London’s Primitive Baptist Church

The colored brethren of Wilson Primitive Baptist Church.

In 1946, the Wilson Daily Times published an article by Hugh B. Johnston commemorating the history of Wilson Primitive Baptist Church. I’ve excerpted below the sections that mention the church’s African-American members.

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Wilson Primitive Baptist Church, Asheville Post Card Co., undated.

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“On April 24, 1920, the Church agreed to begin construction as soon as possible and to include a baptismal pool, memorial windows for a number of outstanding members, and a balcony for the convenience of remaining colored brethren.”

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“A gallery for colored members ran entirely around the second story of the [1859] church, excepting the end above the tall, broad pulpit.”

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At a conference held at the Tosneot Baptist Church on Sept. 23, 1865, “a proposition was made and agreed to that all colored members that had ‘left their owners before the proclamation of freedom was made, and gone to the Yankees should be dealt with and excluded if they could not give satisfaction of their disorder.’ … [N]one of the offending members appeared … [and when they failed to appear at a postponed date,] motion was made to expel them: on which motion servants Thomas Farmer and Redic Barnes were expelled from all rights of the church.”

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“As a result of the formation of London’s Primitive Baptist Church for the convenience of the colored membership who were being served outside of regular meetings by Elder London Woodard, a conference was held at the Tosneot church on May 21, 1870, and “the following resolution was adopted by unanimous consent of the members, white and colored, that in the future, as before, the white members of the church shall have the entire control of the discipline and government of the church as this place. [This understanding was entered into the minutes] so as in after days there could not be any misunderstanding between the white and colored members of this church.”

Wilson Daily Times, 19 November 1946.

——

Some thoughts:

  • The balcony in the back of the 1920 church is visible starting at 1:29 of this Youtube video.
  • What African-Americans were members of Wilson Primitive Baptist as late as 1920? Do the church’s records exist?
  • I have been unable to identify specifically Thomas Farmer and Reddick Barnes, the members who audaciously took their freedom into their own hands.
  • “The formation of London’s Primitive Baptist Church for the convenience of the colored membership who were being served outside of regular meetings” by London Woodard sounds like more like a recognition of a new reality: Toisnot’s black members had left to worship among themselves under a charismatic black preacher. It’s not surprising that those who remained unanimously agreed that white people would control the church.

Memorial Service for Mrs. Ada Green Knight.

Ada Green Knight‘s funeral was held 11 March 1973 at Saint John A.M.E. Zion Church. Elder Lonnie Barnes of London Primitive Baptist Church officiated.

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In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: carpenter Neverson Green, 45; wife Isabeler, 35; and children Mary J., 18, Annie B., 15, Oscar, 13, Ada, 11, Ora, 9, Rose L., 6, William O., 5, Lula B., 2, and Besse, 3 months; plus boarder William Alley, 21.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Lodge Street, house carpenter Neverson Green, 49; wife Ezabell, 45 and children Ada, 22, Viola, 19, Rosa, 16, William O., 14, Lula, 12, Henry, 8, Bessie, 6, and Eva, 2. Ada, Viola and Rosa were tobacco factory laborers; William worked in a box factory.

James Henry Knight registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 2 November 1885; lived at 607 Lodge; worked horseshoeing for J.Y. Buchanan; and his nearest relative was wife Ada Knight.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: James Knight, 31, blacksmith; wife Ada, 29, tobacco factory worker; and children Mildred, 8, James Jr., 7, William, 4, and Robert, 2.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 603 South Lodge Street, blacksmith James H. Knight, 45; wife Ada H., 43; and children James H., Jr., 17, William, 14, Marvin, 12, Eveline, 9, and Nancy J., 10 months.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: retail grocer James H. Knight, 53; wife Ada Elsie, 52; and children Marvin, 22, Evelyn, 19, Nancy Doris, 10, and Joseph Frank, 8.

Ada Green Knight died 3 March 1973 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born in Virginia on 13 March 1887 to Nelson Green and Isabell Thorp; resided at 502 South Lodge Street; and was a retired laborer. Informant was Nancy Doris Lucas, 502 South Lodge.

Thanks to Lisa R.W. Sloan for sharing this funeral program from a family collection.

In Memory of Mrs. Mena Townsend Faison.

