African Americans in Saline County
Contributed by Betty Brooks
(Off of MO/Saline County
"UU" 8 mi. SE of Marshall )
The History of Pennytown is available only through the efforts of one lady,
Josephine Jackson Lawrence, (1929-1992)
who was born and raised at Pennytown. She collected,
gathered, garnered, and saved every bit of information possible. her
collection is now at Western Manuscripts Dept. in Columbia.
" 3. "Griot's" (gree-oh)
in early Africa, were tribal members whose role in the tribe was to act
as historian and to pass on their tribal history from one generation to the
next. These triabal members were the storytellers of that time and their
given role in that society was to preserve the genealogies and traditions of
the tribe. This term is still true today in America, we have those that we
could call griot's also. They are the family members who hunger for
knowledge of their ancestry, who search and preserve their ancestry, who
bring life to their ancestors by their endless and sometimes fruitless
researching for knowledge and pass it on so their descendants and future
generations will know their heritage.
Mrs. Lawrence was truly a "griot" in
her efforts to preserve the history of this community
From: Preservation Issues (Vol. 4, No. I,) and
From Preservation Issues, Volume 7, Number 1:
The First Free Will Baptist Church of
Pennytown -- Born Again
articles by Karen Grace
Excerpts from the above articles which are off site
Photo by Lynn Morrow
(Vol. 4, No. I,)
For nearly 50
years, homecoming has been held at the last building still owned by
Pennytowners - the First Freewill Baptist Church. ......The church was a
small, badly deteriorated structure constructed of hollow terra cotta block.
founder was Joe Penny, an ex-slave from Kentucky who arrived in Saline
County in the late 1860s. Penny purchased eight acres of land south of
Marshall. He paid white owner John Haggin the sum of $160 for his land and
the deed was duly recorded. It was a rare business transaction - possibly
the only instance at this early period of legal transfer of land to a
1870 Federal Census- Blackwater Township, page 11
Penny, Joseph age 60 property value $250 b. Ky
Penny, Harriet age 54 b. TN
Gatron, Peter age 19 b. MO.
Williams, William age 10 b. MO.
divided his land into small lots and sold them to other black settlers. More
land was acquired over the years and similarly divided and sold. By 1900,
the town consumed approximately 64 acres and had 40 families living in a
dense collection of small frame houses. Pennytown also eventually contained
two churches, a school, a store, and two communal lodges.
church building to be built on the same site began immediately following the
fire. Pennytowners purchased hollow tile blocks a few at a time until they
had accumulated enough to build the church. The construction was
accomplished by church members, and the cornerstone was laid in 1926
families left Pennytown in 1943, leaving only the elderly who died there.
As Pennytowners took up
residence elsewhere in order to have better jobs and better education for
their children, they also sought to establish a connection with the past. At
the end of World War II, former Pennytowners organized an annual homecoming
to be held on the first Sunday in August.
For nearly 50 years,
homecoming has ben held at the last building still owned by Pennytowners -
the First Freewill Baptist Church. And each year, Pennytowners and their
descendants gather there to sing long-remembered spirituals and illuminate
the past for younger generations. The little church grew frail over the
years; it lost its windows to vandals, its roof to the elements, the mortar
holding it together crumbled, and it began to collapse. But still the
Pennytowners assembled there annually to stand on the front lawn and stare
up at the church in awe. It was, they believed, the very embodiment of their
As we concluded our visit on
that hot day in August, Josephine told me she was going to begin in earnest
a fundraising campaign to restore the church. "How will you raise such a
large amount of money?" I asked. "With the Lord's help," she replied, "with
the Lord's help, I know we can do it."
Josephine began her
fundraising for the church, "the Pennytown way." Quilts were hand stitched
and raffled, dinners held, pastries baked and sold, and a Pennytown cookbook
produced. At every street festival, county fair, or church supper in Saline
County, Pennytowners were there, raising money to save their church. By the
time of Josephine's death in 1992, the group had raised nearly half of the
estimated $35,00 necessary for the church building's restoration.
Virginia Houston took charge of the fundraising effort following her
mother's death. She said the group now has more than $18,000 in its Marshall
bank account; she too has faith that their fundraising goal will be reached
and the church restored.
Volume 7, Number 1:
three years ago, Preservation Issues (Vol.
4, No. I,) published the
story of the Pennytown "project": the efforts of the descendants of the
town's early residents to raise the capital to restore the Pennytown church.
