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THE COLORED RACE as a whole was markedly religious during the dark days of slavery, and out of many a fervent gathering held in the recesses of dark swamps or other forbidden places came the simple, sincere thoughts expressed in many grand old spirituals.
This same religious fervor and spirit has held rather firm in members of the race through the years. True, there have been some changes in religious thinking, especially among modern day youth; but Sunday morning is still a revered time in thousands of homes when many families hasten to put on their Sunday clothes and be at their places in God’s church for morning worship.
The establishment of churches in the Brooklyn area of Charlotte dates back perhaps to the earliest settlement of colored people in this section. Wherever they settled together in numbers (segregation laws of most places, particularly in the South, forced them to live together), they soon found a way to establish a meeting place in which to worship God.
Frequently, this securing of a church structure, whether it was a large imposing building or an old rickety store converted into a place of worship, has been a fulfillment of the old saying “to dig deep in the pocketbook until it hurts.” This kind of united action has been continually demonstrated by various members of churches. Their giving was supplemented by the proceeds from such weekly activities as fish fries, chittlin suppers and selling cakes and pies to amass sufficient funds for needed buildings. Brooklyn’s population was no exception in this kind of Christian endeavor.
People made work and recreational use of their big iron washpots before it was fashionable. Often, on a much traveled corner or in a backyard, a washpot was cleaned, partly filled with oil, and placed over a fire for a Friday or Saturday evening fish fry. No modern day barbecue was better attended or enjoyed than these church fish fries. Passersby would stop to purchase a sandwich. The bustle and odor of frying fish would alert the community that something was going on at a certain house. Some housewives would decide not to cook supper that evening and buy enough sandwiches for the family from the church entertainment. These sandwiches were delicious, steaming hot and usually sold like hot cakes for five or ten cents, according to the size of the fish in the sandwich.
Sometimes, more enterprising lady members decided to make icecream and also sell it at the entertainment. This meant scrubbing the churns, and if the cream was to be sold on a large scale it also meant borrowing one or two churns from neighbors. The ice man was found so there would be sufficient ice for freezing and packing the cream until time to sell it. There was an old saying among some people that eating ice cream and fish together would make one sick. Many people firmly believed it and were afraid to indulge in both foods, but others paid the saying no attention and partook of both foods as heavily as their purses allowed.
These church entertainments, whether held in yards or home, were quite happy, frolicky occasions. Occasionally, a group might get a bit loud, but the patrons were chiefly the people in the neighborhood who knew how to enjoy themselves together.
Segregation laws covered practically all public activities and conveniences in the city. This meant that Brooklyn’s population had very few public places to attend or use with a feeling of freedom. The water fountains in city-owned buildings were labeled For Colored or For White. Windows for the payment of bills were often differentiated by similar signs. Toilet facilities were nil except perhaps for some dingy place down in a basement, often where the mops, brooms and other cleaning things were kept. All movie houses were closed to colored people except one on Second Street, and the management was rather limited when it came to being able to secure the latest and best pictures.
Most public performances and cultural places of any other type were in the same segregated category. All food establishments whether in stores, hotels or regular eating places forbade colored people to enter except by the back door to purchase a sandwich. The only place uptown that I remember hearing about as a child that accepted the patronage of colored people was an eating place operated by a Greek, and he received much patronage because he did allow them to come in and get a bite when they were hungry, particularly people who had come to town from the country and nearby places.
Even the public parks bore signs or were understood to be “For White Only.” I always have memories of a pleasant looking little park situated behind a public building on one of our main streets. A tall, traditional iron fence surrounding it, imparting a rather imposing air to the place. We often passed it on our way down this street, and it seemed that I continually had the desire to stop, go in and enjoy a bit of the natural loveliness of this tiny park. Although I couldn’t have been distinguished by appearance perhaps from a child of another race, I don’t think that I ever went in because that big bug-a-boo, “For White Only,” constantly loomed in front of me. My childish curiosity and craving to enjoy a glimpse of the park’s beauty had to remain unfulfilled.
Being barred from the enjoyment of so many conveniences and pleasures meant that colored people were forced to seek mainly among themselves for sources of various types of activities. Simple church entertainments and church programs of a more intellectual order helped to provide the people with wholesome bits of recreation and information and helped them raise some revenue for worthwhile projects. Personally, I think that this constant seeking and reaching out to serve God and His church whether through prayer, religious services, or some more secular type of activity, particularly during the darkest days of the race’s life, developed in its people an inner strength and power to love and endure that can never be adequately measured.
Many onlookers from time to time have wondered how it has been possible for various members of the race to overcome innumerable obstacles, weather avalanches of prejudice and adversity, and yet climb Jacob’s ladder singing the staunch, inspiring lines of comforting old songs.