Mena Townsend Faison‘s funeral was held 16 August 1981 at London Primitive Baptist Church. Elder Lonnie Barnes performed the service.

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Will Faison, 24, of Wilson, and Mena Townsend, 19, of Wilson, daughter of Louis Townsend, were married 15 August 1912 in Wilson. Missionary Baptist minister William Baker performed the ceremony in the presence of Rosa Greene, Ora Bunch and Josie Strickland.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Banks Street, tobacco factory worker Willie Banks, 31; wife Mena, 26; and children Edward, 6, Willie Mae, 4, Addie, 2, and Adell, 7 months.

Mabel Eliza Faison died 25 December 1929 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 17 years old; a school girl; single; and was born in Wilson to Willie Faison and Mena Townsend. Informant was Maggie Katis.

Henry Cornelius Faison registered for the World War II draft in Wilson in 1942. Per his registration card, he was born 22 February 1921 in Wilson; lived at 504 Banks Street; his contact was Meana Faison; and he worked for Export Tobacco Company. Ethel L. Hines was registrar.

In the 1957 Newark, New Jersey, city directory: Faison William (Mena) longshoreman h 146 S 9th

Thanks to Lisa R.W. Sloan for sharing this funeral program from a family collection.

Another history of London Woodard and his church.

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Rocky Mount Telegram, 29 January 1960.

The take-away:

  • London’s Primitive Baptist is possibly the oldest African-American church in Wilson County.
  • London Woodard was born in 1808. In 1827, James Bullock Woodard purchased him for $500 from the estate of Julan Woodard.
  • In 1828, London Woodard was baptized at Toisnot Primitive Baptist.
  • In 1866, he sought permission to preach among his people.
  • In 1870, he was “dismissed” from Toisnot so that he could pastor the church he founded. He died lass than a month later.
  • London Church appears to have become disorganized after Woodard’s death, but in 1895, Toisnot P.B. dismissed several “colored brethren and sisters” who wanted to reestablish worship at London’s. The same year Union (now Upper Town Creek) P.B. released Haywood Pender, George Braswell, Dublin Barnes, and couple Charles and Rebeckah Barnes for the same purpose.
  • London Woodard married Pennie Lassiter, born free about 1810 and possessed of considerable property, including 29 acres purchased from James B. Woodard in 1859. [Penelope Lassiter was his second wife. His first, Venus, was enslaved.]
  • London and Pennie Woodard’s children were Priscilla (1846), Theresa (1848), Hardy (1850), Haywood (1852), William (1854), and Penina (1858). “Another child was probably named Elba, born in 1844; she was working for the John Batts family in 1860.” [London and Venus Woodard had nine children; Elba was not among either set.]
  • Many “old-time colored Christians” remained members of the churches they attended during slavery. Their children and grandchildren, however, gradually formed separate congregations.

——

  • Haywood Pender — in the 1900 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: Haywood Pender, 50, farmer; wife Feraby, 45; children Mollie, 39, and Ann, 8; and grandchildren Gold, 5, Nancy, 3, and Willie, 16. Haywood Pender died 15 July 1942 in Elm City, Toisnot township. Per his death certificate, he was born 6 October 1852 in Wilson County to Abram Sharp and Sookie Pender; was a farmer; was a widower; and was buried in Piney Grove cemetery, Elm City.
  • Dublin Barnes — in the 1880 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farmer Doublin Barnes, 25; wife Eliza, 21; daughter Sattena, 2; and Jane Thomas, 12, farmhand.
  • Charles and Rebecca Barnes — in the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: farmhand Charley Barnes, 50; wife Rebecca, 57; and children John, 26, William, 23, Annie, 17, Tom, 18, and Corah, 12.
  • George Braswell

London Woodard, Penny Lassiter Woodard and the London Church.

On 14 February 1970, the Wilson Daily Times published a full-page article detailing the life of London Woodard, founder of London’s Primitive Baptist Church.

London Woodard was born enslaved in 1792. He was recorded in the estates of Asa Woodard in 1816 and Julan Woodard in 1826 (in which he was recognized as a distiller of fine fruit brandies.) In 1827, James B. Woodard bought London at auction for $500. The same year, London married Venus, a woman enslaved by Woodard. In 1828, London was baptized and appears as a member in the minutes of Tosneot Baptist Church. Venus was baptized in 1838 and died in 1845.

