Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
Ninety Days Inside The Empire: A Novel by William Appleman Williams


Page 42

White northerners seldom saw the Abyssinian Baptist Community Church. The largest number arrived to visit sons, husbands or lovers, or near relatives, at the Naval Air Station. A smaller yet significant group came to transact important political or economic business with one or another division of The Crown Enterprises. The fewest drifted down the coast from the gambling and other more physical entertainments in Galveston to fish or just rest on the beach.

But those who either became lost in the maze at Five Corners, or just liked to wander the back streets of a strange place, never failed to slow down for a look at the church. They usually remarked on how much it reminded them of others in New England or the Ohio Valley. The rectangular walls, the pitched roof and the soaring white steeple with its belfry open on four sides instantly created that impression. Had they inquired further, they would have learned that there was more to the story than the similarity in external form, and also that there were significant differences.

The polished and lacquered brass plaque by the great white doors told those who came close enough that the church had been "Built in 1869 by Freed Slaves and Their Friends." The seemingly innocuous phrase, "and Their Friends," was taken by most people, including many Negroes, to refer to short-term help given by other freedmen passing through on their way further west to seek jobs on the range or the railroad. That reading did reveal a significant part of the story. But the rest of it, active in the memory of a smaller number of both colors, was that money and advice and labor had been provided by various whites.

The motives of those men (and the few women who cooked food for the workers) seemed at times to rival their numbers; but they could be divided into two broad groups if allowance were made for those who were ambivalent and others who changed their original outlook. The northerners, who at first enjoyed considerable power and commanded large resources, were led by former Union officers and others who came south to make a fortune and build a power base among the Negroes that would insure the national dominance of the Republican Party. But their support troops included abolitionists, employees of the federal Freedman's Bureau created to help former slaves, ordinary Union soldiers who liked the climate and the economic opportunities, and the largely curious who wandered through the ruins of the Confederacy.

A smaller number of white southerners revealed motives perhaps even more contradictory, but they all accepted the destruction of the past. Their memories, real or imagined, of Sherman's march north after the burning of Atlanta were verified by their lack of place in the new order. A few of them were men who had freed their slaves, acquiesced when they walked away, or simply wandered off themselves. Others accepted the defeat and bankruptcy and mustered the will to begin again. Among those were many opportunists who concluded that their main chance was to hook up with the victors. And still another group of small farmers had always hated the slave owners with an intensity fired by class differences, even though they had little use for Negroes they didn't know personally.

That jumble of history tumbled through Marsh's mind as he stood with one hand on the brick wall and the other tracing the words on the brass plaque. He felt a sense of awe for the brick work: cavity walls with a two inch air space, every brick made by hand from earth up along the river that emptied into the bay and laid by Negroes who had learned their skills while still slaves. The double walls went down through the basement to the pillar foundation. He wondered who had had the foresight to build a full basement in this climate; space now used for storage, The Reverend's office, and two Sunday School rooms.

Marsh was early on the scene to accept the embrace of the building, but also to place himself in the right spot in the balcony that would allow him to identify any local white men who appeared for this particular communion service in a Negro church. He walked up the steps and through the open doors and marveled once again at the community of it all. He knew that the church had been conceived as a secular meeting house as well as a haven of worship, but he never ceased to wonder at the perfect marriage performed by the unknown architect....