150th birthday of St. James’s that told the history of St. James’s from 1838 to 1985. Its scope did not include consideration of the church’s racial history.  While this book did not include footnotes or contain many sources of information, it was factual and was written and edited by three historians, two of whom were members of the parish as was the editor.  The book contains a number of historic photographs and a compilation of all vestry members and their dates of service. Part I contains much information from this book.

Two other local Episcopal churches have undergone, or are undergoing, their own racial history projects: St. Paul’s and St. Philip’s.  St. Paul’s project was led by historians and began in 2015.  When the research was completed, a book was published in 2020 entitled Blind Spots: Race and Identity in a Southern Church and will be republished soon as Faith, Race, and the Lost Cause: Confessions of a Southern Church.  St. Philip’s is working on its history and hopes to have it completed in time to celebrate its 160th anniversary.  While we have taken excerpts from Not Hearers Only, much of the information contained in this report was derived from Diocesan records, the St. Paul’s book, and research from St. Philip’s as well as many other books, articles, and U.S. census data. There were no vestry records that could be found for this period.

Part I – Slavery: 1830 – 1865

Summary

Church is and has always been a powerful force in the African American community, even more so during slavery.  African Americans sought to assert their self-determination in religion. The work of the Episcopal Church prior to Emancipation was “patronizing and of a charitable sort” with much practical good but no serious effort to extend church to African Americans. According to Dr. Ed Bond, the Episcopal Church by and large ignored the issue of slavery completely.

The treatment of free or enslaved African Americans by the Episcopal Church during this time mirrored that of society whether in the north or south: African Americans were only welcomed on whites’ terms.  The treatment of African Americans was that of benign neglect or paternalism at best.  Worship for African Americans in white churches almost always meant being segregated to the gallery. That said, the Episcopal Church was the first hierarchical religion in the U.S. to ordain an African American, Absalom Jones, in 1804 in Philadelphia.

In the south, Christian churches developed a biblical justification for slavery.  In the framework of “proslavery Christianity,” some white masters mentored enslaved African American people in the ways of “proper Christian practice.”  In this practice, African Americans were viewed as “unintelligent brutes” in need of paternalistic care: the role of whites was to teach African Americans the Bible and to baptize and marry them within the structure of slavery, because they believed African Americans would not have the wherewithal to teach themselves.[i]

By the 1800s, Richmond was a major center of trading enslaved people. According to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, “After an 1808 act of Congress abolished the international slave trade, a domestic trade flourished. Richmond became the largest slave-trading center in the Upper South, and the slave trade was Virginia’s largest industry. It accounted for the sale of as many as two million people from Richmond to the Deep South, where the cotton industry provided a market for enslaved labor.”[1]

While the cornerstone for St. James’s Episcopal Church was not laid until April of 1838, the seeds for the creation of the parish germinated in 1831 from a group of people who were unhappy with attending Monumental Church.

St. James’s relationship with slavery and racism is a microcosm of the complexity of whites’ views of slavery and African Americans during this time, whether pro-slavery or anti-slavery. We found evidence demonstrating that St. James’s participated in institutional racism. Many leaders and members embraced the pro-slavery Christian philosophy and treatment of free and enslaved African Americans prevalent in the United States. Bishop Meade, rectors, vestry members and other leaders in the diocese and parish enslaved people, and many favored seceding from the Union rather than give up slavery.

Lead by Dr. Empie, who was an educator who held anti-slavery views at least prior to coming to St. James’s, St. James’s held Sunday School for African Americans from the beginning with the school having 120 freed and enslaved students when it first opened in 1845 and 300 in 1858.[2] However, census records show that Dr. Empie himself owned slaves until he died. Under his tenure, during worship, African Americans were segregated from whites and were required to use the gallery, which did not have pews until 1859.

 

[1] The Virginia Museum of History and Culture

[2] Not Hearers Only: A History of St. James’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, Virginia 1835-1985, Minor T. Weisiger, Donald R. Traser and E. Randolph Trice; copyright 1986 by St. James’s Episcopal Church page 18

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