Embry and I are standing in a dark, decaying brick building near the Charleston, South Carolina, waterfront. Around us are some forty people—mainly our age and almost all Presbyterians, many retired ministers and their wives, and all from the Deep South. We are touring “heritage Presbyterian Churches” in low country Georgia and South Carolina. In front of us is a short, stout, older African American woman, who is talking with energy and conviction—not about churches, but about the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and the vestiges of racism, which still prevail throughout our society, not just in the Deep South. The ancient structure we are in is where male, African slaves were imprisoned before they were put up for sale in another historic building a few doors away. We are told they were crammed into this grimy, dank space like sardines.
Sure, we all know about slavery and reconstruction and the civil rights movement, but it is one thing to read about these things in text books and another to listen to people talk about what their great, great grandparents experienced. Hearing first hand from so many African Americans whose ancestor’s lives were directly affected by slavery makes it seem real and immediate.
What has made this tour special is that we have seen as many African American Churches as white churches and have learned from church members both white and black. Having also just read The Underground Railroad, I despair that we in America—especially in the Deep South—were responsible for one of the worst actions in all of human history. Slaves were considered property and were treated as such. Yes, of course, you reply, that is what slavery is. But to hear the stories told by black people in those churches moves it from the academic to the personal and emotional. Slavery happened in our country, and if it did not happen on our watch, it happened on the watch of our great or great, great grandparents.
We also know that it happened in Christian churches. Every white church we visited had a slave gallery. Devout Christians with conviction participated and encouraged the institution of slavery. Many church members owned slaves. Others bought and sold them. They made fortunes. Some churches even owned slaves. And at the time, few saw any contradiction between this and their Christian faith. Most are people we would refer to as “good people.” If we had lived in Charleston or Savannah or any of the country towns we visited, would we have been any different?
Despite the grim past, I was especially inspired by the warmth, enthusiasm, optimism and hope of the black church members. Given the awful history of slavery and racism, I could not help wondering how they could be so positive. That they are positive, however, says a lot. While much work remains to be done on race relations—a whole lot of work—when we hear first hand what it meant to be black in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, we know we have come a long way.
Everyone in our group was born and raised in the South, most in the Deep South. I do not believe there was anyone in our group who was not profoundly affected or who would have considered putting up any defense in behalf slavery or Jim Crow. We thankfully have moved beyond that –at least among our group of retired ministers and active churchgoers. We get it. What we do about it is, of course, another question –especially given the times we are in today when hate speech and hate crimes are on the upswing and when we have a president whose own behavior and tweets encourage these actions.
Toward the end of our tour we met at the (white) Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston. Our speaker was Anthony Thompson, an African American Episcopal priest at Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church in Charleston. Two years ago his wife, Martha, was leading a Bible study group at Emmanuel AME Church when she along with eight others was gunned down by a white supremacist. The Episcopal minister spoke for almost 45 minutes as we sat on the edges of our seats in the sanctuary of this aged church with its slave gallery. You could hear a pin drop. He talked about forgiveness and how forgiveness is important for victims to be able to go on with life. He was genuine and sincere. There was no hint of bitterness. Part of his ministry today is to preach forgiveness and understanding on issues related to racism. No one said a word as we departed the church.
Like practically everything else on this remarkable journey, Anthony Thompson’s words were not an academic exercise. He made the concept of forgiveness real and tangible. We left the church along with our fellow pilgrims overwhelmed and exhausted. We wondered how he could do this, how he could keep going with a positive spirit, after all he has been through. He said his Christian faith was the reason, and I suspect faith had something to do with the hope and optimism of the African American church members we talked to. Whatever the source, we were inspired and renewed. Embry and I returned home with thanksgiving for having met such wonderful people, both black and white, and–despite the challenges facing our country–with hope for the future.