February is Black History Month a time to learn about and recognize the contributions and history of African Americans.
JARENA LEE (1783–1855)
Minister Jarena Lee was the first authorized female preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. Lee was born to a poor, but free black family on February 11, 1783, in Cape May, New Jersey. At the age of seven, Lee was sent to work as a live-in servant for a white family named Sharp. Lee moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as a teenager and continued to work as a domestic servant. One afternoon, Lee attended a worship service at Bethel Church where Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the A.M.E. Church, was scheduled to preach. After hearing the powerful sermon delivered by Allen, Lee became filled with the Holy Spirit and converted to Christianity. In 1807 Lee heard the voice of God commissioning her to preach the Gospel. She was initially reluctant to pursue ministry, given the male-dominated nature of the church. However, she decided to confide in Bishop Allen and revealed to him her call to preach. Allen told Lee that he could not grant her permission to preach because he was required to uphold the A.M.E. Church’s ban against female ministers.
In 1819 during a worship service at Bethel Church, a guest preacher began struggling with his message and abruptly stopped preaching. As he stared into the congregation at a loss for words, Lee sprang to her feet and began preaching, picking up where the minister had left off. After Lee’s sermon, she was afraid that Bishop Allen would punish her for preaching without permission. On the contrary, Allen was so impressed by Lee that he officially gave her authorization to preach the Gospel. Allen asserted that God had called Lee to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Shortly thereafter, Lee began to travel to various cities for preaching engagements and was highly praised for her powerful sermons.
In addition to her work in ministry, Lee was also heavily involved in the abolitionist movement and joined the American Antislavery Society in 1839. To share her experiences in ministry, Lee decided to pen her autobiography titled The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee. She completed her autobiography in expanded form in 1849. The exact date and circumstances of Minister Lee’s death are unknown. However, the records of Mount Pisgah AME Church Cemetery where she is buried indicate that she died in 1855. Other sources list her death in 1857.
FRANCIS CARDOZO (1836-1903)
Francis Lewis Cardozo was a minister, educator, and politician, who was born free in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 1, 1836. Cardozo was of mixed ancestry, as his father, Isaac Nunez Cardozo, was a Sephardic Jew, and his mother, Lydia Williams Weston, was a free woman of color. South Carolina laws did not allow for interracial marriages.
He studied at Edinburgh Theological and London seminaries and was an ordained Presbyterian minister when he returned to the United States in 1864. Cardozo became the pastor of the Temple Street Congregational Church in New Haven, Connecticut, and married Catherine Rowena Howell on December 20, 1864.
Cardozo returned to Charleston in 1865 as an agent for the American Missionary Association (AMA), founded in 1846 by an abolitionist group from Albany, New York. He worked as the superintendent of an AMA-established school and was responsible for its transformation into The Avery Normal Institute. The institute focused on training black teachers. Cardozo, a member of the Republican Party, became involved in Reconstruction politics and by 1868, he was selected as a delegate to the South Carolina State Constitutional Convention where he chaired the education committee. He called for the dissolution of the plantation system and for racially integrated schools. Cardozo’s speech led to his election as the first black secretary of state in South Carolina’s history.
OCTAVIA VICTORIA ROGERS ALBERT (1853-1890)
Octavia Victoria Rogers Albert, a 19th century author and religious leader, was born in December 25, 1853 in Oglethorpe, Georgia into slavery. She draws inspiration from that experience for her book The House of Bondage which was published after her death by her husband and daughter in 1890. In 1870, Octavia enrolled in the Atlanta University. Three years later she began teaching in Montezuma, Georgia. There she met A.E.P. Albert and the two married in 1874. They had one daughter named Laura T. Albert.
Octavia Albert always had a strong religious faith. In Oglethorpe, she attended the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which was under the ministry of former Congressman and prominent political activist Bishop Henry M. Turner. There she decided to devote her life to the church and her faith. In 1877, A.E.P. Albert was ordained as a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church. When he was ordained, she converted to Methodism and was baptized by him in 1888 after the family had moved to Houma, Louisiana.
In Houma, Albert was known as a community and religious leader. Often, members of the community gathered at her home to share stories of their lives as slaves. As she became acquainted with the former slaves who shared their stories she decided to collect them in the book The House of Bondage. Rogers, a skilled interviewer and writer, was able to convey on paper the powerful recollections of these former slaves. Also The House of Bondage was one of the first collections of the stories and memories of former enslaved people.
Although Albert’s book was based on a series of interviews with over a dozen ex-slaves, the main dialogue was with Charlotte Brooks who was torn unwillingly from her parents and children when they were sold elsewhere in the South. The interviews in the book, recorded over 15 years after the end of slavery, documented vivid accounts of harsh treatment towards Louisiana slaves and the negative effects on the livelihood of ex-slaves after their emancipation. The House of Bondage also recorded how some ex-slaves were able to progress since Emancipation and become part of society. Albert claimed her goal in writing The House of Bondage book was to tell the story of ex-slaves as well as to “correct and to create history.” Octavia Victoria Rogers Albert is thought to have died around 1890 in Houma, Louisiana.
