September 2022 Historical Society of Riverton vol. LII, no. 3 (#192)
Archives Presentation by Keith Betten at Riverton Free Library, Thursday, Sept. 22, 7 pm
Keith Betten will give a presentation on the Archives Committee’s ongoing effort to organize and catalog the Society’s documents and images at the RFL on Thursday, September 22 at 7:00 pm.
Carlos Rogers’ $5,500 donation to the Society in June 2019 financed the project. The purchase of shelving and archival-quality storage materials, such as non-acidic boxes, folders, and sleeves, allowed us to store the collection according to archival standards and best practices. A Finding Aid, or directory, helps locate everything.
Mr. Betten, a retired Deputy Executive Director of NJ State Archives, chairs the committee that includes Patricia Smith Solin, Pat Brunker, and Iris Gaughan. The team painstakingly sorted, cataloged, and stored hundreds of items in our collection.
Keith plans to use the Society’s “Images” collection to describe the organization scheme for each of the various “Record Groups” and explain how we may locate and access them with the help of the Finding Aid that he will provide attendees.
The aim is for the Finding Aids for the various Record Groups and Subgroups to be made available via the Society’s website (rivertonhistory.com) so that researchers can find selected records online.
Free admission to members and the public. Light refreshments will be served.
The marker dedication on Mt. Zion AME’s 125th anniversary sparks a look back at its founding and rich history
Riverton’s Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church had a big day on Sunday, June 26, 2022, celebrating the 125th anniversary of its founding and dedicating a new historical marker at the front door on the corner of Third and Penn Streets. The occasion prompted us to examine the remarkable history and legacy of that esteemed institution.
The day began with a special worship service led by Brother Kevin L. Tucker, with the church’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Leslie Robin Harrison, and preaching by Rev. Dr. Robert C. Wade, Presiding Elder of the AME Camden-Trenton District. Sister Natalie Tucker was the 125th Anniversary Chairperson, and Sister Annie Marie Ross spoke about the church’s history. The festivities concluded with the unveiling of a historical marker at the front doors.
To everyone’s great relief, PSE&G and electricians restored the electric power just in time, following an outage caused by a large limb from a tree on Third St. falling in a storm some weeks earlier and tearing off the entire power feed to the church.
The Beginnings of the Mt. Zion congregation
The founding of this congregation in 1897 marked a significant transition point in the history of African Americans in Riverton. Until then, the need to search out limited employment opportunities meant the Black population was necessarily transient. The founding of this church congregation helped form the nucleus of a stable community that then grew around it for many generations.
A comparison of the names and data on the detailed Census records for Riverton in the 20 years that bracket the founding of Mt. Zion (1880 and 1900) reveals that of the 18 Black residents of Riverton in 1880, only one was still here in 1900. That was George W. Lee, who worked as a gardener and was one of the early trustees of Mt. Zion. He and his family lived in a home at 501 Howard St. (now gone).
Newcomers quadrupled the Black population in that time frame. About two-thirds of these African American residents in 1900 were unaccompanied young women from the rural South, coming to work in Riverton as live-in domestic servants in the larger houses. (Before this time, servants were predominantly young women who had immigrated from Ireland.)
It seems highly likely that a principal reason for founding this church was to help these young women have a community in which to feel at home in what must have seemed like a very unfamiliar world.
Rev. Harrison relates that these young ladies were typically high school graduates who migrated to the Philadelphia area through an incredible network of contacts created decades before by Bishop Richard Allen and Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. Rev. Harrison describes how Sister Alice B. Taylor, considered the founder of Mt. Zion, would support these young ladies by acclimating them to the area and providing wise counsel and spiritual leadership as they worked in the homes of Riverton and Palmyra residents.
Reaching out to this population in Riverton was typical of the mission of the African Methodist Episcopal church. The church was then already more than a century old, founded by Richard Allen, Absolom Jones, and others in Philadelphia in 1787.
The fledgling congregation, started by the Mite Missionary Society and first known as the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Riverton, held its services in the meeting hall on the second floor of Joseph Roberts’ Brick Store for the first dozen years starting in 1897.
According to a small article in The New Era Christmas issue for 1909, all of the officers were women, and the Trustees were all men.
The first president was Sister Alice B. Taylor, known as the “Mother of Mt. Zion.” A magnificent stained glass window in today’s church honors her.
A domestic worker herself, Sis. Taylor was born in Virginia in 1848; whether enslaved or free, we do not know. She had married and moved to the Cinnaminson area by the 1870 Census.
She was the widow of Charles Taylor, a Civil War veteran of the 45th United States Colored Infantry Regiment. In yet another Riverton coincidence, the 45th was formed at Camp William Penn. Early Riverton founder J. Miller McKim strongly advocated the creation of that camp specifically to train Black soldiers. Abolitionists Lucretia and James Mott, who were close friends of McKim and associates of several other Riverton founders, provided the land in Cheltenham. Charles died in 1890, and his body rests at Trinity AME Church on Fork Landing Rd.
