I allowed my mind to take a retrospective glance at the year when one of our oldest black churches was established in Rome, Georgia. My glance also took me back to the turmoil that was happening in this country at that time, especially in the state of Georgia. During the years 1860-1865, this country was in turmoil and many years after that the division got worse. The country was turned upside down by the battle over to have or not to have slaves. Georgia was the fifth state to leave the Union over that issue and the reelection of Abraham Lincoln as President of the Union, meaning Georgia was not in the Union when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863. Our state had seceded in 1861, which helps us as Georgians to understand why those who call for reconciliation are having such a tough time getting a majority of Georgians to understand that we have no option at this point in time but to go forward from here to be our better selves as Georgians or, as First Lady Melania Trump calls it, our “Be Best” self.
In 1861, Fort Sumter was occupied by Union troops and fired on for 33 straight hours with 4,000 shells by Confederate troops, officially starting the Civil War. This war was the beginning of the bloodiest war ever in United States history, and yet in the midst of all the anxious, anti-peace thinking, back at the ranch some black Christians in the Rome, Georgia, community were feeling hopeful and faithful. They must have felt as the Israelites did after being brought into captivity by the Babylonians. “Then, we do well to sing the songs of Zion even in a strange land, glorifying God for what He has accomplished for us through Jesus Christ the Lord!”*
Thankful Missionary Baptist Church was established in 1863 when the war was at its highest levels of destruction. Destruction was taking place from New York riots to the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga. In the middle of all the rage and hate and division existing between families and friends and especially the races, a group of blacks, with the behind-the-scenes help of whites, established their own house of worship. They no longer had to worship in someone else’s church or in the bush arbor.
When I first connected with Thankful in the 90s, the members continued to look to First Baptist Church with thankful hearts as the place that allowed blacks to worship in their sanctuary even if they were segregated. Just that small gesture gave hope to a people who had been looking for hope. These blacks were now ready to, “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on till victory is won.” These blacks were made to realize that God will always make available believers and followers who will attempt to live out God’s plan for us His people.
The church is celebrating its 163rd anniversary this month. As the present day members look back and realize that these black church leaders traveled the road as described in one of the most uplifting songs of our past, lift every voice and sing, “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died.”
The many events in 1863 were tragically devastating for the country and yet a bright beginning for a thankful and faithful people. That was a paradoxical year for America and Georgia. Let us not forget that in January of that year Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing a portion of the enslaved blacks in this country. The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was like pouring fuel on an already burning gasoline fire, so it was in the same year that this church was founded the fire of hate burned out of control as the war raged on. Still, there was much to celebrate. These leaders decided not to hang up their harps on the willow. These men and women were weeping as they remembered Zion, but they still had a church in the wilderness. They must have remembered the words below from one of the songs that helped them to keep the faith. “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray.”
Yes, we have a reason to celebrate in the midst of the storm, because we have a God who is still able to say, “Peace, be still and something will happen.”
*From Psalm 127: 3-4, with “Jesus Christ the Lord” taking the place of “YHWH.”
Willie Mae Samuel is a playwright and a director in Rome.