‘This Is Our Story’: Nevada County was home to two Black churches in the 19th century
Since the earliest days of the American republic, Black Christian churches have provided a home for free and enslaved people to practice their religion, build community and address political issues that affected their members.
The larger story of Black churches in America will be told in the PBS documentary that airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song” hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
In Nevada County we have our own story to tell. During the 19th century Nevada County was home to two Black churches of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) denomination. The church grew out of the Free African Society (FAS), a benevolent organization founded in Philadelphia in 1787. When white officials at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia pulled Black worshipers off their knees for mixing with whites while praying, FAS members transformed their mutual aid society into an “African” congregation that would become the AME Church. Black theology, as the AME Church interpreted it, was inseparable from practical matters of liberation.
The denomination reached the Pacific coast in the early 1850s. AME churches in a region were served by clergymen who traveled from town to town, thus connecting the churches into a social network. The clergy performed marriages, christenings, funerals and other religious rites.
The Grass Valley AME Church was erected in the summer of 1854 on South Church Street at a cost of $1,400. The church was dedicated by Rev. T. M. D. Ward. Church trustees were Isaac Sanks, Joseph Thomas, Isaac Bulmer, John Hicks, and Henry Blackman. All were former slaves.
In Nevada City Rev. Robert Taylor held the first AME service at an unknown location in 1858. On May 9, 1864, Black residents D.D. (Dennis Drummond) Carter, Samuel Rodgers, Elijah Booth, John Hamilton and James Jenkin entered into an agreement with William C. Groves to build a church on North Pine Street. The church was dedicated by Bishop Ward on Sept. 18.
In addition to attending to the religious lives of its members, AME churches were dedicated to expanding civil rights. In 1855 Black residents of California convened the first of four “Colored Conventions” that were held at St. Andrews AME Church in Sacramento. At the first convention Nevada City’s Carter represented the county. Delegates to the conventions focused on four goals: to abolish slavery; to secure voting rights for Black men; to gain access to public accommodation; and to eliminate the ban on testimony of Black people in court.
In Nevada County civil rights advocates often worked in a hostile environment. Known as the “Charleston of California,” Grass Valley had a strong contingent of Southerners and other residents who favored ending the Civil War even if it meant leaving slavery intact. Known as Copperheads, the group was politically influential. On Oct. 19, 1867, Grass Valley Church trustee, Isaac Sanks, wrote: “Most people know that this town is one of the strongest holds of Copperheadism, and that the great majority are exceedingly rabid, and intolerant at all times.”
In 1869, in anticipation that Black men would gain the right to vote, Carter canvassed the entire county to identify potential voters. However, even after the passage of the 15th Amendment, California’s attorney general ordered county registrars not to allow Black men to vote. Sanks had to go to the county courthouse in Nevada City to secure their registration forms.
In 1854, Black students in San Francisco became the first children segregated in California’s public schools. Soon, however, state law prohibited “Negroes, Mongolians, Chinese and other Asians and Indians” from attending public schools with white children anywhere in California.
Nevada County’s white leaders were also concerned with “racial mixing.” Grass Valley’s state Sen. Myles Poore O’Connor was quoted as saying: “If there was only one child of color in his district, and it must be educated, he would favor building a house and sustaining a school for it alone before admitting it to a white school.” Black parents insisted on schools for their children. One was built adjacent to the AME Church in Grass Valley, and another near the AME church in Nevada City. Ultimately, the expense of a separate education system for a relatively small number of Black children caused the state legislature finally to abolish “colored schools” in 1880.
CULTURE AND COMMUNITY
The churches also played an important role in the social and cultural lives of its members and the larger community. Carter was an accomplished musician, music teacher and band leader. The Grass Valley church was known for its exceptional choir and for accomplished musicians such as Willie Page and Frank “Hybo” Allen. In March 1876 Sanks hosted a visit by the Tennessee Jubilee Singers, a chorus of touring African American college students that gave two performances of traditional spirituals at Hamilton Hall, which were aimed at mixed-race audiences. The Union opined that: “To southern people who reside here these songs seem to be voices from old homes and old whens.” It is unlikely that the Black members of the audience, especially the many who had been enslaved at those “old homes,” viewed the performance with the same nostalgia as the whites.
The churches were also organizers of “freedom festivals,” which were events that celebrated important milestones such as the Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the 15th Amendment. The events were also attended by mixed-race audiences.
END OF AN ERA
At the close of the 19th century the Black population of Nevada County had dwindled as members of the pioneer generation died or moved to live with adult children who had already left the area. On Nov. 2, 1893, the Grass Valley church was sold at public auction to Charles Clinch for $1,130. On May 28, 1894, Trustee Elijah Booth sold the Nevada City church property to Edwin Tilley. In both cases the funds were returned to the AME Church. Although no traces of the Grass Valley or Nevada City church buildings remain, during the 19th century they provided a religious and cultural home for members of our Black community during one of the most turbulent periods of our history.
With the exception of this pandemic year, Nevada County has reconnected with the AME Church tradition through the annual visit of the choir of the Bethel AME Church of Marysville to perform at the KVMR-sponsored concert each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In the 19th century the churches of Nevada County and the Marysville church were closely tied.
Linda Jack has lived in Grass Valley’s Historic District since 2012. Her home is just a short distance from the AME church and school site.
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