Wesley Union AME Zion Church
The image of this church was taken at its original location on the corner of Tanner’s Alley and South Street in Harrisburg.
From Pennsylvania to Florida
Reverend J.J. Sawyer was a powerful member within the Florida AME Church. He even introduced the Independent African Methodist Episcopal Church which was quickly adopted by the church’s council. On March 2, 1897, the Independent African Methodist Episcopal Church organized in Jacksonville, Florida. The development of this schism was the product of a disagreement between the role of ministers as both pastors within the AME Church and presiding elders.
After mature deliberation it was declared to be the opinion of the body assembled that it was necessary to withdraw from the parent church and organize a distinct Christian denomination, but that the articles of faith and general rules of the new organization should be the same as those of the church from which they were separating themselves. The name Independent African Methodist Episcopal Church was proposed by Rev. J.J. Sawyer and adopted by the council.
In this week’s research, I was unable to answer the obvious questions which included Sawyer’s church, his congregation, his migration from NC to FA, and questions surrounding his faith journey, his wife’s role in the church, and the upbringing of his children. What I did answer was a connection between the Sawyers and the Flowers–the city of Jacksonville, Florida. This is the same city where Sawyer’s proposed high school was built and were his proposed Independent AME Church first organized. It was also the city were Harry and Nancy, Reverend Sawyer’s daughter, were married and raised their eight children. In 1913, Harry and his children traveled over eight hundred miles to a town outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania near Messiah College during a wave of black migration from the South. Nancy remained in Jacksonville where she wed Henry Sams. The couple’s first child together was born in 1915. She rejoined her children years later when she migrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with her husband, Henry Sams, and son, Henry Jr..
Residing in Pennsylvania, Henry and his children attended Wesley AME Union (Zion) Church originally located at the corner of Tanner’s Alley and South Street in Harrisburg. The church was established in a log cabin along Third Street and Mulberry Street in 1816 though records state that it was not found until 1829. Wesley was more than a place of worship. This church provided refuge for blacks during escaping from slavery and migrating North, a school for children and adults, a distribution center, and place for community. The church hosted powerful leaders including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois with Harrisburg’s prominent African American community leaders as faithful members. Prior to the Civil War and passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, Wesley held organizational meetings for the Anti-Slavery Society and Statewide Convention for Colored Citizens.
Stories have been told of slave hunters being warded off by African Americans around the church to defend people (some free and some fugitive slaves) from being returned to their owners in the South.
John Weldon Scott, African Americans of Harrisburg, 31
Nevertheless, the Flowers found their church home within this pillar of Harrisburg’s African American community. Newspapers reported of Rachel’s, Gladyce’s, and Hilda’s participation in church events. Speaking to the church’s pastor, most of the church’s records were kept within the basement and destroyed from numerous floods that occurred in the region. I was able to visit the church and members attended the Rachel Flowers Suite written and produced by Roy Mitchell and conducted by Dr. William Stowman. Regardless of the lost documents, the family held a special connection to this church for two members of the family’s funerals were hosted at the church and buried at the Lincoln cemetery.
As the children became older each of them went their separate and not so separate ways. In the mid-1920s, Rachel moved to Suldersville, Maryland to work within the public school system. She returned home as her father’s illness progressed. Following his death, she inherited their family’s home and migrated to Philadelphia with her youngest sister Hilda to a boarding home. Vincent attended Messiah Academy from 1923 to 1927. After graduation, census records place him in Maryland in the 1930s. By the Second World War, he had migrated, to be near family perhaps, to Philadelphia. Gladyce relocated to Philadelphia around 1926-7 attending Wesley AME Union in Philadelphia which was also attended by Rachel and Hilda, but more on that in part III. Chauncey and his family continued to reside in Harrisburg. When her husband passed away, Ernestine and the couple’s two children continued to live in the Harrisburg region with evidence that she was in the area even beyond the 1960s (birthday party reported in the newspaper). John journeyed even further North to White Plains, New York while Theodore also remained in Philadelphia with his wife. The children’s mother, Nancy, eventually made the journey North as well with her husband and son. Interestingly enough, there are documents showing Harry’s first daughter (from his first marriage) also relocated to Philadelphia. For the family members who resided in Philadelphia, they attended two churches, Wesley AME, formerly on 15th and Lombard Streets, and St. Phillips Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Until the next post,