Bound by Family and Faith: The Story of the Allen A.M.E. Church

Text by Hope Gaines • Photographs by Michelle Giorla / Winter 2015

When two or more African-American women are gathered together in Cape May, they almost immediately start talking about their cousins. In fact, they probably are cousins. They might be second cousins twice removed, or first cousins on their grandmothers’ side, or they might actually be aunts and nieces. But they will be talking about cousins, even those who have been gone for many years.

So it was with Becki Wilson and Emily Dempsey, brought together to talk about Allen A.M.E. Church. They belonged to “Allen,” as members call it, nearly from birth. Wilson left the congregation in 1989, but retains memories and attachments to it, beginning with her ancestor, Joseph Vance, one of the church’s founders. Emily Dempsey has been attending irregularly of late, but, along with her memories, has a growing concern for the deterioration of the 1888 building, as well as the congregation’s dwindling size.

The church building stands on Franklin Street, opposite the Cape May fire house and caddy-corner to Franklin Street School. Within two square blocks, flanked by Lafayette and Washington Streets, stand the city’s civic institutions, several churches, and the center of the historic African American community: Allen A.M.E.; Franklin Street School, which served black elementary children from 1928 to 1948; the former Franklin Street Methodist Church, now a condominium complex; and Macedonia Baptist Church. They are monuments of a history of Cape May’s story reaching back to the early colonial period.

A history of Allen, compiled in 1948 by Mrs. Lulu M. Wilson (no relation to Becki Wilson), “a member for 26 years,” and revised anonymously in 1984, tells of the early days after the congregation began around 1841. There was “a Church at Cold Spring…known as Union A.M.E. The following year…a Church at Cape May joined the Circuit. As these were the only Churches of color at that time, the membership was composed of persons of different denominations.” The congregation transferred among different local circuits until it was established again in Cape May in 1871.

“This church’s founders originated out of the Union Bethel Church on Tabernacle Road in Erma in the late 1800s,” reads Wilson’s account.

Today on Tabernacle Road is the remnants of that community, identified as a “Civil War Cemetery” by its entrance sign. Headstones carved with the names of Cape May County’s earliest black settlers include not only veterans of the Civil War and their family members, but of World War I and later, including founders of Allen church: Cox, Batteast, Obekiah, and many Trustys, Vances, and Turners. William White’s stone describes him as a “Late Sergeant, Company F 22, Regular U.S. colored Troops—a Civil War veteran born 1841, died 1911.”

The story of Allen A.M.E. is also the story of the African American people of Cape Island. “Founding family members’ names can be found in our stained glass windows,” wrote Lulu Wilson. “They include John Obekiah, Henry Z. Wilkins, Samuel Trusty, William White, Charles Cox, John W. Batteast, Mark Williams.”

Batts Lane in Cold Spring is named for the Batteast family, who owned property there. The Cox and Trusty lineage continues today; Emma Trusty lives in the area and has written a book about her ancestors’ work in the Underground Railroad. In some cases surnames have disappeared, but descendants of those early families still define themselves as Cox or Turner, Major or Vance.

Other founders and their descendants are buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery on Shunpike Road in Cold Spring, also believed to have been an early African American settlement.

There was briefly an A.M.E. mission at Cape May Point in 1883, whose board consisted of some of those same families: Charles, Susan, and Annie Turner; Sarah Trusty, Jacob Trusty, and several more. The building where that congregation worshipped burned down, and the members walked five miles to the Cold Spring church until they merged with the Cape May group in 1886.

Here’s where Becki Wilson’s family enters. She was born Shirley Rebecca Vance, with Vance being her great grandfather’s family, leaders of the black community.

