Church's old-fashioned service honors African-Americans who paved the way

`If it was not for you, we wouldn't be here'

August 16, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

As a whole pig roasted on a grill outside, the congregation of Rising Sun First Baptist Church -- some wearing bib overalls and straw hats -- celebrated a "Down Home Sunday" yesterday, remembering their ancestors who had toiled in slavery and suffered in segregation.

Instead of a choir, singing was accompanied by the rhythm of a washboard. Rather than church bulletins to announce the order of worship, the congregation followed the direction of the pastor, the Rev. Emmett C. Burns Jr.

Yesterday's event -- the church's second annual -- was held to "pay respect to those of our race who didn't have the privileges we have," Burns said.

"We are not making fun of them," he said. "We are saying, `If it was not for you, we wouldn't be here today.' "

Many members of the Woodmoor church grew up in the South and recalled tilling tobacco fields and picking cotton in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Deacon Curtis Crawley, 61, was born in Roxboro, N.C., the youngest of 13 children in a family of sharecroppers. Growing up in the segregated South, he had to sit in the balcony of the movie theater and ride in the back of buses.

While a teen-ager, Crawley moved to Baltimore in search of a better life. He joined the Navy and later worked as a plumber.

Yesterday, he wore bib overalls and a straw hat like his father used to wear on the farm. But, Crawley noted with a chuckle, overalls cost a lot more than they did when he was a boy.

"I couldn't believe it. I paid $60 for these," he said.

Although life could be hard in the South, many members of the congregation recalled their childhoods fondly.

"The time I was growing up, it was a happy time," said Christine Rucks, 71, who grew up in Ayden, N.C. "People cared for each other."

"You didn't know you were poor," added her mother, Hannah Braxton, 88.

Both women came to Baltimore in 1940s, joining millions of other African-Americans who left the rural South for Northern cities.

The eldest to attend yesterday's service, 89-year-old Estelle Hart, grew up in Richmond, Va., where her father worked at a brick factory. "He made pretty good," she said, proudly telling the congregation that he had purchased a Ford for $400, when automobiles were rare.

But whether they lived in the city or the country, African-Americans clung to the church for comfort, Burns said.

If crops were bad, or if they were spoken to harshly by a white boss, they could find solace in the weekly services, he said. "They could just shout and let off steam and emotion. That was good psychologically for them."

Some of those traditions continue. Yesterday worshipers did shout, clap and sing. Burns' sermon on the drought might have been preached by a country preacher 100 years ago.

After the service, worshipers lined up behind tables loaded with roasted pork, fried trout, curried goat, black-eyed peas, fried okra, corn bread and peach cobbler.

Near the end of the line, 13-year-old Wayne Anthony Randolph Watts stood wearing jeans and red suspenders.

"I asked my grandparents about what they had worn," the Baltimore youth said.

He said he enjoyed hearing the old stories and seeing the way people used to dress.

Most of all, he said, he was looking forward to trying the curried goat and roasted pig.

"I never had a pig looking at me before I ate him," he said.

Pub Date: 8/16/99

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