This week marked the start of Black History Month, which brought us back to last fall, when the travelling exhibit “Do Lord Remember Me: The Black Church in Rhode Island” made a stop at the Redwood Library for a few weeks. To add to the exhibit, we collected a few items from local Newport churches and incorporated some of our own books into the display to help highlight the history of the Black church in Newport. One of the most well-known members of the church community in Newport in the late 1800s and early 1900s was Pastor Henry N. Jeter (1851-1938). His book Twenty-five Years Experience with the Shiloh Baptist Church and Her History (1901) provides us with a work that is part local history and part autobiography, that preserves the history of the foundations of his church and his community in Newport.
Jeter begins with the founder of the Shiloh Baptist Church, Rev. Edmond Kelley, who was born a slave on May 23, 1818 in Tennessee. Kelley was hired out as a teenager to a man who ran a primary school and the pupils of the school gave him instruction in secret. Jeter quotes him as saying: “So great was my desire for an education, that before retiring at night I would kneel down and pray to God to awaken me at 11 P. M. so I might study my lesson. Precisely at 11 an unseen hand seemed to shake me, and I would arise, and taking my book commence to study, in order that I might be ready to recite the next day." In 1838 he found God and was baptized, preparing himself for a life in service to the Church. He was licensed to preach from the Mission Baptist Church in Columbia, Tennessee in 1842 and was ordained as an evangelist in 1843. After he gained his freedom, he traveled across the country, preaching and establishing new churches.
The home of Esther Brinley where services were first held in 1864.
Shiloh Baptist Church in Newport was founded by Rev. Kelley on May 10, 1864. It was originally organized in the home of Esther Brinley, but attendance at the services grew too large and the church was moved to the building of the former Seventh Day Baptist Church. The congregation continued to meet here for services for about five years, with prayer and business meetings held at private residences throughout Newport. The present Shiloh Church building was purchased in 1868 from Trinity Church, located on the corner of School and Mary Streets, while under the guidance of Rev. George Hamlin, the third pastor since the Church’s founding. He was followed by Rev. Anaias Brown who left the Church in 1874 to preach elsewhere, creating a vacancy for Jeter to fill.
Images of the Shiloh Baptist Church taken from the "present" of Jeter's 1901 work.
Henry Norval Jeter was born October 7, 1851 to Ryland and Mary Jeter of Virginia. His father was a slave, compelled by his owner to protect the Southern army during the Civil War and was shot and killed by a soldier when he attempted to return home to his family. As a teenager, Jeter’s mother sent him to live with his uncle and work in his business while Jeter attended night school. In 1868 he found God much like Kelley had and was baptized and later began to study at a seminary. On January 8, 1875, Jeter was invited by the Shiloh Baptist Church to preach for them temporarily and after five months he was invited to remain with them. He was ordained and served the Church for more than forty years. Jeter resigned in 1916 so that he could spend more time working to help the African American community in Newport and in the rest of the country. He founded the Pastors and Laymen's Humane and Reform Association and toured the country giving speeches and taking donations to work for the improvement of the lives of African Americans in large cities. In 1928 he switched his focus slightly to found the Jeter Movement of Race Relations and Social Service, which focused primarily on migrants from the South to the North.
In his personal life, Jeter was married to Thomasinia Hamilton on December 24, 1878. Her father, Thomas Hamilton, was the editor of the New York City newspaper the Anglo-African. They had eleven children and were noted as a family for their musical talents. In Jeter’s book, he notes that his wife was an “invaluable help” to the Church for bringing young people together, training them in singing, and helping to raise money for the Church by performing. The Jeter family itself often performed in concerts as well. Like her husband, Thomasinia was very active in the community; she was an Officer in the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women's Club and President of the Josephine Silone Yates Mothers' Club in Newport. Thomasinia died November 19, 1931 in Newport and her husband Henry followed several years later on August 4, 1938, also in Newport. Their effect on their community, after years of Church work and community service, is immeasurable and worthy of recognition.
The Shiloh Baptist Church today. Photo credit: Wikipedia.
"Do Lord Remember Me" was funded by The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, sponsored by Opera Providence, and mounted by Stages of Freedom.