THIRD STONINGTON: THE AFRO-AMERICAN BAPTIST CHURCH ON WATER STREET
By John V. Hinshaw
(From Historical Footnotes, May 1992)
A few old-timers still remember the beautiful little church that stood for nearly eighty years in a well-kept lot on the west side of Water Street, opposite the location of the present post office. The building was the home of the Third Baptist Church of Stonington, better known in its day as "Third Stonington," or simply "the colored church."
This church originated in a petition written in 1846 and copied with other routine matters into the records of The First Baptist Church:
Believing that the time has come when the interests of religion, especially among the people of color in this village and vicinity, would be promoted by our organization into a separate body; We therefore request that letters of dismission may be granted to us whose names are hereunto annexed for the purpose above specified.
In making this request, Dear Brethren, we think we are activated by motives of Christian Charity solely. Were we to consult our own edification simply, it would be our privilege to remain with you, and sit beneath the droppings of your Sanctuary. But we feel that we ought to attempt to do something for the spiritual welfare of our own brethren according to the flesh, something which shall bring them more immediately under the renewing and saving influence of the glorious gospel.
We are tremblingly aware of the responsibility we are assuming and Earnestly request your prayers and sympathy.
We shall never fail to cherish an affectionate remembrance of you; and though, with your permission, gathered into a separate body, shall still feel that we have a claim to your council and watchcare.
Horace Ross, Betsey Ross, Alfred Ross, Nancy Ross, Clarissa Gardener, Enoch Ross, Sarah J. Ross
Their request was accepted by a unanimous vote of the mother church, and the petitioners were granted permission to "form themselves into a church, to be known as Third Baptist Church of Stonington of the same faith as the church from which they are hereby dismissed." The response was signed September 28, 1846 by Albert G. Palmer, Pastor.
The United States Census of 1850 lists seventy-four black or mulatto persons over age sixteen residing within the Borough and many more who lived in greater Stonington or on ships in the harbor. Most of the fifty-five black children residing in the Borough attended school. The majority of men gave their occupation as "laborer," "carpenter," "farmer" or "sailor," while many women were described as being "in the household of" a wealthy merchant or ship owner. John Scott and O.L. Hagurman were barbers, and there was a Baptist minister named Leonard Black.
Stonington land records indicate that plans to separate from the First Church probably had been started well over a year in advance of the 1846 petition. A deed registered April 30, 1845 (Land Records 22/281) from Ephraim Williams and Samuel F. Denison to John Scott, "trustee of coloured people of Stonington Borough and Vicinity" conveyed"...a lot of land 25 feet wide north to south, about 70 feet deep, containing 6 rods of land be the same more or less; ... for a Meeting House Lot for said coloured people...to be held by said John during his natural life and afterward by such Trustee or Trustees as the Church of coloured people in said Borough & Vicinity shall from time to time elect." On October 1, 1846, two days after their petition was granted, John Scott transferred this property to the Third Baptist Church of Stonington.
The new church was welcomed into the southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island Baptist organization known as the Stonington Union Association at its seventy-five annual meeting held in June, 1847 at the Second Baptist Church in North Stonington. Joseph Lewis was listed as Pastor of "3rd Stonington." Alfred Ross was Clerk, and there were eight members. As Mr. Lewis was not present, the membership committee "Voted: That the Moderator present the right hand of fellowship to Br. A.G. Palmer in their behalf."
At the annual Association meetings, held faithfully every June, each church submitted its report in the form of a letter, membership statistics and names of their pastors and delegates to be published in the minutes. The American Baptist Historical Society in Rochester, New York photocopied and sent Stonington Historical Society a complete set of Stonington Union Association minutes from 1847 through 1926 containing the material supplied each year by "3rd Stonington." These documents are the best primary source we have about Third Stonington. They are referred to throughout this article as the "SUA" letters.
Third Stonington wasted no time in obtaining a meeting house, but very little is known about its construction. An unsigned and undated letter written to the late Williams Haynes, author of The Stonington Chronology, says that the original church building was once Miss Pearl Quincy Rider's school house on Water Street. The school was then moved twice before it was finally taken to the "Meeting House Lot" on Water north of Broad Street.
