In celebration of Black History Month, the New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Jamaica marked the occasion with a meaningful commemoration the history of the black experience. For two hours on Saturday, churchgoers listened to excerpts from the lives of slaves, heard a lecture on abolitionist Harriet Tubman and watched various types of theatrical and dance performances.
At the beginning of the ceremony, the congregation set the mood by singing the uplifting song “Lift every voice and sing.” Often called “The Africa-American National Anthem,” it is a poem written in 1900 set to music. The festivities for the day would continue to combine the ever-important spiritual journey of African Americans to their history, an aspect that Pastor Calvin Rice sees as symbiotic.
“I don't really think you can divest the two. Our history is tied to the religious part of it,” he said. “The black church has been the catalyst for every great movement. Without the black church we would still be slaves.”
The Rev. Ellen Jacobs, a professor at the College Of New Rochelle's Brooklyn Campus, gave a lecture on the great black abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Instead of just focusing on a historical perspective of Tubman, she stressed her religious faith as an important factor.
She started off by praising black history, which she called “a magnificent and glorious history,” noting that “it is very complex and it is very beautiful.”
She described Tubman to the congregation as someone who “was more than just a heroine.”
“She was a woman who was steeped in faith in God,” Jacobs said. “She was always in contact with God. She was always in touch with God.
Jacobs said that Tubman would ask God such questions as “Should I get the water now? Should I wait?”
Jacobs dispersed anecdotes of Tubman and her transportation of slaves using the Underground Railroad, the series of tunnels, secret routes and homes that were used to transport slaves to freedom in Canada. The most memorable tale focused on one slave she was transporting. The slave was exhausted and wanted to turn around. Tubman pointed a gun at him and said, “You come with me or you'll remain right here.”
Members of the youth ministry were then asked to read aloud firsthand accounts from slaves in a segment called “The Hush Harbor Experience.” The “hush harbor” was a secret place where slaves would gather to practice their religion without bearing the leering of their owners.
One student read a passage of a slave who witnessed another stealing rice and the owner's harsh punishment toward the slave. The owner “hung [the slave] by his hands and beat him from time to time. … We found the poor creature hung up when we came home with a pool of blood beneath him,” one student read.
It all served to remind current generations of the great pains their forebears suffered in the United States before the road to freedom opened.
After the celebration was done, the congregation was invited to an Underground Railroad exhibit inside the church, located at 122-05 Smith St. The exhibit includes artifacts, books, and a historical timeline of the black experience in America. It is free and open to the public on Sundays.