African-American members of Milton Presyterian Church

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African-American Members of Milton Presbyterian Church
Written and submitted by Martha Spencer


In the course of researching a history of Milton, North Carolina, I was permitted to study the minutes of the Session of the Milton Presbyterian Church. This document contains records from 1826 through 1970. Through the prism of these minutes, a microcosm of social customs comes into clear focus, none more interesting and sometimes surprising than the entries relating to African-American members of the congregation.

The village of Milton, whose population has never exceeded a thousand, lies along a steeply rising hill between the Country Line Creek on the southeast and the Dan River on the northwest in Caswell County, North Carolina. The Dan also marks the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina.

The area opened to settlement through Granville grants in the 1750s. Eager settlers poured in from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia to take up the rich, red soil that for the next two hundred-fifty years produced bright-leaf tobacco. Before the town of Milton had even been conceived, a tobacco inspection station was established on the banks of the Dan River to judge the quality of farmers’ offerings. Tobacco embarked from the Dan to other river ports and seaports as other goods came in for sale in the commercial establishments of Milton.

In 1795, the town of Milton was incorporated by the state legislature and lots were laid out on lands belonging to Asa Thomas, who operated a grist and sawmill in the area. Within a few years, Milton became a small, bustling center of commerce. Several warehouses stored tobacco, which by the mid-1820s was being sold using the auction system that still exists today (“The Beginning” 7). Several tobacco factories produced plug tobacco for chewing. Most men chewed their tobacco or smoked cigars as cigarettes had not yet become popular.

Until 1826, Milton was churchless, though not ungodly. In 1820 the Milton Female Academy headed by the Rev. Abner Clopton, a Baptist minister, opened for young ladies of the region. The Rev. Clopton preached one sermon a month and persons of religious nature attended services at the Female Academy. By 1823, a plan to build a church had been formed and The Milton Female Fragment Society (sewing circle) raised money by sales of needlework and other means to further the cause. By the fall of 1825, enough money  had been raised and a  contract signed  with Mr. W. A. Royster to build a church. A subscription for a year’s support of a minister went around and anyone who contributed more than four dollars was permitted a vote for the denomination. The result was thirty votes for Presbyterian and eight for Episcopal. The services of Rev. James W. Douglas were secured and he arrived in Milton in March, 1826. At that time approximately twenty persons joined the church (“Minutes” 1).

Individual Presbyterian churches were (and still are) ruled by a board [Session] of elders and deacons, deacon being a lower office than elder. The size of the Session varied according to the membership of the church. During most of the time covered in these minutes the Session consisted of two deacons and two elders. The minister usually acted as the moderator and frequently as clerk of the Session. The Session reported to the Presbytery at annual meetings where the minutes of the Session were examined for adherence to church doctrine and form. The annual report to the Presbytery contained data on loss and gain of members, baptisms, number in Sabbath School and money given toward various causes. For about fifteen years, membership of African-American members was reported to the Presbytery.

Among the charter members of Milton Presbyterian Church was Amey, a black woman. The minutes did not specify at that point whether she was slave or free, but she was later identified as the servant of Joseph McGehee. She was baptized on July 29, 1826. Cicily, a black woman, belonging to Col. Archimedes Donoho, was received on profession of faith and examination of her religious experience on October 26, 1826. Dicy, a colored [sic] woman, belonging to Dr. P. H. Thomas (a druggist) was received on February 17, 1827. On a page of signatures of original members Cicily, Dicy, Nancy and Patience all appear to have actually signed their names, but each one has a parenthetical notation “her mark” (“Minutes” 254). John A. Jones’s signature is the only one by an African-American to be taken on its own merits. Cicily had formerly been a member of Nutbush Church in Granville County, but had been absent for several years.

On October 26, 1826, Joseph, a colored member of the church in Greensboro was received to occasional communion for this year at the written request of the Rev. W. Caruthers. One may surmise from this entry that Joseph’s services had been rented for a year to some member of the Milton community.

At the meeting of the Session of June 2, 1827, Rev. Douglas related that he had spoken with John A. Jones, a free man, Nancy belonging to M. J. Oliver, and Patience belonging to Mr. Stephen Dodson who were candidates for church membership. He recommended that they be received into full communion to which the Session agreed.

Slave members of the church sat in the gallery at the rear of the church, not downstairs with the rest of the congregation, so full communion for black members did not include sitting alongside their fellow white members.