That inspiring storyhas come to a happy conclusion as reported below
The First Free Will Baptist
Church is the last remaining building still owned by Pennytowners in a once
thriving freedmen's hamlet near Marshall, Saline County. The town itself,
founded and nurtured by ex-slave Joe Penny in the late 19th century, no
longer exists. The homes, schools and businesses of 40 families that once
surrounded the church are gone, replaced by an MFA test farm.
But Pennytown still lives.
It lives in the memories of Pennytowners, and its story is passed down to
younger generations and honorary Pennytowners of all ages, races and creeds.
The small church, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is the
visible memory of the history of the town and the triumph of its people over
adversity and injustice in post-Civil War Missouri. It also serves as an
important reminder of a part of Missouri's and America's history that should
not be forgotten. It was for these reasons that Pennytowners, under the
leadership of the late Josephine Lawrence, began their lengthy effort to
gain national recognition for the Pennytown church and raise enough money
for the restoration project. Through bake sales, dinners, raffles, the sale
of a Pennytown cookbook and "passing the hat," the group had raised $18,000
by 1994. It was not enough for the restoration project, but it was enough to
help match a Historic Preservation Fund grant, awarded in early 1995 by the
Missouri Department of Natural Resources' Historic Preservation Program.
The project consisted of the
construction of a new foundation, the reconstruction of the exterior walls
using the building's original hollow masonry blocks, construction of a new
roof and the installation of new windows and doors. Minimal interior work
included drywall and a wood plank floor. Volunteers accomplished the
interior and exterior painting.
In 1996, on the first Sunday
in August, as they had been doing for 50 years, Pennytowners from throughout
the United States came back to the church for the Pennytown homecoming. More
than 200 people gathered on the lawn surrounding the building to greet old
friends, make new ones, eat dinner and enjoy an inspirational program. But
most of all, they were there to celebrate the restoration of the Pennytown
church; their "project" had come to a successful conclusion, and a new life
was just beginning for the church building.
The restored church will
play an important role in Saline County's heritage tourism initiative,
hosting busloads of visitors who want to learn about Pennytown's history. It
will also be the location of an educational field study program for the
county's school children, especially those who are studying Missouri
now under the leadership of Lawrence's daughter Virginia Houston, have many
plans for the future. Fundraising will continue for maintenance of the
church building and for the restoration of the historic privy (also listed
in the National Register). A fence, a sign and a brochure for visitors are
was a community of black farmers and laborers near Marshall, Missouri. Land
purchased in 1871 by Joseph Penny became the nucleus of Pennytown, which
grew to become the largest black community in Saline County. Residents of
Pennytown performed agricultural, domestic, and other kinds of labor for the
region. The residents formed a strong community based on mutual cooperation.
Pennytown began to lose
population in the 1920s as residents moved to other towns in Saline and
Pettis Counties which were closer to their jobs. By the 1970s the only
building still standing in Pennytown was the Free Will Baptist Church, which
had always been one of the most important community institutions. Annual
reunions are held in August so that former residents can retain their ties
with Pennytown and preserve the history of their community. (2.
The Freewill Baptist Church was added to the national Historical
Register as Free Will Baptist Church of Pennytown (added 1988 -
Building - #88000388) Off MO UU 8 mi. SE of Marshall, Marshall )
Josephine R. Lawrence, who
was born in 1929 in Pennytown is a local historian with a keen interest in
preserving and recording the history of Pennytown. Josephine R. Lawrence's
mother was Nellie Jackson and her father was Fred Robinson. Her grandmother
was Beulah Jackson. Aaron Jackson was her mother's first husband; Aron
Jackson was her cousin. She had two brothers, Aaron and James Jackson, and a
sister, Lorene Jackson Crobarker. Josephine's former husband was Clarence L.
The First Freewill
Baptist Church of Pennytown is a registered not-for-profit organization with
the state of Missouri. Donations may be tax-deductible. For more information
about the "Pennytown Project," write or call Dr. Daniel Fahnestock, 269 S.
Jefferson, Marshall, MO 65340, (816) 886-6903 or Virginia Houston, 770 W.
Clara, Apt. 1, Marshall, MO 65340, (816)886-8418
1. Information derived from
and used here for educational purposes
2. information from
Kentucky African American Griots.Telling
our story through history and genealogical data