Legacy of slavery remains in black churches

Photo by Chris Barber Hosanna AUMP Church sits at the edge of the Lincoln University campus.

The legacy of slavery still persists in many black churches, even though itís been 150 years since President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves.

In the days when blacks were enslaved in the South, and freed slaves lived in the North, the church was the center of their community, both socially, religiously and politically. And even today, when Sunday at 11 a.m. is considered by many to be most segregated hour of the week in America, the black churches still represent the center of community both at the neighborhood and regional levels.

The Hosanna African Union Methodist Protestant Church at Lincoln University sheds much light on the history and culture of black churches as they were in the past and are now.

Itís a tiny building alongside the road near the old entrance gate to the university. It was founded in 1843 by the three Walls brothers, three Amos brothers, Emory Hinson and Samuel Glasco whose descendantsí names are still familiar today in the southern Chester County towns.

The Rev. Thomas Warren, who is the current pastor of the church -- and also one in Lancaster -- said Hosanna in the 1800s had many functions.

Being north of the Mason Dixon line by just a few miles, it served the freed slaves of Pennsylvania and those blacks who were enslaved in nearby Maryland. Because slaves were given off work on Saturday afternoons and Sundays to go to church, many of them traveled north to Hosanna for services.

Warren said they often had two services: One under the scrutiny of the crew chief or caretaker of the slaves that was proper and reserved. Then, after he departed, there was a more spontaneous, loud and emotional service that exhibited the true feelings of the members.

The church was also a site for debate among African Americans on whether the solution to their plight was abolition or returning to Africa to create a free state there to spread Christianity in Liberia. Local Quakers believed in abolition of slavery, while many from the Lincoln area favored settling Liberia.

But there was another function for many black churches, and it is obvious in the structure of Hosanna. Along with other sites of the Underground Railroad (sites where slaves could safely take refuge on their escapes to the North), it was a venue to escape to freedom.

This happened in several ways. One was for the freed slaves of the north to arrive at church looking formal in their carriages. They then dressed up the slaves and drove them away in their carriages, while the guards mistook them for northern freed slaves.

The other way to attain freedom was for them to hide and steal away.

Currently, Hosanna is undergoing construction to build an indoor bathroom (since the earliest times it had an outhouse). The excavation into the floor at this time reveals a tunnel where slaves could not only hide, but crawl their way into the woods hundreds of feet behind the church.

The music then and now may have had a role in helping slaves escape. Legend has it that even the hymns they sang long ago and today had special codes that referred not to Heaven, but to escaping to the North. Today they are still sung, perhaps as a reminder of the past.

ďFollow the Drinkiní Gourd,Ē is said to have instructed slaves to look to the Big Dipper and the North Star to find their way to freedom. Songs about crossing the River Jordan may have let the slaves know that it was a gateway to Heaven, rather that while they were running away, wading into the rivers and streams kept the dogs off their trail.

Songs that referred to a better life after death, could easily have implied that the slave owners were livening Heaven on earth with their wealth, only to encounter hell in the next; while the slaves were having a miserable time on earth, but they would make up for it in the afterlife.

Warren said much has been made about the codes of Negro spirituals, but there is no absolute evidence that the songs of Heaven, rivers and going to Jesus were really about escaping.

While church in many American towns is a place to go on Sundays, Hosanna, according to its written history, was a place that provided activities all week long, including womenís sewing clubs and frequent eating events for the black community.

There is still the tradition of women dressing formally to go to church and donning fancy hats, especially on the holidays. Some in the church have said the custom began because it was the only opportunity blacks had to socialize in a formal way, but Warren said he believes it is because many in the black community consider going into the church going into Godís house, and He deserves that respect.

Warren said while he likes the dressing up, he wants people to know that all are welcomed at church, not just those who are dressed up.

Regarding the phenomenon that many churches remain de facto segregated today Warren said it is a result of people going where feel comfortable and share the lives and experiences with people who are there. That, he says, is community.

Hosanna invites people from all backgrounds and races to attend services. They are held every Sunday at 9 a.m., and the church is along Old Baltimore Pike at the east edge of the Lincoln University campus near the old main gate. Attendees are invited to park at the alumni parking lot inside the campus.