On November 12, 1827 the Session resolved that “John A. Jones be appointed a stated reader and instructor to the black members of the church, under the direction of the Session and that members be requested to concur in this resolution” (“Minutes” 31). There is no indication as to whether the proposal had been discussed with Mr. Jones.

On the same day the Session also resolved

that Mr. Douglas converse with the masters and mistresses of our black members in reference to their opportunities for attending public worship; and that in future, before receiving them, a note be requested from those controlling their time, promising them the privilege of hearing at least one sermon on  the Sabbath (“Minutes” 32),

Mr. Douglas busied himself with bringing miscreants before the Session to answer for their alleged transgressions. Members were charged with sins such as drunkenness, profaning the Sabbath, fornication, adultery, etc. No person of any rung of the social or church ladder was spared if his or her sins became known to the minister or to the Session. However, in one instance a member of the congregation who was unnamed in the minutes was counseled by the minister for his unspecified transgression. African-American members were seemingly held to the same, if not more rigid code of conduct, as white members in spite of slaves’ lack of legal standing.

The minutes of the Session of December 21, 1827 reveal that “Mr. H. J. Foster reported that he had inquired into the moral character of one of the black members; and the Session after hearing the statement, resolved that nothing farther be done at present” (“Minutes” 42).

The minutes of November 21, 1828 allege the following charges against Cicily and Amey.

Common fame, or general rumor having charged Cicily, a coloured woman-servant of Mrs. Donoho, and member of this church,--1. With the habitual, intemperate use of ardent spirits; 2. With having swindled a small child belonging to Mr. A. Henderson of butter from his spring-house; &3 With angrily denying and bitterly prevaricating when detected and charged by her mistress (“Minutes” 53).

The charges against Amey were more serious.

Whereas also-Common fame, or general rumor charges Amey, (a coloured servant of Mr. T. McGehee) a member of this church, with the flagrant sin of fornication, having been recently delivered of a bastard child…(“Minutes” 53).

In view of the fact that Amey was a slave and the conventional wisdom is that slaves were expected to produce all the children they could in order to provide maximum profit for their owners, this is a rather surprising charge. On the surface it appears that the Session believed that Amey’s membership in the church was a more important obligation than that of slave and that her behavior should reflect that expected of a Presbyterian Church member. The minutes do not record whether the father of the child was white or African-American. If the father were white, perhaps Mr. McGehee’s wife had chosen to make an issue with the Session.

Cicily and Amey were cited to appear before the Session on December 3, 1828, but neither showed up then, nor subsequent to another citation for December 20, 1828. The Session decided to call another meeting and Mrs. M. Donoho, Mr. Henderson’s George and Mr. Oliver’s John were to be cited to appear.

At the appointed time on December 10, 1828, Cicily appeared. She denied drinking ardent spirits to excess, but said she drank sometimes so that she felt what she had drunk. She said that she had received the butter as a gift from George at the springhouse on a certain occasion. She “did wish and endeavored to conceal the butter from her mistress and how she came by it” (“Minutes” 54). The Session observed that,

although she professed sorrow for her sins, she has not given satisfactory evidence that she had any proper sense of their heinous nature—and also that she was quite two [sic] confident of having obtained forgiveness (“Minutes” 54).

Cicily was suspended from membership “until such time as she should show proper remorse for her sins” (“Minutes” 54).

On the same date Amey’s case was tried in absentia as she had failed to answer the second summons. The Session opined that “the cause of religion is suffering much on account of the sin charged against her” (“Minutes” 60) and voted to proceed with their trial. The Rev. Penick and Mr. Huntington, an elder, had talked with her and she “confessed that she had recently been delivered of an illegitimate child” and that

she gave to them no satisfactory evidence of either conviction or repentance of her sins. Mr. Penick further remarked that her master and Mr. Huntington said that her mistress spoke in very decisive terms against her faithfulness, veracity and honesty as a servant (“Minutes” 59).

The Session ruled that Amey should be suspended until she show the proper repentance for her sins.

On June 8, 1829, Cicily appeared before the Session seeking return to the membership. Her request was denied then and again on September 5, 1829, because the Session thought she had not yet shown proper repentance. On December 5, 1829, she was restored to membership and on May 29, 1830, Cicily requested and was granted through Rev. Penick a certificate of dismission [sic] to the Baptist Church at the Mill Meeting House (“Minutes” 72).