“…a controversy arose [among church members] over the purchase of a lot on Lafayette Street…A committee of three was appointed to see to the purchase…but Rev. Bean disapproved. Bro. Joseph Vance, a trustee, differed with both the committee and Pastor, had the mortgage foreclosed, bought the property and announced that it was ‘his Church.’” Reverend Bean led a group opposed to Vance, and the group that followed him met with the goal of “the erection of the present edifice…”

Congregants met first at Hand’s Hall, where the Victorian Towers complex stands today, and soon moved to the Bannaker House on Lafayette Street. Bannaker House was one of five hotels owned and operated by African-Americans for the black tourist trade, and stood next door to Stephen Smith’s summer home (Stephen Smith: Cape May’s Underground Railroad Leader, Fall 2015). The membership at that time “did not exceed 75.”

Among the trustees when the “present edifice” was built were Harriet Vance (presumably at peace with the new minister and the divided groups), Rachel Griffin and Lydia Allison. The Griffin family owned the DeGriff Hotel on Corgie Street—another of five establishments where black tourists vacationed—in partnership with the Vance family. The first pastor recorded was G. Grinley, in 1853. Since then, until 1948, more than 50 ministers served Allen, most for two years or less—22 of them between 1853 and 1872. Today, Reverend Pauline Couch conducts services on Sunday, traveling from her home in Pleasantville. She has been minister here for 17 years.

Emily Dempsey fondly remembers Reverend H.L. Van Buren, described by Mrs. Wilson as “an exceptionally dignified gentleman,” who served in 1934; and Reverend E.N. and Mrs. Martin, who taught the girls sewing and “a little dance step. She was very sweet.” Work on the parsonage and updates to the church building had begun, and Mrs. Wilson tells us that under Reverend Martin, who came in 1940, “An overwhelming change took place. All departments were reorganized, and under the system mapped out, the work progressed rapidly, accomplishing in six months as much as hitherto had taken a year. An intermediate Choir of 25 members was organized and instructed by Mrs. Martin, giving excellent service on the 2nd and 4th Sunday of each month. Entertainments netted them over $50 which was used in the purchase of robes…”

Further work to the church ensued. “A very commendable achievement by Rev. Martin and his efficient Board of Officers was the purchase of the lot next to the Church on Franklin St.” Emily Dempsey says there was a “big beautiful” Victorian house on that lot, where Bertha King Hicks and James Hicks lived and operated a store. For reasons Emily does not know, that building was demolished and eventually replaced by the small building now on the lot. That was the parsonage for the church until about three years ago, when it became headquarters of the Center for Community Arts, which rents it from the church. The original parsonage, which stood directly behind the church, was demolished, but no one can explain that move either. Remnants of the foundation are still in the driveway.

Mrs. Wilson records that Sunday school history was made in 1919 when she was “appointed Supt. and under her leadership joined the N.J. State Association…”

In that year, “the Daughters of Allen footed the bill of $210.00 for electric wiring and lights for the Church.” Also in that year, the building was dedicated, “the ceremony having been postponed from time to time.”

Mary Cordelia Howard Bounds, the last surviving teacher from Franklin Street School, was Emily Dempsey’s kindergarten teacher, and as of this writing, she is about to celebrate her 102nd birthday. Mrs. Bounds recalls that Lulu Wilson had been a member of Mt. Pisgah A.M.E. church in Philadelphia, and moved here with two granddaughters.

“She brought a lot of ideas from Mt. Pisgah down to Allen. She started a ‘cradle rule’; my mother worked with her. When babies got around one or two years old, the women would go to their house and give the mothers a little card to read to the children, urging them to say their prayers and all. Then they would sign a registry and get a certificate that they got the A.M.E. Cradle Rules.”

Jack Vasser, who was mayor of West Cape May for almost 30 years, was one those children. He refused to stop playing when Mrs. Howard came to visit. Instead, he kicked her. Recalls Cordelia Bounds: “His mother was, oh, the sweetest person, and she apologized, but my mother said, ‘He was just a rambunctious boy.’” Vasser grew up to marry one of Mrs. Wilson’s granddaughters. And today, Alma Vasser, his daughter-in-law, is Allen’s treasurer.

