Kevin Riordan: In Camden, black Catholic congregation honors Emancipation's 150th

At St. Bartholomew's , Robert House portrays Oliver Cromwell in another nod to history. APRIL SAUL / Staff
At St. Bartholomew's , Robert House portrays Oliver Cromwell in another nod to history. APRIL SAUL / Staff
Posted: February 13, 2013

Ronald E. Evans cherishes the ceramic pitcher and matching washbasin his grandmother brought to Camden from North Carolina.

So he carefully placed these heirlooms on a table at St. Bartholomew's Church - to make a point.

"People forget that they didn't get here on their own," said Evans, 81, organizer of a program to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

"We got here on the backs of those who came here before us," he added. "And the story's not over yet."

The George Murry Fellowship Hall at the church - the heart of black Catholicism in Camden County for more than 60 years - filled with people Saturday afternoon for the observance of Abraham Lincoln's proclamation.

The event blended hymns and history, celebration and education. It was a chance, as retired educator Olen Avant observed, to offer "a little refresher" lesson, particularly to younger African Americans.

"It's important that the children know their history," said Connie House, a Willingboro resident who works as a biologist with the state Department of Transportation.

"I've started doing research on African American contributions during the Civil War," House, 56, said. "I'm learning, too."

Adults examined displays of family trees and vintage photographs. Several children wore African-inspired garb, and a shy kindergartner named Joel Roberts-Amegatcher, 5, sported a costume beard and top hat as the Great Emancipator.

His mother, Lisa Roberts-Amegatcher, conducted the music, and her mother, Sheila Roberts, wrote some of the script for the skit, "The Emancipation Proclamation Through the Generations."

"Our families went through all sorts of turmoil to get where we are today," Evans, a longtime civic leader, told the 50-member audience. "It's necessary for us to know our history, so we will not go back and make the same mistakes again. We must understand where we come from, what we are, and what we can be."

As one of just two predominantly African American churches in the Diocese of Camden (St. Monica's, in Atlantic City, is the other), St. Bartholomew's provided a resonant setting for the celebration.

The parish was founded several years before the church building was erected in 1947 on what is now a forlorn stretch of Kaighns Avenue. Pioneering parishioners first met in a home owned by one of the city's handful of wealthy African Americans.

"St. Bartholomew's was established as a place for African American Catholics, not just in Camden but throughout the county," said the Rev. Gerard Marable. "They needed to be able to worship, at a time when they were not always welcomed at other parishes."

Marable is the pastor of the Parish of St. Josephine Bakhita, created three years ago from the merger of St. Bart's and St. Joan of Arc in Camden's Fairview section. Between 600 and 700 families are on the combined parish's rolls; both churches are used for worship, although St. Bart's remains the parish seat.

"It's important to connect past and present with our hopes for the future," Marable said. "The election of [President Obama] couldn't have happened without the Emancipation Proclamation and all the struggles."

Consider Evans' great-aunt Diana Kearney, who was born on a plantation, migrated north in the late 19th century, and did domestic work in South Jersey.

Although she had only a fourth-grade education, Evans recalled, Kearney picked up investing tips by listening to her employers.

About 50 years ago, hospitalized and near death, "Aunt Dinah" directed Evans to go to her home on Liberty Street, where she managed to tuck away more than $5,000. She told her nephew to deposit the cash in a downtown bank.

Aunt Dinah, unmarried and childless, wanted to help Evans pay for the education of his five children.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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