Two female African-American preachers would not contain their joy Friday when a small group gathered for a black history lesson at the birthplace of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
One drove more than 700 miles to portray a Civil War evangelist. The other came from just down the road.
“I started preaching and I preached all my life,” shouted Ruby Thomas, a Civil War re-enactor who played the role of evangelist Amanda Berry Smith. “I went to faraway lands like England, Ireland, Libya, India, Scotland.”
In a white tent just steps from the 351-foot concrete monument that marks Davis’ birthplace, the audience hung on Thomas’ words. She wore period clothing — white gloves, a hoop skirt, laced boots — and she pressed a Bible to her breast. She stared at them, and they stared back from cold metal chairs. She wanted them to understand Smith’s place in the world. Her voice filled the tent.
“African woman. Colored woman. Born a slave. I traveled all over the land preaching the word of God. Unaccepted by a lot of people, especially men at that time. They didn’t want me in the pulpit.”
From the audience, Trenton native Lisa Balboa, who is pastor of Lane Tabernacle CME Church in Hopkinsville, shouted her praise.
The audience erupted in laughter, and Thomas responded.
“That’s all right. I need an amen. If you like what I’m preaching, say ‘Amen.’ Give God the glory. God is good. That’s what God did for me.”
Ron Sydnor, the state employee who manages the Davis park on the Christian-Todd County line, watched from the edge of the audience. He had arranged this — the first black history program on the park grounds. The park, which opened in 1924, was established by Confederate veterans. Today it elicits nostalgia from some and disdain from others.
Telling the entire story of the Civil War, and not just the Confederate story, is his goal, Sydnor said. That’s why he invited the FREED re-enactors to the park. Six members of the group told the stories of black women who lived around the time of the Civil War.
Sydnor, who was a history major in college, is black. He became the park manager last May. He said he was aware of only one sign of opposition to Friday’s performance by the FREED re-enactors, who are affiliated with the African-American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C. Someone tore down a paper flyer about the program that Sydnor posted in the Fairview Post Office, he said. It was crumpled and thrown into a trash can.
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Dorothy Tolliver, who has lived down the street from the monument since 1965, said she never thought she would see a black history program at the park. She took photos and plans to put them out for her Fairview church’s annual ethnic dinner later this month.
Several state park officials, including Commissioner Gerry van de Meer and Deputy Commissioner Steve Brooks, attended.
Thomas, the preacher who portrayed a preacher, stepped outside the tent after her performance and looked over the park grounds.
“We are in confederate land,” she said. In a different time, in Davis’ time, Thomas said she would have been viewed as nothing more than property.
She said it felt powerful to be there as a free woman talking about slavery.
Before she got in a van to leave with the other women, Thomas walked around the monument with a small video camera and talked about the view.
She pointed the camera to the sky to get the expanse of the monument.
“It looks like a replica of the Washington Monument,” she said.
Sydnor said he wants to bring the FREED re-enactors back next year. He hopes more people attend. As the last guests left from Friday’s program, he said he’s thinking of offering a program on Aug. 8, the day many African-Americans celebrate emancipation.
Reach Jennifer P. Brown at 270-887-3235
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