In the first half of the 20th century, the black population of Cape Island was about 30 percent, and owned or operated about 60 businesses in a neighborhood that included Lafayette, Ocean, Jackson, Chestnut, Decatur and Washington Streets, and what is now Rotary Park. Among them were church members Minnie Selvy, whose family operated an upholstery business, and, during the off-season, stored the summer furniture of wealthy oceanfront residences in the rear of Bannaker House; Annie and Francis Farmer, parents of David Farmer, a carpenter and custodian of Franklin Street School; Mr. Boston, who owned a haberdashery, and Bessie Driscoll, a shoe repair shop; and John Major, member of one of Cape May’s leading families—his descendants are still here in large numbers—including Emily Dempsey. He was married to her great-grandmother. Many of the Majors were fishermen, and lived on what is now St. John Street.

Another history, handwritten anonymously, quotes a description of a typical congregation by former pastor Rev. Inez K. Edmonds: “…small in number, but large in stature. We have a mayor, Mr. Jack [Vasser], a deputy mayor [of Cape May] Mr. Adrian Capehart, a school principal, Mrs. Mary Bose, professionals including an electrician, social workers, homemakers, secretaries, gov’t employees, and business proprietors.” The church’s steps were built during Reverend Edmonds’ term, as was the handicap ramp along the building’s west wall. A plaque in the steps is dedicated to her.

Majors and Griffins had joined Allen as the result of revival services in 1890, among them Cordelia Howard, mother of Mrs. Bounds. “My mother and my father were part of the Pillars of Allen. My mother was a stewardess, members of Daughters of Allen; very active. My father was a trustee, my brother was secretary of Sunday school. I have very wonderful memories of my childhood in West Cape May and my years in Allen A.M.E. Church. It was quite a membership of the black members of Cape May.”

Mrs. Bounds joined the church when she was about 10. “It seemed like something just took my legs. And I walked down and joined the choir.” She taught Sunday school and was substitute organist. The Allen organist at that time was Janie Pinkett, a seamstress, “the only one who knew how to play organ.” That original pipe organ is still in the church. “She taught me how to do the foot pedals and how to play the organ. When she got sick I could be the substitute organist. I’ve played many an organ at many a church and once at the Mother Church, Bethel, in Philadelphia.”

Three celebrations especially delighted the children of Allen: Easter, Christmas, and Children’s Day in June. “It was the only time we got new dresses,” says Cordelia Bounds. And on the Saturdays before Sunday communion, her mother would go into her father Ottier Howard’s legendary garden and pick flowers. “As a stewardess, she wanted to be sure there were fresh flowers on the altar for Sunday service. Lizzie Redden would come up and get the flowers and arrange the bouquets for the altar.” Lizzie was married to Walter Redden, who owned a dry cleaning business on Washington Street. “He was very generous in supporting the church.”

Ottier Howard was houseman for Emlen Physick, and gardener for several Beach Avenue properties. His West Cape May house and garden, with a huge artificial pond, became the setting for high school graduation pictures for years. His great-granddaughter, Izzie Gordon, lives nearby, and traces her lineage back to the Turners and Majors.

Stewardesses had many duties, including preparing the parsonage for new ministers and their families. They would see that were fresh bed linens, the curtains cleaned, and everything in readiness for pastor and family to move in. Along with the Daughters of Allen and the Willing Workers, they made “many important changes.”

Lulu Wilson recalls the year 1920 as “one of almost miraculous success beyond all expectation in every undertaking. The pulpit and choir loft was enlarged and remodeled, a circular communion rail built, hangings for Choir rail presented by Daughters of Allen, two pedestals for pulpit, one by the Willing Workers, one by Daughters of Allen. The Progressive Club was organized: Keziah Brown, President, Armenia Major, Sec. Ida Turner, Treas. They built and placed the racks on the pews. Jas. Brown, husband of the President, did the work…In August, a pipe organ was unveiled by the two oldest members: Lydia Allison and Uncle John Obekiah. The cost was $1,000.00… The interior of the church was decorated and painted and eleven memorial windows were placed, individual families footing the cost of one which was $65.00 each.”

