London’s Primitive Baptist Church

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 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.