Henry Louis Gates’ PBS Special and Companion Book Bring Back Memories
In mid-January, I read the PBS.com blog announcing the two-part special, “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song.” Like most Black Americans who grew up in the Black church, the words to the subtitle were immediately familiar as the first lines of the chorus of a favorite hymn, Blessed Assurance. I was excited because I knew Dr. Gates would present this subject with the reverence and importance it was due. The Black church was the foundation upon which so many of the advances in Black American life was built. Many of us in the Black community know this fact. It is past time for this important information to be brought into the mainstream of American history.
I watched with anticipation when the show premiered. As the stories were told and songs and experiences of our ancestors were displayed before me on the screen, I remembered my personal experience in the churches of Halls Hill. My mom and dad were faithful members of Mt. Salvation Baptist Church, and Calloway Methodist Church, respectively. They grew up in those churches and after they married, they both continued their service and faith journeys at their “home” churches. I and my siblings grew up in the same churches as our parents. My mom took the seven children with her to Sunday School and 11 AM morning service every week. (We all went to Calloway for anniversaries, special programs and events, and of course, Vacation Bible School.)
When I remember going to Mt. Salvation as a young child, this picture is the vision I see in my mind. If the church was open, my mom was probably there. By the time I was a kid, she was the Superintendent of the Sunday School, the Church Clerk, sang in the Senior Choir, served on the Senior Usher Board, and more. And her level of service was not unusual. This was the norm. It was true of most of my friend’s parents as well. At Calloway, my dad was on the Trustee Board, Financial Secretary for many years, and was a Senior Usher, too. Dr. Gates reflected on this characteristic in the documentary. That’s how people in the Black churched rolled. They served.
The church was the center of our life and faith was the foundation of our home. The churches in our segregated neighborhoods filled the gap in our racist society. Black people did not have equal access to education, social, and or entertainment opportunities. The Black church is where we planned and strategized. As the documentary described it, the Black church played the “bedrock role as the site of African American survival and grace, organizing and resilience, thriving and testifying, autonomy and freedom, solidarity and speaking truth to power.”
This is definitely true for the role the Black Church played in Arlington. The first Black church established in Arlington in Freedman’s Village was the Old Bell Church, which became Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which still stands in the Green Valley neighborhood. The church members set the tone for all the Black churches that would follow to focus on faith, responsibility, education, and organizing their members for the betterment of the entire community. Combining faith, praise, and worship with a focus on social justice and equality. And now in 2021, it remains important work that many Black churches continue to do today.
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