If these same individuals could have looked into the rooms of many humble homes and viewed the prayerful figures of men and women, they would have found their reservoir of strength. No weariness has ever descended so strongly upon their bowed heads that it could not be removed by sincere supplication. Over and over they have beseeched their maker “to make a way out of no way,” and countless times, the answers have come. Sometimes with the impact and swiftness of lightning bolts from clear skies or like still small voices, the way to paths that have led upwards from morasses of persecution and suffering have opened for trusting souls.
Certainly there have been great and enduring sacrifices and constant personal struggle. Those who have had the determination to work and the faith to look up and nourish within their hearts the trusting thought, “If it’s the Lord’s will,” there shone and still shines a guiding light.
The Reverend Zuck Horton was perhaps an untutored but certainly a zealous religious man who laid the groundwork for the establishment of one of Brooklyn’s earliest churches. He was one of Brooklyn’s oldest citizens, and his greater possessions were faith and the desire to be of service. He constantly moved about from corner to corner admonishing his fellow citizens and fervently preaching the word. Some of his seed fell on the good ground, took root and grew. From his harvest, he was able to count a number of followers who banded together and helped establish Ebenezer Baptist Church.
The church membership continued to increase until in later years, its communicants were numerous and financially strong enough to build a large, imposing structure on the corner of Second and Davidson streets. Many of the preachers who have served the congregation have been capable, distinguished men who proved themselves to be competent leaders of their flock. This church became a power in the community and listed among its members some of the section’s most influential citizens.
One of the most earnest and devoted members of this church was the late Dr. Allen A. Wyche. He was a slender brown man with gray hair who bore unmistakable marks of refinement and culture. His gentility was so pronounced that if you were in his presence, you would want to speak softly. His interest in his church work was sincere, constant and dedicated. He attempted to share with his fellow man the benefits of his broader training and innate ability to get things done. For years, he was the treasurer of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Carefulness and honesty were traits that were evident in his pursuance of his duties.
After his death, his wife was chosen to fill her husband’s post. She also gave conscientious and devoted service. An interesting anecdote abut Mrs. Ethel Wyche while she was the church treasurer was related to me by a relative. Quite often when the church was in need of funds, a big rally was planned and executed. Everyone from professional people to washerwomen participated and loyally marched to the collection table to put down their contributions. One intense drive raised three thousand dollars.
This large sum was entrusted to the church treasurer who had to wait until the next day to make a bank deposit. It was a very large sum of money to keep in one’s house overnight, and fear of its loss caused Mrs. Wyche considerable anxiety. However, she decided bravely that she must accept the responsibility for its safe keeping and that she alone must devise a plan for so doing. She took the money home and sat up all night with a pistol by her side to make sure that no harm came to the money with which she had been entrusted.
Ebenezer Baptist Church continued to act as a beacon light that pointed people to the cross and a better way of life for more than a half century. The old structure caught fire one night. By the time the fire was discovered by a passerby, the interior of the church had been gutted and the fire was much too far advanced for firemen to do anything to save the structure.
I was told that as the weakened frame of the bell tower gave away, the heavy old iron bell started its downward fall. And as it fell, it began to toll its last call to the people. This was a pathetic strange sound in the darkness of night, and many people in the viewing crowd felt the sadness of each toll and cried and grieved for the fate of their church.
Although Ebenezer Baptist’s structure was destroyed by fire, its work still lives on, though directed from another location on one of Charlotte’s main streets.
There were other influential churches in Brooklyn which helped to mold and direct the spiritual life of the citizens. Among them were Grace A.M.E. Zion Church, the Friendship Baptist Church, the Congressional Church, the Lutheran Church (which at one time also ran a school on Second Street) and the Seventh Day Adventists.
There is an interesting figure I would like to mention, the late Mr. Henry Houston, who was a member of the Grace A.M.E. Zion Church. I cannot forget the joyful, beaming face of this individual.
Any written record of facts about Brooklyn should mention Mr. Henry because he lived on Second Street in the midst of much activity that concerned Brooklyn. He was deeply interested in the welfare and activities of the community and from his small printing shop on East Second Street, he published The Charlotte Post, a newspaper that circulated through the streets and kept its readers informed of the race’s religious life as well as of other events that concerned their secular activities.
This newspaper, though small when compared with today’s tabloid sheets, was interesting and well-edited. It certainly must have one of the longest records for newspaper longevity in the city because it is still being published with another person as editor.
Another activity that Mr. Henry sponsored and developed was a song service that was once an important feature at Grace A.M.E. Zion Church. Sensing the need for some special program for young people to attend on Sunday, Mr. Houston started this activity. The idea caught on like wildfire, and the song hour became popular in Brooklyn and across the entire city. The younger members of the population were delighted to dress in their Sunday best and promenade to Grace to greet their friends and call out favorite numbers for the large audience to sing. Anyone who experienced the joy of attending these “sings” cannot forget the spirited singing which Mr. Henry led for many years.