Building this church
As the congregation grew, it became feasible to create a permanent church. Sis. Taylor was in the midst of this project – and turns out to have provided surprising resources to do so.
Deeds show that in 1903 she purchased four lots on Penn Street, not just the lot on the corner for the construction of the church, but including what are today 300 through 306 Penn St. Deeds in the name of a Black woman in that era are very, very unusual.
The deed shows she paid $1,200 for the land, about 1/3 of an acre, including a frame house. In 1907, she sold the vacant corner lot to the “Trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Riverton” for $300, on which they would build the church we see today.
The price of $1,200 for her initial land purchase is fascinating. This sum is likely many times the annual income of a housekeeper during this era. Sis. Taylor was 55 years old in 1903 and had been a widow since the death of her husband, a farm laborer, a dozen years earlier.
She worked as a live-in domestic (for the Howard Parry family on Main St.) and seemed to have had no living children (the 1900 Census indicates that she had borne one child, but no children were then living). All Census entries during her life show that Sis. Taylor could not read or write. How had she managed to save such a substantial amount of money to purchase this land in her name?
Judging by her towering role in the day-to-day activities of the church for the rest of her life, Sis. Taylor must have been an impressive and formidable figure.
The congregation had taken on its permanent name of “Mt. Zion AME Church” by 1909. According to The New Era Christmas Issue of 1909, “in August of this year, the congregation dedicated their own church building at Third and Penn streets, which had been erected at a cost of $1,400.” The membership totaled 19 at that time.
From the start, the surrounding areas of Palmyra and Cinnaminson (especially East Riverton) were well-represented.
Building a community
Members began moving to this area of Penn St. and Third St. immediately. By the 1915 NJ Census, Sis. Taylor was living in her own home at 302 Penn, right next door to the church, one of about a dozen Black families living within a short block of the intersection, many with children who attended Riverton school. (Most surrounding schools in the area were segregated by race at the time.) In a measure of the stability brought by building the church here, about half of these families owned their own homes.
The congregation grew over many decades, with Mt. Zion at its center holding near-daily activities: services, dinners, guest preachers, church school and other youth programs, multiple choirs, weddings, funerals, and every other thing you’d expect from a lively community.
Sis. Alice Taylor was right there next door, in the middle of it all, right up to her death in 1923 at the age of 75.
On January 14, 1932, The New Era reported that the congregation had rebuilt the church in 1929 and installed an organ. Still, tragedy struck barely two years later when a fire extensively damaged the interior, the roof structure, and the new organ. Losses were estimated at a staggering $12,000.
The congregation rallied and rebuilt, meeting in the meantime in space provided by other churches in Riverton. Unfortunately, many of Mt. Zion’s early records were lost in this fire. The congregation was generous in donations, and they were able to celebrate the retirement of their mortgage in 1949.
Believing that “good works spring out of a true and lively faith,” Mt. Zion has never wavered from the AME’s vision “to seek out and save the lost, and to serve the needy.” AME congregations are intentionally organized to look out for those in the community who may be sick or who might be struggling. In addition, the congregation also engaged in mission work in Africa. They built a school in Nigeria and worked to keep the school supplied with books and teaching materials.
Rev. Harrison describes Mt. Zion as always being at the forefront of the community. Many trailblazing members have served as postmasters, military service personnel, domestics, blacksmiths, and builders. Also included are renowned opera singers, musicians, educators, and business owners.
Families and extended families were very important. Well-remembered are the special “Virginia Day” festivals held over many years that recognized how many Mt. Zion members had deep roots there. Many Mt. Zion families counted three generations of members at the church.
In the mid-1970s the congregation acquired the home at 208 Penn St. for a parsonage, which is still in use today.
A beacon of hope, Mt. Zion has provided for those seeking spiritual, emotional, financial, and at times physical refuge during the trying times of the Great Migration, the Great Depression, and most recently, the Coronavirus pandemic.
The Jones Family and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The church’s rich history even includes a visit from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. King rearranged his schedule so he could travel to Riverton to pay his respects and offer comforting words to his trusted friend, Clarence B. Jones, at the funeral of his father, Goldsborough B. Jones, a member of Mt. Zion.
Attorney, speechwriter, and confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Clarence B. Jones was born in 1931. His parents met when they worked as butler and cook, living in the home of Edgar and Eleonora Lippincott at 806 Main St. When Clarence was young, his parents purchased a home at 2109 Hunter St. in East Riverton. Clarence graduated from Palmyra High, Columbia University, and Boston University School of Law.
Dr. Jones began representing King in 1960 and served him in many ways in the remaining tumultuous years of King’s life. He co-wrote King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, smuggled out King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and helped organize the March on Washington.