On May 20, 1830, several members reported that John Alston Jones, “a coloured member of this church” had become a member of the Baptist Church of Raleigh and on March 3, 1832 it was made official by a certificate of dismission to the Presbyterian Church of Raleigh.

On November 24, 1831, Hannah, a servant of Mrs. Mary A. Donoho was received on profession of faith.

Nancy, a servant of Mr. Oliver, was cited to appear before the Session on March 24, 1832 for failing to attend religious services. Nancy made a courageous statement at her appearance, which vividly expressed her attitude toward the church and some of its members.

She confessed that she had absented herself from the ordinances Of the church, particularly from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for about three years and that she had vowed that she never would commune with the same church again, confessing that in these respects she had sinned—but stating at the same time that she was over-persuaded in the first instance to join the church and that she had been provoked to act the part which she had acted by very ill treatment from a certain member of this church whose character stands entirely fair (“Minutes” 89).

The Session chose not to make a judgment on that day, but postponed the further consideration of the matter to the next meeting. They made the following ruling.

Nancy, having been fully heard—the Session were unanimously of the opinion that Nancy, tho [sic] she confessed the charges preferred against her at the last meeting, acknowledges her guilt, & professed repentance, gave no satisfactory evidence of being a true penitent—especially as she expresses herself as determined to persist in the same course and deals freely in unfounded charges against her brethren of the same church. Therefore Resolved unanimously that Nancy be & she hereby is suspended from the sacraments of the church until she shall give satisfactory evidence of repentance.---As Nancy was not present, it was expected that the moderator inform her in a suitable manner of the judicial proceeding (“Minutes” 92).

This seems a particularly unfair judgment. Not an ounce of mercy for her situation moved the Session.

Rachel, a servant of Mr. W. M. Lewis, was received on profession of faith on January 12, 1834. Sometime between December 18, 1835, and March 18, 1836, the following undated statement appears: “Application being made by Rachel, for a certificate of recommendation to join the Presbyterian church wherever in the providence of God her lot might be cast” (“Minutes” 130). The same wording is found at other places in the Session minutes applying to members leaving to move to places unknown, but the phrase seems particularly poignant when applied to a slave. The minutes did not record what had changed in Rachel’s circumstances—whether she had been sold or sent to live with some other member of the slaveholding family. On April 18, 1839, Hannah, servant of Mr. Seawell, requested and was granted a certificate of dismission to the Presbyterian Church of Raleigh (“Minutes” 141). Again, there was no indication in the record of what had changed in Hannah’s circumstances. One also wonders if this is the same Hannah, servant of Mrs. Donoho, who joined the church in 1831. If so, it would seem that she has been sold twice in the course of eight years.

One of the most intriguing of all entries appears on April 22, 1841. It creates some confusion about the date on which Thomas Day and his wife Aquilla became members of Milton Presbyterian Church. The Rev. Harding presented Mr. Day with a Bible on the day he joined and inscribed it “To my friend, Thomas Day”. The Bible is still in possession of a descendant of Thomas Day (Thomas Day Symposium, November 10-11, 2000).

Note: At a previous meeting which was omitted in its proper place…

Mr. Thomas Day and his wife Aquilla Day offered themselves as candidates for church membership. After a conversation on experimental [sic] religion which was entirely satisfactory, they were received into full communion (“Minutes” 147).

Thomas Day was a free black citizen of Milton and one of its most successful entrepreneurs. His cabinetry shop, the third largest furniture manufactory in North Carolina, employed both black and white workmen. Day was himself a slaveholder. In Milton the story goes that he owned slaves because the white men who worked for him set themselves up in business as competitors as soon as they learned enough from him. His shop produced high-quality furniture of the Federal style. In 1845, then Governor Reid placed an order for forty-five pieces of furniture for the governor’s mansion. About twenty of these pieces, purchased from the estate of a Reid descendant, now belong to the Museum of North Carolina History in Raleigh. He also did interior carpentry, some of it unique, in many of the fine homes around the vicinity as well as creating bookcases for the Dialectical Society at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The bookcases no longer exist, but papers relating to the business transaction are housed in the Southern Historical Collection at the University. It is widely believed that he made the pews in the Milton Presbyterian Church in return for being allowed to sit downstairs with the white members.

