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African Americans in Saline County

Contributed by Betty Brooks

*PENNYTOWN*
(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.

Pennytown's 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 freedman.

1870 Federal Census- Blackwater Township, page 11
102-105 stop-household
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.

Penny then 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.

The first 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

The last 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 history. ..........

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.

Josephine's daughter 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:

Exactly 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 history.

Pennytowners, 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 also planned.
 


Pennytown 1. 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. Lawrence.

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

Credits:
1. Information derived from
http://www.umsystem.edu/whmc/invent/3792.html and used here for educational purposes
2. information from www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com/ MO/Saline/state.html
3.
Kentucky African American Griots.Telling our story through history and genealogical data

 

  

 

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