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Celebrate 20 Years of the African American Episcopal Historical Collection

1 Aug 2023 10:26 AM | HSEC Director of Operations (Administrator)

And Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand…. Exodus 13:3 (JPS)

The people…they got lost. They don’t even know the story of how they got from tit to tat…The people need to know the story.  See how they fit into it.  See what part they play.”  Stool Pigeon, Prologue, King Hedley II, 1999.

On October 11, 2023, as the Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) commemorates its Bicentenary, the African American Episcopal Historical Collection (AAEHC) will celebrate its 20th Year, with keynote speakers and symposia that focus on the importance of knowing the challenging and complex history of Blacks in the Episcopal Church.  The AAEHC will stop and Remember this major journey to Freedom and the part African Americans played in it. 

The AAEHC, along with the Archives of the Episcopal Church. is the primary repository for records that document the history of Black Episcopalians, and it is the principal archival resource for scholars and researchers interested in the history of African American Episcopalians. Inspired and reinvigorated by the Scriptural exhortations to “Remember,” we will feed those memories only through which can we truly know who we are, and how redemption of a people and racial reconciliation in the Church were (and are to be) paid for. August Wilson’s Stool Pigeon is right: know and tell how we got from tit to tat. Bear Witness.

The keynote address in the morning will be delivered by Julieanna Richardson, the founder and director of The HistoryMakers, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive oral history archive -- now fully accessioned by and housed in the Library of Congress.  Richardson’s HistoryMakers sets the gold standard for collecting oral histories and the AAEHC emulates its techniques and much its archival policies and objectives. The evening address will be delivered by the Rt. Rev. Gail Harris, assisting bishop for the Diocese of Virginia.  In between there will be presenters who will share their wisdom and experience in having achieved, and who are working still to achieve, success in their historical research on Black Episcopalians.

African American Episcopalians comprise a fairly small percentage of communicants in the Episcopal Church.  The influence of that relatively few, including bishops Dillard Brown, Walter Decoster Dennis, and Arthur Williams, along with canon Thomas W. Logan, Sr., scholar Harold Lewis, and lay theologian Verna Dozier, is disproportionate to the enormity of their efforts to make the Church more inclusive.  Records of their lives, along with many more, are housed in the AAEHC, where they will be held in perpetuity and fully accessible to researchers.

The AAEHC had its beginnings in the 1990s when a group of historians from the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church (HSEC) set out with special effort and intention to document the history of African Americans in the Episcopal Church. In 2003 the HSEC and the Bishop Payne Library of the Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) agreed on a plan that would set the archival effort on solid footing at VTS.  The AAEHC is governed by a Steering Committee, the leaders, and members of which are shared equally between the Bishop Payne Library and the HSEC.  Over the first two decades of its existence the AAEHC has ably expanded the scope of the library’s mission to tell the Bishop Payne Divinity School (BPDS) story and to document the history of African American Episcopalians for research and for the education of the Church at-large.

Now, twenty-years after the partnership began the collection continues to grow -- a recognition of its central place both as a repository of records, but also as an essential source for research and study. Its oral history collection is expanding greatly and because of ZOOM technology the most recent recorded sessions are now fully accessible online in video format.  Scholars visit the AAEHC regularly, seeking both institutional and personal papers.  Furthermore, over the course of its life, the AAEHC has awarded travel grants to over 20 scholars.  Their research has generated books, journal articles, dissertations, and online resources. This year, as part of that total (and after a COVID pandemic hiatus), five grants were awarded. We have selected a few whose research will be discussed on October Anniversary Day.

The AAEHC has also been enriched greatly by unexpected and most welcome inquiries and donations of records from parish churches -- primarily white majority congregations -- that have begun to unearth their race histories.  Most of the stories are from the South (but by no means exclusively so) and begin in the pre-Civil War years when the enslaved worshipped in the same church as the persons who enslaved them.  Freedom and Reconstruction had in most cases existential and fundamental effects on the continued lives and racial identities of the parishes -- most of which quickly evolved to become racially segregated.  Often the result was the establishment of Black Episcopal parishes throughout the nation. And in most cases the segregation that meant the absence of Black worshippers in white spaces, remained unexamined until recently.  The salutary result is that much of this individual parish research and archival work has become essential to understanding and reaching for what the church needs in seeking the all-elusive racial reckoning and reconciliation.  Several of these parish historians will be present on our October Anniversary Day to share the results of their research and the accompanying myriad challenges.

To learn more about attending the celebration on October 11, contact the AAEHC staff at

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