Dr. Jones’s father, a devoted Mt. Zion member, passed away in 1962. Dr. King arrived quietly at his funeral here, unannounced and unexpected, and asked if he might say a few words.
Standing in the pulpit above the open casket, Rev. Martin Luther King began, “I know my friend Brother Clarence is probably surprised that I am here. I did not know the deceased, his father, Goldsborough Benjamin Jones, … but I know his son.” Looking into the casket, King began preaching directly to Dr. Jones’ father, “Brother Goldsborough, you can rest and go home, because your son …” and he spoke beautiful words of comfort.
Dr. King then left as quietly as he had entered.
Marking the history of Mt. Zion
To help commemorate this important anniversary, a ceremony on June 26, 2022 included the unveiling and dedication of a new historical marker.
Left to right in this group photo are Congressman Andy Kim; Prudence H. Wade; Rev. Dr. Robert C. Wade, Presiding Elder, Camden-Trenton District AME; Rev. Dr. Leslie Robin Harrison, pastor of Mt. Zion; State Senator Troy Singleton; Mayor Suzanne Cairns Wells; and Roger Prichard, Riverton Borough Historian and Board Member, Historical Society of Riverton.
A collaboration among church officials, the Historical Society of Riverton, and Valerie Still of the Clarence B. Jones Institute for Social Advocacy created the marker.
The ninth in a series of such markers created by the Historical Society of Riverton, it now stands prominently at the entrance of the church, right on the corner of Third and Penn Streets. Edited and designed by Roger Prichard, it includes research by Prichard and Sister Annie Marie Ross, with the Dr. King content provided by Valerie Still.
It is the first marker the Society has placed that commemorates a house of worship, and the HSR is delighted to be able to honor Mt. Zion in this way on this momentous occasion.
article by Roger Prichard, photos by Susan Dechnik
We gratefully acknowledge the following donations:
Tammi Minnix wrote us to tell that she wishes to designate the Society to receive donations in memory of her father, William Trauger. We extend our condolences to the family.
To date, we have received donations totaling $590 from Michael Sindoni, Barbara Wurtz, Karen Dutton, Custom Environmental Management, Paulsboro Education Association, and Nancy Wasilewski.
From the “Someone is Noticing Us Department” comes an unexpected and very gratifying $1,500 grant from the Caplin Foundation (Wilmington, DE), which directs us to use it to support our efforts “To help defray any legal costs you may have defending your properties and your historic preservation ordinances. Good luck!” We appreciate the support very much and will put it to good use.
We have a separate Riverton History Defense Fund on our books for that purpose. We urge anyone to contribute to it. Either mail a check to PO Box 112 Riverton 08077 or click the “PayPal Donate” button down the left side of our website at rivertonhistory.com/contact/ -JMc
Well, this is very cool! Adele Baker offered us a miniature working Welsbach gas streetlamp
June 15, 2022, Adele writes: “I would like to donate the Little Boulevard gas lamp depicted in these photos to the Riverton Historic Society. I believe that it is a smaller version of the gas lamps that are located throughout the Borough.
My family lived in Cinnaminson for many years. My father, Glenn Baker, worked in the Welbach Philadelphia office from 1956 to 1971…
It stands approximately 14 inches in height. There is a spare mantle and a sheet which explains its operation… The Boulevard was a very popular product for Welsbach. I remember seeing them along Main Street in Disney World when we visited there in 1974…
Frankly, I can no place more fitting than Riverton to turn over this gas lamp. I always know when I am in the Borough, and it always makes me smile when I see the gas lamps. They are such a lovely resource for the town. Please let me know if you are interested in this donation and, if so how I can bring it to you.”
A July 4th Riverton book by Arcadia Publishing sale
President Bill Brown and HSR Board member Faith Endicott moved some more of our recently published Riverton books, one of Arcadia Publishing Co.’s Images of America series, in front of the library during the July Fourth Parade.
From the Acknowledgements page of that book… Faith Endicott, a relatively new board member, boldly proposed that we might do what no one had tried in our 50-year history–creating a book about Riverton…
HSR awards student achievement
At a special meeting on May 24, 2022, the Riverton School Board presented the 2022 Betty B. Hahle History Achievement Award to eighth-grade student Ian Polaneczky. Ian received a $150 check and a certificate.
Congratulations to Palmyra High School’s Benjamin Small, the first-ever winner of the Historical Society of Riverton’s History Writing contest. Ben received a $500 check. We asked Riverton’s high school students to describe, in 1000 words, how the historic context of mid-19th century America figured into the founding of Riverton. -JMc
Another chapter in the Saving the Groves Mansion saga
Our recent Facebook post (with 7618 People reached and 593 Likes, comments & shares) has re-energized the public’s interest in our battle to save the much neglected Groves Mansion from demolition.
See this Groves Mansion Update for the latest developments. -JMc
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