“I was at Allen since I was a little kid,” recalls Becki Wilson. “I went with my mother and grandmother.” Under Reverend Inez Edmonds, “We learned to recite verses, especially at Christmas and Easter—that’s how I know scripture so well even now. The skills that I have today I took from her.” Becki remembers Mrs. Bythewood, Mrs. Hutton, and others (“I can see their faces”) all sitting on the right-hand side. “I have no idea why I just remember people who sat on that side!”

When she got older, Becki sang in the choir, accompanied by Floramae Vasser on the organ, a modern replacement of the original. She taught Sunday school as a teenager and worked with a group of girls about 11 to 13 years old, with Mrs. Octavine Howard, known as “Aunt Octie,” by a huge proportion of Cape May’s black population.

Becki took organ lessons from another congregant/organist, Mr. Reginald Brown, who lived in West Cape May and was a Sunday school teacher and clerk, helping to manage administrative tasks. “I could pick tunes with two fingers,” Becki said, but Mr. Brown taught her chords and how to read music.

Emily Dempsey was “a very young child,” perhaps two years old, when she began attending Allen. “I can see faces,” she says, of the other churchgoers and those who taught her in Sunday school.

According to History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church by Daniel Payne, published in 1891, The African Methodist Episcopal Church grew out of the Free African Society (FAS) which Richard Allen and others established in Philadelphia in 1787. Richard Allen, born a slave in Delaware in 1760, purchased his freedom in 1783. When officials at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church pulled blacks off their knees while they were praying and sent them to a separate area, Allen and members of St. George’s transformed their mutual aid society into The Free African Society, which assisted fugitive slaves and new migrants to the city. The A.M.E. church grew out of that organization. In 1816, Allen united four African-American congregations of the Methodist Church in Philadelphia; Salem, New Jersey; Delaware; and Maryland. Together they founded the independent denomination of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first fully independent black denomination in the United States. On April 10, 1816, the other ministers elected Allen as their first bishop. The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest and largest formal institution in black America.

Allen and others “focused on organizing a denomination where free blacks could worship without racial oppression and where slaves could find a measure of dignity. He worked to upgrade the social status of the black community, organizing Sabbath schools to teach literacy and promoting national organizations to develop political strategies.”

They bought a lot on Sixth Street near Lombard, and years later built a church. Now occupied by Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, this is the oldest parcel of real estate in the United States owned continuously by African Americans. From 1797 until his death in 1831, Allen and his second wife, Sara, operated a station on the Underground Railroad. According to Dennis C. Dickerson, Retired General Officer of the AME Conference Official Website, “The AME is doctrinally Methodist, but works by clergy, scholars, and lay persons to define a distinctive theology and praxis having to do with black history and social issues.”

In recent years, as the Allen congregation numbers have dwindled and members have aged, it’s become more difficult for them to maintain the building. Today, the Allen A.M.E. edifice needs serious work. A roofing project about 10 years ago was stopped just as workers reached the seam at the bell tower. Rain seeps through, and the ceiling plaster is coming down. “It makes me so sad to see buckets and tubs set out during rainfall,” says Emily.

In fact, most of the ceiling and much of the plaster wall need restoration, and some windows need to be patched and reinforced. The original pipe organ has not been used in a very long time; mildew is seeping in under the keyboard cover.

The congregation, now only about 10 active but elderly members, cares for the building and grounds “to the best of our ability,” says Emily Dempsey. Although she doesn’t attend regularly, “I try to support the church from afar. I’d love to see the roof fixed and the plastering done.”

Emily’s aunt, Mary Bose, a church deaconess, and Alma Vasser told her that their prayers are that the plaster and roof can be repaired to preserve the church. Reverend Couch joins that prayer.

Still solid and elegant are the pews, assembled in 1898, painted and varnished by Francis Farmer and Robert Miller, a carpenter who came from Swedesboro. Wainscoting was also installed then. “We might note right here,” wrote Mrs. Wilson, “the lumber was purchased from the Ogden Lumber Company and came by special order from the State of Maine with a guarantee that it would last 100 years.”

And so it has.