It is hard to determine whether the story of the pews is true or not. The present church building was erected in 1837. The date that Thomas Day and his wife Aquilla joined the church is not specified and the entry is added with a note that it was omitted in its proper place. The dates of the members who joined just before and after are available, but the dates in the list of members are not all sequential. Thomas and Aquilla were members number 105 and 106. The member just before joined on May 26, 1840 and the one just following on April 5, 1841. Therefore, he possibly did not become a member until four years after the second building was erected--quite a length of time to wait if, indeed, there was a deal made regarding the pews and his seating arrangement. I believe that Mr. Day did sit downstairs, but not because of any deal he made with the Session. A pew on the right side of the church on the front row has been pointed out as the place where he sat. Neither is there a single word in the Session minutes regarding the construction of the second building. However, it is documented that twenty-odd of Milton’s white citizens signed a petition in 1830 to request that a special law be enacted to allow him to bring his bride across the state line from Virginia to Milton. The laws at that time prohibited free blacks from coming into North Carolina from other states. The legislature complied with the wishes of the citizens and Aquilla came to Milton ("Thomas Day", 14).

Cary, a servant [slave] of Thomas Day, joined the church in April 1841, when the Session met at his home for the occasion. This provides another clue to the date that Thomas and Aquilla joined. None of his three children became members, but that may be because they were not living in Milton. He sent two of his children, Mary Ann and Deveraux, to a boarding school run by abolitionists in Massachusetts called Wilbraham Academy. Mary Ann was a piano student at Salem Academy in Salem, North Carolina. Documentary evidence of that arrangement also exists among the Moravian records in old Salem (“Thomas Day, Jacob and John Siewers”1).

Thomas Day’s brother John came to Milton about 1820 to study with the Rev. Abner Clopton. It is thought that Thomas came to the town perhaps a year or two later. John Day later immigrated to Liberia as a missionary and became an important figure in the government. He wrote in excess of two hundred letters back to the Southern Baptist Association. One of those letters provided the proof of their parentage. The Day brothers were born in Dinwiddie, Virginia to a free black cabinetmaker, also named John Day, and Mourning Stewart, daughter of a wealthy free black physician. The Day family had been free since the 1600s (“Thomas Day” 6).

James, a servant of Stephen Dodson, joined the church on April 3, 1842, and on October 5, 1842, Vince, a servant of W. M. Lewis, and James, servant of John Wilson, were received on profession of faith. Philip, servant of N. J. Palmer, was received by letter from Griers Presbyterian Church on the same day, as was Henry, a servant of W. M. Lewis. Henry joined by letter from Red House Presbyterian Church. Griers and Red House were churches close to Milton. One wonders if they had been recently sold or if there were some other reason for moving their memberships.

On April 7, 1844, Mary, a servant of Nehemiah Henry Harding (the minister), was received on profession of faith. He was a native of Maine who had been a sea captain earlier in his life. He made a bargain with God during a fierce storm off the coast of North Carolina that should his life be spared he would devote his life to the service of God (Caswell Messenger 4). Apparently he was not appalled by slavery like many of those from the North, as he owned slaves himself.

On January 4, 1845, the following African-Americans were received on profession of faith: Billy, servant of Thomas Allen, and Abraham and Frances, servants of Jarvis Friou. The latter, a shoe manufacturer and later the owner of the Milton Hotel, apparently was never a member of Milton Presbyterian Church as this is the only mention of his name in the Session minutes. Creacy, servant of Stephen Dodson, Lucinda, servant of George A. Smith, and Eliza, servant of N. J. Palmer, were received on profession of faith on April 25, 1845. James, a servant of Stephen Dodson, joined the church April 5, 1852, and Mary, “colored servant” of Mrs. Lucy Walker, was received on June 30, 1855.

In an entry dated October 19, 1855 the following statement appears:

Jim, a colored servant, belonging to Mr. C. H. Richmond, having been cited, appeared before the Session on the charge of adultery which was confessed by him.” The Session ruled that Jim should be “suspended from the sacrament of the church, till he give satisfactory evidence of his repentance (“Minutes” 156).

This was the first mention of Jim, giving additional evidence of less than perfect record keeping. The other surprise is that Jim was a slave, yet the Session found him guilty of adultery. It would appear that the church recognized his slave marriage as a binding obligation and apparently Jim concurred. He was eventually returned to full communion on April 6, 1856.

