The inauguration of President Barack Obama in January makes this year’s Black History Month especially significant for members of Frankford’s Antioch AME church. Like Obama, the Rev. James Foster, Antioch’s pastor, looks to history to guide the future. “When Mrs. Fisch suggested a program based on a collection of antique black dolls, I was immediately intrigued,” he said.
Dorothy Fisch is the children’s librarian at Frankford Public Library. She has sponsored numerous programs at the library, including “Silent Companions and the Stories They Tell,” where a local collector’s dolls are displayed and history is revealed.
“The library wanted an expanded audience for this family-friendly program, and I talked about it to Pastor Foster,” she said.
The program was presented to approximately 50 church members, including 10 children, after services on Sunday, Feb. 15. In his sermon that day, Foster talked about the derivation of the church’s name, Antioch. That was one of the earliest centers of Christianity and where converts were the first to be called “Christians.”
The AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church was also the first denomination in America founded for and by people of African descent. It grew out of the Free African Society in Philadelphia that was co-founded in 1787 by Richard Allen and Absolom Jones, a former slave from the Cedartown Plantation, in nearby Milford, Del.
Although Frankford’s Antioch AME has its roots in African-American history, it now considers itself to be a community church. Its friendly congregation welcomes people of all races and ethnicities to bring their faith and doubts, hopes and dreams, interests and enthusiasm.
John Hall is a 13-year member of the church, a truck mechanic by profession, and a history buff by avocation. He is particularly interested in the Civil War and noted that some of the dolls on display were made around the time Abraham Lincoln was president. He said he appreciates Obama’s admiration of Lincoln and Obama’s belief in the greatness of the American people.
“Too many people just listen to negatives reported by the press,” he said. “I knew white America would come through for Obama because he was the best candidate.”
Hall recalled that, although Delaware was a slave state, its location made it an integral part of the Underground Railroad.
“Without the help of brave white people offering their homes as safe houses, Harriet Tubman would not have been able to help slaves desperately running from their masters,” he said.
Ronald Hall (no relation to John) is a lifelong resident of the area, a church trustee and a correctional officer. He didn’t really expect Obama would win the election and was very glad to be proven wrong.
“It gives people hope,” he said. “Now everyone in the society knows that if they work hard and do the right thing, all things are possible.”
He was working on the day of the inauguration and commented on how unusually quiet the inmates were as they watched television. When asked if the black and white prisoners responded equally, Hall acknowledged that few white inmates or officers showed the level of interest as their black counterparts.
Zhane Hall (granddaughter of John) is 14 years old, a youth leader at Antioch and a ninth-grader at Indian River High School. Like most of her friends, she watched the inauguration on television at home.
“It was great. The country needed a change,” she said. She noted that the best part was seeing the Obama family together in front the White House. “Michelle is so smart and intelligent. She makes me feel that I can be more. I can become someone.” The “someone” Zhane is already working hard to become is a pediatrician.
As for the children of Antioch AME, they sat for the duration of the black doll program in rapt attention. The story they heard was from the voice of a ragdoll like the ones displayed on the table in front of them. The doll in the story belonged to a slave girl whose family was cruelly torn apart and was seeking the hope of freedom in the North.
They learned of children who were forbidden to learn to read or write and men and women who were forbidden to marry. And they were surprised to learn that the main crop farmed on Delaware’s plantations wasn’t cotton or corn but tobacco.
Overheard after the program was a man recalling that he was in grade school during the period of school integration in Delaware.
“When the bus picked me up, I had to stand because the white kids spread over the seats so I couldn’t sit down. It was hurtful. Then one kid made room for me next to him and told me I’d never need to stand again. That one kid made the difference. That’s what it took,” he said.
Another, the grandson of share croppers, commented that programs like this one help children understand how different their lives are from just one or two generations back.
Foster’s sermon was titled “Is the church a rest home?” He concluded that, just as the original church in Antioch was a loving church where people were called to action, so is its legacy in Frankford.
His beautifully refurbished old church, with its incredibly blue stained-glass windows that face the noonday sun, was the recent victim of broken water pipes. The floor in the new addition where programs like the ones for Black History Month were supposed to be held was ruined and much water was wasted. It’s another challenge for the congregation to overcome.
To learn more about Antioch AME Church, call Foster at (302) 732-1005. To check out one of the many children’s books on Black History at Frankford Public Library or to participate in one of their programs, call (302) 732-9351.