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Transfer of title to “a negroe man by the name of Lonon” from Nathan Woodard to James B. Woodard, 1928.

J.B. Woodard’s second wife died in 1837, and he hired Penelope Lassiter, a free woman of color, as a housekeeper and surrogate mother to his children. Lassiter, born 1814, was the daughter of Hardy Lassiter, who owned a small farm south of Wilson. She met London, who was working as overseer, at Woodard’s. In 1852, Penny Lassiter bought 106 acres for $242 about five miles east of Wilson on the Tarboro Road.

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In 1854, Penny Lassiter purchased her husband London, then about 62 or 63, from J.B. Woodard for $150. In 1858 Lassiter bought another 53 acres near her first tract and purchased 21 acres in 1859. The same year, she sold a small parcel to Jordan Thomas, a free man of color [who was married to her step-daughter Rose Woodard.] In 1866, the years after he was emancipated, London Woodard bought, subject to mortgage, a 200-acre parcel.

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In 1866, London Woodard was granted authority to preach “only among his acquaintances,” i.e. African-Americans. A member of Tosneot Baptist donated an acre of land to build a black church, regarded as the first in Wilson County. London Woodard was licensed to preach in 1870.

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London Woodard preached his last sermon on 13 November 1870. The next day, he suffered a stroke and fell into an open fireplace. Despite severe burns, he was able to dictate a will before his death.

The history of London Church for the 25 years after Woodard’s death is murky. In 1895, white churches Tosneot and Upper Town Creek dismissed several African-American members in order that they might establish an independent congregation at London’s. [London Church reorganized under the umbrella of the Turner Swamp Primitive Baptist Association in 1897.]

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By the terms of his will, London Woodard provided for his wife Penelope; sons William, Hardy, Haywood, Howell, Elvin, Amos and London; and daughters Treasy, Rose, Pharibee, Sarah, Harriet and Penninah. (Deceased son John’s daughter was apparently inadvertently omitted.)  “A few facts” about Woodard’s children follows.

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Receipts for payments for taxes and accounts for Penny Lassiter and London Woodard.

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This building was moved around the corner to London Church Road. It has long been abandoned and collapsed in 2017 after suffering serious storm damage the year before.

London’s Primitive Baptist Church.

From the introduction to Hugh Buckner Johnston’s The Woodard Confederate Letters of Wilson County (1977):

“’Uncle London’ Woodard (1792-November 15, 1870) was one of the most respectable black men of his area and time. Having been married about 1817 to James Bullock Woodard’s Venus, he was purchased by this planter on May 24, 1828, and became his overseer and distiller. London was baptized into the fellowship of the Tosneot Primitive Baptist Church on August 24, 1828, and Venus on August 4, 1838. This good woman died about the end of 1845, leaving several children to mourn her loss.

“In 1846, he married Penelope Lassiter, daughter of Hardy Lassiter. She had become an indispensable part of the James B. Woodard household after the death of his first wife in 1837. ‘Aunt Pennie,’ a free woman of light color, who worked hard, saved her money, and bought land. On September 18, 1854, she also bought ‘Uncle London’ and made him a free man. He was ‘liberated to preach’ on April 21, 1866, and in the following December Mrs. Elizabeth Farmer gave him one acres upon which he soon erected ‘London’s Primitive Baptist Church‘ which is still in existence.”

——

While London Woodard may have lived essentially as a free man after his purchase by Penny Lassiter, there is no evidence that he was in fact emancipated prior to the end of the Civil War.  Thus, while Penny and their children appear as Lassiters in the 1860 census, he does not.

London’s Primitive Baptist Church was organized in 1870, weeks before London Woodard suffered burns that led to his death. Twenty-five years later, his congregation erected a simple wood-frame building on what is now Herring Avenue. That building was in use until 1992, when members moved into a new brick church. To save the landmark from demolition, descendants of Elizabeth Farmer donated a nearby site to which the structure was moved.

I took this photo of the 1895 church in May 2013, when the building, though compromised, was in relatively decent shape.

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May 2013.

Since then, a tree smashed into the chancel during a storm, dragging the front gable backwards and plunging the beadboard ceiling to the floor. All but the very front of the nave was crushed, and London’s Church cannot be saved.

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May 2016.