The state of race relations in 1843 was such that black residents of Morristown opted to start their own church, rather than choose sides when the local Presbyterian Church split in two.
How far have things come since the Bethel A.M.E. Church opened its doors 175 years ago?
That question is on the menu this Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, from 6 pm to 7:30 pm at the Table of Hope, at 59 Spring St.
Moderated by the nonprofit Sites of Conscience, the conversation is free and open to the public. (So is the meal.) Race relations past and present in Morris County, the state, and the nation will be on the table.
It’s part of a year-long series of events, supported by grants from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, the New Jersey Historical Commission and Drew University, to celebrate Bethel’s anniversary.
“I’m hoping to intrigue people about the historical and cultural value of Bethel,” said Pastor Sidney Williams Jr.
An April 21 prayer walk will honor church founders and Bethel veterans of the Civil War who are buried in unmarked graves at Evergreen Cemetery.
Williams aims to raise money for a headstone commemorating Frances Jane Raye, affectionately known as “Fannie J.,” who led the Bethel Mite Society that started the church.
“Juneteenth” events on June 9 at the Morristown Green and the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer will mark the day when enslaved blacks in the South were freed after the Civil War.
Festivities will include costumed re-enactors, stories and songs by Kim and Reg Harris, a free shuttle to a Civil War encampment at Historic Speedwell, and an outdoor movie at Redeemer.
A public discussion on race, entitled Journey to the Beloved Community, also is planned for June 9, at the Morristown United Methodist Church.
The Ties that Bind, an exhibition exploring how blacks and whites co-existed in Greater Morristown in the 18th- and 19th centuries, opens at the Morristown & Township Library on Oct. 3. It runs through Dec. 31, 2018.
The legacy of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Jersey and the U.S. will be examined on Oct. 12 at Drew University in Madison, by Vanderbilt history professor Dennis Dickerson and author Betty Livingston Adams.
Those talks will be followed at Drew by an evening concert from Lowcountry Voices, a nonprofit organization that performs African American music from the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
‘NEVER REACHED THE BOILING POINT’
“I would love for people to see how historical interactions between blacks and white have an impact on where we are today in Morristown, Morris County and New Jersey,” said Claudia B. Ocello, president of Museum Partners Consulting LLC. She has helped with planning.
Racial tension in Morristown “never reached the boiling point like it did in Newark or Camden or Paterson,” Ocello said. “How did it work out so well for Bethel?”
The Morristown area always has been blessed with “a good number of people who take a stand, even when it’s not popular, to do the right thing,” Williams suggests.
He cited Mary Anne Cobb, wife of the town’s first mayor.
“Her decision to donate the first building to us couldn’t have been popular,” the Pastor surmised.
Bethel’s library exhibit will trace the evolution of local public education from 1850s segregation laws –when Bethel operated a basement school for black children– to the 1970s creation of the Morris School District to avert de-facto segregation, Ocello said.
Relations among black and white churches in Morristown continue evolving.
The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer periodically worships with Bethel, an exercise that has broadened horizons for both congregations, according to Redeemer Rector Cynthia Black.
“We consider Bethel to be part of our family,” Black said. “Various members of their congregation are people in my life now. That’s always a good thing.”
Of course, she noted, any family has its differences. The A.M.E. Church does not recognize gay unions or clergy. Black is openly gay.
“Initially there was some resistance to the idea that a lesbian could even lead the congregation. I hope they can see I’m as faithful a person as they are,” said Black, who preached at Bethel last Sunday.
SAFE SPACES, COMMON GROUND
Finding common ground is the point of Friday’s dinner, Williams said.
“We’re in a place now where we find it really hard to talk to each other and share common spaces,” said Williams.
The moderator specializes in difficult discussions. Established in 1999, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience has 230 members in 55 countries.
Its sites “provide safe spaces to remember and preserve even the most traumatic memories… [and] enable their visitors to make connections between the past and related contemporary human rights issues,” states the organization’s website.
“In this way,” the site explains, “a concentration camp in Europe becomes a catalyst for discussions on modern xenophobia; a Gulag museum in Russia highlights repression of free speech now; and a 200-year-old slave house in Africa sparks action to help the 36 million people who are still enslaved today.”
Williams thinks Bethel’s past can inform how it transforms the future, to bridge racial, ethnic and gender divides.
“Whatever divides us, churches should be a model how we come together,” the Pastor said. “As a congregation, how do we overcome these divisions rather than perpetuate them?”