A very interesting couple, who were devoted members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, were Lee Wilson and his wife, Lou. Mr. Lee, a painter, was a short, stocky black man whose face reflected a good life. He had an untarnished record for honesty, thrift and dependability. If he promised a person that he would be at their home at seven o’clock to do a job, the place to be painted should be vacant and ready for him to begin at that hour. More than likely, if a knock was heard on the door at the appointed hour, it would be Mr. Lee standing there in his white overalls and painter’s cap ready to do his job.
People all over town recognized his ability to paint well and made steady use of his skill. At one time, his reputation was such that many people called him the best painter in town. My mother thought so anyway, and whenever she wanted an outstanding paint job, she sent for Lee Wilson. He usually upheld the confidence that his patrons had in him by his superior talent to produce unusual effects with paint or paper,. It didn’t seem to matter to him how long it took to do a job. His greatest desire was to please his customers. I remember from my childhood large oaken doors in our living room which he stippled for my mother. They were objects of beauty that was enjoyed for years. Mother hated to get rid of them when she decided to renovate our home.
Mr. Lee was dutiful in his homelife and took excellent care of his attractive wife, Miss Lou. She never had to work, but instead stayed at home, raised lovely flowers, and made a happy home for her husband. On Sundays, they would frequently pass our home on their way to church.
Mr. Lee was a tradesman, but he loved music and was the organist of his church for many years. How well he played, I never knew. But from his diligence in pursuing his daily work, he must have done a credible job.
There were several other smaller churches in Brooklyn. They worshipped in Smaller buildings and the congregations were not so numerous, but they often made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in numbers.
When I was about seventeen or eighteen years old, I played for one of these churches. I was not required to have choir practice, only to come on Sundays and play for the services. I cannot remember serving a more fervent, deeply religious group. They were hard-working people, and it was very apparent that their religion was the rock on which they depended for strength and guidance. As you heard them sing, you sensed the sincerity in their lives as well as in their voices. I do not remember the name of this small church where I first played, but it belonged to the Methodist denomination.
The usual practice for singing hymns was to have the organist play them while the choir and the congregation sang them, but at times (before the preaching service began or during the service), hymns as well as spirituals were sung a cappella. It was during these unaccompanied renditions that their uninhibited group singing was superb.
I remember how a song was started a cappella. The leader would stand in front of the congregation and announce whether the song would be sung in long or short meter. He or a woman in the audience who possessed a good voice for leading would give the pitch, which was usually in a minor key, and then set the time and the mood of the song.
Sometimes if the song was a hymn, particularly one with unfamiliar words, the song would be lined. Lining the words of a hymn meant that the leader read two lines for the group to sing, then read two more and continued in this manner until the entire hymn had been sung. This practice might have started because at one time, there were many non-readers in the group or there might have been a scarcity of books for the congregation to use.
If the hymn was a familiar one or a spiritual, it was sung straight through with no need for lining. Immediately after the leader sang the first note, the group instantly picked up the lead and the tones swelled in perfect harmony. They needed no director. Through a strong innate musical feeling, they blended their voices together in one great chorus. This great unison of tones rose and fell in an undulating wave of song. Years of suffering and struggle together seemed to have given them the power to tie their emotional and personal exaltations together and unite their voices in spontaneous, beautiful music. A listener could almost feel his spine tingle from the deep emotion in the group’s singing and what it conveyed.
I particularly remember the women’s voices with their varied altos and the startling almost eerie in-between notes of some sopranos. An outstanding singer with a very high voice would most always sing out with her own obligato, composing it as her feelings dictated in a high sustained line of lyrical notes.
Often, vigorous hand clapping, foot patting and fervent waves of Amens were part of the service. These Amens came strongest from the Amen Corner. This section was set aside at the front of the church close to the pulpit where some of the deacons and other church leaders sat. By their hearty Amens, they let the preacher or the singers know that they were with them all the way. Frequently, the preacher might feel the need for a greater rapport between himself and his congregation and he might call out, “Are you with me?” Amens would come forth sometimes in a chorus and again individually as the hearts of the men were moved.
At times, various members of the congregation would be so touched by the impassioned preaching or singing that they would get “happy.” Many enjoyed being in this state, and they were delighted when their emotions reached this peak allowing them to vent their feelings.
For some, this meant crying, shouting and waving their arms and hands as they sat in their seats. For others, this feeling of being “happy” meant that they could no longer sit still. They had to get up, move about and tell it. This was done without restraint. They move up and down the aisles, shook a sister’s or a brother’s hand and urged them to be better Christians. The larger part of the congregation remained in their singing until the song had ended and the most fervent ones resumed their seats.
I am a member of the Episcopal church where the music is liturgical and definite. But the often spontaneous, creative as well as beautifully harmonized singing of these untrained voices gave me memories that I shall always cherish as rare musical experiences.