On April 7, 1856, Patience, a colored servant of Mrs. Mary Dodson, was received on profession of faith. On January 16, 1859, the Session returned James, a servant of Mr. John Wilson, who had been suspended for irregular conduct, to full communion. There is no earlier reference to James, so this entry is confusing. Is this merely another example of poor record keeping?

Henry, a servant of Mr. George W. Johnson, was received on profession of faith on July 10, 1859. Louisa and Leanna, servants of Dr. John T. Garland joined on January 5 and April 7, 1860, respectively. Another of Dr. Garland’s servants, Elizabeth, joined the congregation on July 19, 1860. Moses, a servant of Mr. Thomas A. Donoho, joined on July 20, 1861. Ritter, servant of Mrs. [C. H.] Richmond, joined on October 18, 1863.

The report to the Presbytery in April 1860 reported that the church had seventy-one members of whom eleven were colored. In April 1862, there were twelve colored members among the total of seventy-three. By 1864 there were seventy-two members, thirteen of them colored. “Colored” is the term used in the record. The last report of “colored” members is in April of 1868. There are ten among a total of seventy-eight members.

Mrs. A. Day requested a letter of dismission to the Presbyterian Church of Wilmington, NC on October 9, 1864. I believe this to be Aquilla Day, the widow of Thomas Day since no other member by that name had ever been recorded. The First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington has no surviving records because of fires, but Thomas and Aquilla were the only members by the name of Day up to the point at which the request was made. It is probably safe to assume that Mrs. Day moved to Wilmington to live with one of her children. The Days had three children, Thomas Day, Jr., Deveraux and Mary Ann Day.

The eldest son, Deveraux, had taken over his father’s business around 1862, but by then the Civil War had destroyed any hope of continuing his father’s success. Thomas Day had gone into debt about 1858 to bring in steam to power his equipment and to modernize his operation. Shortly before he died in 1861, his property came into the hands of a white builder in Milton, Dabney Terry, who sold it back to Deveraux within a few years.

On October 28, 1866, Ellen Oliver (freedwoman) was received on profession of faith. This was the first use of the word freedwoman in the records. On July 14, 1867, Ritter (freedwoman) was dismissed to the Presbyterian Church of Oxford, North Carolina. This would be the same Ritter who joined the church as a slave in 1863. One can only imagine that the word freedwoman was a source of pride for Ritter.

Moses Donoho was dismissed to join the Presbyterian Church of Macon, Tennessee on October 19, 1870. Freedmen’s Bank Records find him as a savings account owner in 1872 in Memphis ("Freedmen's Bank Records", # 435872). From his record we learn that his wife was named Nancy and he had a daughter whose name was not given.

On January 12, 1872 Sarah and Catherine Dortch (col.) [sic] were received on profession of faith. Mr. Woodson Dodson, a colored man, joined the church on September 26, 1875. Mr. Dodson worked at the Milton Hotel. Brandon and Catherine Dortch, colored, were received on profession of faith May 5, 1880. Mrs. Nannie Oliver, colored, joined the church on November 11, 188O and on January 26, 1889, Andrew Jackson Owens and Samuel Edward Wooding, “colored”, were received on profession of faith. The following statement appears in the minutes on October 2, 1887, “Mrs. Ann Oliver (col.) having returned to her former connection with the Baptist Church, her name was ordered to be crossed from our roll” (“Minutes” Book 2, 8). I believe that this is Mrs. Nannie Oliver, mentioned earlier. Apparently, at some point, the Baptist church  had ceased giving its members letters of dismissal to other churches and the Presbyterian  church was doing the same thing.

On March 9, 1890 the minutes contained the following statement which referred to the church that had been formed by the Reverend Boswell B. Palmer.

It was moved and seconded that the following persons at their own request to wit S. E. Wooding, A. J. Owen, Cornelia A. Henderson, Leonora Phelps, Brandon Dortch and Louisa Dortch be dismissed from this Church to connect themselves with the colored church that is about to be organized in this town (“Minutes” Book 2, 29).

This motion was carried and the letters of dismission prepared by the Moderator.

With this entry, the seventy-four year history of African-Americans in the Milton Presbyterian Church ended. It seems unusual that many African-American members maintained their membership for so long after the Civil War, when many broke away from the white churches to found their own congregations. Certainly the African-American members of Milton Presbyterian Church contributed richly to the history of the Presbyterian Church and to the town. It is inspiring to read the faithfulness of most of the African-American members to their Christian beliefs, in spite of the transient nature of their lives in many cases.