In his SUA letter for June, 1848 Alfred Ross proclaimed: "This is a new church interest. Our colored brethren here, though few in numbers, bid fair under the blessing of God ...We have a convenient place to worship, which is nearly paid for, and a Pastor to feed us with the bread of life...May the 'Little one become a thousand'."
An article in the short-lived Stonington newspaper Extinguisher for November 10, 1849 reported: "We are rejoiced that our colored population have now a place where they can worship without fear or molestation; and as we have listened to their fervent prayers and unassisted sweetness of their songs, we have been constrained to believe that in the sight of man only is there a respect of persons."
In 1850 Reverend Leonard Black, Pastor, claimed a total congregation of twenty-nine adults with twenty-six "scholars" in the sabbath school. During the next five years the church gained a solid foothold in the community. Membership of the congregation more than doubled to fifty-nine adults, a figure which did not include transient sailors and other visitors who worshiped there. They were pleased with their new minister, Reverend William Spellman, who replaced Reverend Black in 1851. Their debts had been fully repaid. A sabbath school was established with one superintendent, ten teachers, thirty "scholars," and a library of 175 volumes. Meetings were held three times on the Sabbath and twice during the week.
During the next forty years church membership fluctuated from the low forties to a high of sixty-six members recorded in the SUA minutes for 1867. A succession of pastors came and went. Reverend Spellman departed in 1856. William A. Smith served from 1859 to 1860, Erastus Denison 1862 to 1865, and S. Backus Bailey 1867 to 1871. William Lewis Phillips was there in 1871, replaced by G.W. Hamblin in 1872.
But even Solomon Gale of Mystic Bridge, who served almost twelve years from 1874 to March, 1886, had difficulty holding his flock. "We have had faithful preaching by our pastor," they wrote in 1882, "but still the unconverted seem to be unmoved." Reverend Gale was followed by William L. Francis from 1887 to 1890. In many years the church reported that it had no pastor, but with unfailing tenacity would say "we are still holding on to our oar of prayer."
The effects of the Civil War and its aftermath stand out in several SUA letters. In June, 1862 they wrote "We are not indifferent spectators of the dreadful strife now raging in our country ... Two of our members were for many years slaves. Though denied the privilege to enter the army to fight, we will pay our taxes when demanded ..." For 1865 they said "... whenever we are permitted to vote, we shall be sure not to vote for bondage or oppression in any form... We have a destiny in common with all the sons and daughters of Africa which we are bound to fulfill." By 1867, two years after the war had ended, they still felt themselves in bondage. "We are glad liberty has been proclaimed throughout the land and we are anxiously looking for the day when colored people of Connecticut shall enjoy equal privileges with the Freedman of the South; when Connecticut shall be as free as South Carolina."
The church was governed wisely, especially in the area of finances, and was often given assistance from the local community. In 1852 they made their last payment on the meeting house building and the debt was canceled. For 1869 they reported "...we have shingled, painted and otherwise repaired our house of worship. A benevolent young lady of the Episcopal church has presented to us a very beautiful communion service, for which we are truly grateful." In 1872 "friends" donated money for an organ. Twenty-five hymnals contributed to the Church in 1880 by the Baptist Publication Society gave a "new interest to our singing." In 1887 "The Ladies Mite Society, with the Sunday School children, presented us a pulpit set with table and chairs." That same year they also completed a parsonage on Trumbull Avenue with land and funds donated by "friends."
The Stonington Mirror for August 1, 1872 reported:
The festival of the Third Baptist Church was largely attended, both by members of society and many colored friends from other towns. The tables were handsomely decorated, containing everything to tempt the appetite, and secured liberal patronage. Mrs. R.H. Clark appeared to be the manager of affairs, and with her assistants are deserving much praise for the neat appearance of everything in the hall. Festivities were kept up until a late hour, the entertainment resulting in a clear profit of over $100 for the church fund.
In 1883 the church property was valued at $1000, with "home expense" of $323.75 and forty-seven members. This can be compared to the $10,000 worth of property, $2000 expenses and six hundred members reported by the First Baptist Church two blocks away, and at that time the largest Baptist church in the SUA. But by 1899, even though Third Stonington's property value had risen to $3200, only thirty-two members remained.
