St. Thomas AME-Z Turns 150

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, from Psalm 100, was fitting scripture for St. Thomas African Methodist Episcopal-Zion Church’s celebration of African American History month Sunday afternoon, February 10. Helen Shepard, longtime member read the scripture and organized the service.  For 150 years the sound of voices raised to God have echoed from this place of worship on Main Street Extension.  Many old-time Swansboro residents remember the passionate singing coming out of the open windows of the old church in the summertime. The music this year was led by Mrs. Calvinette Shephard and the Jones Onslow Male Chorus. Special guest Judge Paul A. Hardison gave the message. Regular members and others present shared in the spirit of the day proving why this small church has lasted so long.

St. Thomas AME-Z founded in 1869 was one of those enduring African-American institutions that grew out of the Reconstruction Era. In 1868 white Northern missionaries from the American Missionary Association based in Beaufort during the Civil War assigned Miss Mary D. Williams of Massachusetts to teach the small community of freed people at the new freedman’s school. Though she was very popular she didn’t stay in Swansboro long, but the small community kept their church and school going. St. Thomas’ church history says, the ancestors of their members used to gather on Wednesday nights by lantern light for prayer meeting in “a building that once was a lodge located a few feet away from the church cemetery.”    

The freedmen took advantage of opportunities offered by the white AMA, but then created an independent black church.  Noted historian Donnie D. Bellamy during Swansboro’s Bicentennial celebration in 1983 gave an amazing lecture on Onslow County Black History noting that James Walker Hood, famed clergyman, came to federally occupied New Bern in 1863, established the first AME-Z church locally, and was “doubtlessly instrumental in organizing” the Swansboro church.  Enslaved blacks weren’t allowed to have their own churches, so they went to white Methodist worship services, sitting in the balcony.  After the war they established independent churches like St. Thomas’ church.  Nash P. Bell, born in 1875, a dedicated member, educator and local land owner of the early 20th century, said he remembered a church on the site all his life.  Early members of the church were:   Nelson and Celia Blount, Isaac J. and Delia Bell, Daniel and Easter Ambrose, and Philip and Caroline Chavis. 

The old building that many still remember, was torn down in the early 1980s, after the new masonry structure was completed.  The newspaper, Beaufort Weekly Record reported in July, 1887, the “negro population” from around Swansboro took two vessels on an expedition to the banks. That evening they had a festival to raise money for their church which was the only one in Swansboro at the time.  The white “Free Church,” the only white church in town had been destroyed in a storm in 1878.  

According to local historian, Jack Dudley the old church was the oldest church in town even predating the Methodist Church on the corner of Elm and Church which was built in 1888 and razed in the 1960s.  St Thomas Church was still being lit by kerosene lamps hanging on the walls when it, sadly, as so many other Swansboro historic structures, was lost.

Digging began on the footing for the current St. Thomas Church building in 1977.  The work of faithful members and contributions from many people in Swansboro got if finished.  It has recently been remolded with the help of the efforts of the Swansboro Methodist Church men’s group. The new church is beautiful inside now, and longtime members are happy to have it, though they are nostalgic for the old structure. In hurricane Florence the present church was a refuge for some of the members who felt safe behind its sturdy masonry walls. 

In 2011 the Swansboro Historical Association along with town officials and local and regional bishops celebrated the church’s history during a ceremony in which the church was given historic plaques for the church and the freedman’s school location.  The membership of the St. Thomas’ then was close to what it was in the early 1960s, 15-20 members, and remains about the same today.  Those who attended this year’s 150th birthday and African American History celebration can testify, though small, it is alive and well.  

At the recent service the Jones Onslow Male chorus lead the singing of many inspirational favorites like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “This little light of mine.”  Reverend Fannie Tootle Adams lead the service giving Judge Hardison an incredible introduction that included among many accomplishments his position as Chief District Judge of Sampson, Onslow, Jones, and Duplin Counties. Judge Hardison was first elected to the court in 1990 and is currently the longest serving of any other African-American district court judge in the state.  Judge Hardison participated in the service, by singing on request “Amazing Grace Shall Always be my Song of Praise.” 

 Helen Shepherd who asked for the song and for Judge Hardison to come back to the church after a long absence, remembered he had visited the old church but not since. He began his talk with the well-made point that from January 1st to December 31st the rich contributions of black people should be a part of the discussion of our shared history as Americans, regardless of race or class. He pointed out that we are all in this together, like being in the same pot.  

He lovingly spoke of his own mother who had to raise him, as mother and father when the father died when the Judge was very young.  Growing up in a humble home in Snead’s Ferry he told of how she grounded him for making a B+ and increased his chores. He never made anything but A’s afterwards.  He laughingly remembered her words, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.” This story anchored his message of how parents needed to discipline children and forget about just being their friends, giving them anything they want.

Judge Hardison’s strongest point was that it was time to make a change so that our families and communities, religious or other, are the most important things in our lives.  He emphasized that though times seem bleak now, morning comes when things are darkest.  Folks left St Thomas AME-Z Church late Sunday afternoon on these reassuring words.  Thinking about the people who have gathered at the corner of the old public road and Swansboro loop for a century and a half now, it seems like the light of morning has always been there.  

Backbone of St Thomas Church and the Judge:  from left to right Reverend Fannie Tootle Adams, Sisters: Teresa Bell, Helen Shepard, Judge Paul A. Hardison, Jennette Douse, and Jean Anderson

Judge Paul A. Hardison with the Jones Onslow Male Chorus at Feb. 10 service.

Oldest known photograph of St. Thomas AME-Z Church, photo courtesy of Jack Dudley and N.C. Archives.