In his book A History of the Connecticut Baptist Convention, 1823-1907 (Hartford,1909), Phillip S. Evans summed up these years:
The Third Stonington received aid only five times to the total amound of $55. It has not at any time been a strong church, but has been and still is (1907) a quiet, staid, conservative, selfrespecting body. Only at intervals have its good people been able to support a pastor, but they always maintain the Sabbath service, the Bible-school and the mid-week prayer meeting. They seldom forget an annual offering at the Convention.
In the absence of steady pastoral guidance, Third Stonington appears to have found much of its strength in the unwavering loyalty of three men, each of whom served long periods as clerks of the church: Alfred Ross, 1847 to 1871; Abraham Morrison, 1872 to 1884; and Stiles Henry Franklin Ross from 1885 to the bitter end in 1926.
Stiles H.F. Ross was born in Stonington February 28, 1853, son of Stiles H. and Flora Ann Hallam Ross. He died July 3, 1954 at age 96. In his youth he worked as a cabin boy sailing out of Stonington, and for at least three years prior to August, 1888 he served as Borough lamplighter. He married Alice Ethenia Randall on November 22, 1882 in the Third Baptist Church; Reverend Albert G. Palmer, Pastor of the First Baptist Church, performed the ceremony. Later the couple became famous for their catering service and ice cream shop. From 1934 to 1952 Stiles H.F. Ross was the Tax Collector and assessor of the Stonington Fire District, and retired with the distinction of being the oldest tax collector in New London county.
The last minister to serve Third Stonington was William J. Waytes from Florida who came in 1895 and remained about a year. Under his leadership the meeting house received its final refurbishing with new carpets and seats, again provided "through the generosity of friends." After 1897 Third Stonington had no steady minister, relying instead on pastors from nearby Baptist churches to supply the pulpit and the loving care of Stiles and Alice Ross to maintain the Sabbath services and mid-week prayer meetings.
Their final and longest letter is found in the minutes of the SUA 151st Anniversary Meeting held June 13th and 14th, 1923 at the First Baptist Church in Stonington Borough, the place where it all began:
We are sorry that we cannot write a very encouraging letter. As a church, we are very few in numbers. Death has claimed most of the members of this church, and there is no one left to take their places, and as it looks now, it will not be long before we shall cease to be reckoned as one of the churches of the Stonington Union Association after seventy-seven (77) years a member.
We can look back to a glorious record that this church has made since 1846 when it was set apart as a branch from the First Baptist Church in Stonington with eight (8) members. In 1876 the number enrolled in upon the church record was seventy-three (73) and with a congregation we numbered about one hundred to one hundred and twenty-five who attended services. Today our number is only three (3), so you can see this church is nearly extinct.
We have had preaching services up to February of this year. Rev. Pleasant B. Braxton of Mystic, a faithful Christian brother, filled the pulpit for us. But in March God called him home after a short illness. Since then we have had no service. We have no plans for the future at present. Our trust is in God, who doeth all things well, and we are looking forward to the time when we shall meet these loved ones who have gone on before us. May the blessings of Almighty God rest with you in all of your deliberations.
Stiles H.F. Ross, Clerk
Alice E. Ross, B.F. Ross
On September 27, 1924 Stiles H.F. Ross, Benjamin F. Ross, Jr. and John S. Harrison were named a committee to disband the Third Baptist Church, and on May 15, 1926 the property with a "one story wooden church building standing thereon" was sold to Henry W. Babcock for $2375 (Land Records, 65/400). At the request of members of the church, proceeds of the sale, together with remaining bank funds and interest were to go to the Stonington Cemetery Association as a trust fund known as the Third Baptist Trust Fund for the purpose of "perpetually caring for the graves of members of the church who have been laid to rest there."
Henry W. Babcock donated the building to the newly-formed Stonington Fire District to use as a fire station. That summer Henry R. Palmer, Jr., then a boy, remembers the church building being rolled down Water Street and across the tracks to a new site on Williams Street. He claims with pride "I'm the only person in Stonington who ever rode down the street on a church."
Later the structure became the meeting hall of the Nina Council, Knights of Columbus. On Friday, January 28, 1966 at about 1:45 a.m. a motorist on the viaduct spotted a blaze and turned in the alarm. Fifty volunteer firemen and all Borough trucks responded, but bitter cold winds and advanced headway of the fire made it impossible to extinguish the blaze until the ancient building had found its final resting place.