CHARLES B. RAY (1807-1886)
Charles Bennett Ray journalist, clergyman, and abolitionist was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts on December 25, 1807. He attended school in his hometown, and then in the 1830s he was given the opportunity by abolitionists to attend Wesleyan Seminary in Wilbraham, Massachusetts to study theology. He also studied in Middletown Connecticut at Wesleyan University, but left because of racial tension. Ray worked for five years on his grandfather’s farm, then later went on to learn the boot making trade. When he moved to New York City in 1832 he opened a boot and shoe store. Ray also became a Methodist minister. In 1834 Charles Ray married Henrietta Green Regulus on October 27, 1836 she along with her newborn died while giving birth. Then in 1840 he married Charlotte Augusta Burroughs; they had seven children together. Two daughters, Charlotte T. Ray and Florence Ray, became the first black female attorneys in the nation in the 1870s.
In 1833 Charles Ray joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. He dedicated most of his life to the abolitionist movement. In 1837 Ray changed denominations and became a Congregational minister. Then in 1843 he joined the New York Vigilance Committee, which involved thirteen black and white men who assisted runaway slaves. In 1848 Ray became the corresponding secretary for the Committee and remained an active member for fifteen years.
Ray in 1837 had been pastor of the predominately white Crosby Congregational Church in New York City. Beginning in 1845 he served as the pastor of the Bethesda Congregational Church, another mostly white congregation, and continued there for more than twenty years. Ray, a paid staffer with the American Missionary Association, believed strongly in the temperance movement. He was also a member of the New York Society for the Promotion of Education among Colored Children and the African Society for Mutual Relief. Ray traveled across the Northern states giving speeches condemning the prejudice that African Americans endured. Ray and his newspaper supported the newly founded Liberty Party in 1840 because it was the only political party at the time to publicly condemn slavery.
Charles B. Ray died in New York City on August 15, 1886. He was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.
IDA BELL ROBINSON (1891-1946)
There are still some who don’t believe in women preachers, but it was even more true for a black Pentecostal woman in the early 1900s. Ida B. Robinson was that woman. She not only paved the way for Pentecostal woman to preach, she was the first African American woman to start a denomination to ordain women. Ida was born in Hazelhurst, Georgia on August 3, 1891 as the seventh child of 12 children. Her parents moved to Pensacola, Florida soon after that, and Ida grew up there. When Ida was 17 years old, a Pentecostal holiness preacher came to her town, and Ida heard the Gospel for the first time. She gave her life to Christ. Ida began having prayer meetings in her home and preaching on street corners where she would warn, “Prepare to meet thy God.”
In 1910, Ida married Oliver Robinson. They never had children, but they adopted Ida’s niece, Ida Bell, when her parents died. In 1917, the couple moved to Philadelphia where they joined a small Pentecostal holiness congregation at Seventeenth and South Streets pastored by Elder Benjamin Smith. Ida often would preach for Elder Smith, and the congregation grew because of her preaching style. This caused conflict and she ended up leaving the church. She joined the United Holy Church of America where she was consecrated to the ministry through ordination.
She established a charter for a new denomination, The Mount Sinai Holy Church of America. At its founding, women comprised six of nine members of the Board of Elders as well as the top four officers. The denomination spread rapidly along the eastern seaboard, largely due to Ida’s evangelistic work and church planting. She was consecrated as bishop in 1925. When she died, the denomination consisted of 84 churches, more than 160 ordained ministers of whom 125 were women, an accredited school in Philadelphia, mission work in Cuba and Guyana, and a farm in South New Jersey that provided a safe haven away from the city for church members.
JAMES POINDEXTER (1819-1907)
James Poindexter clergyman, abolitionist, politician, and civil rights activist, was born in Richmond Virginia in 1819. He attended school in Richmond until he was about sixteen when he started to apprentice as a barber. In 1837 Poindexter married Adelia Atkinson and the coupled moved to Columbus, Ohio. In Columbus Poindexter joined the Second Baptist Church, a small black church in the city. He officiated at the services until an ordained Baptist minister could be found. In 1847 when a recently arrived black family joined the church, Poindexter and others learned they had been slaveholders in Virginia. Poindexter and forty other Second Baptist Church members withdrew in protest and formed the Anti-Slavery Baptist Church. Poindexter led this church for the next ten years until the congregation rejoined the Second Baptist Church in 1858. Poindexter, now an ordained minister, became the pastor of the combined church and remained in this position until his resignation in 1898.
Poindexter was a major supporter of the Underground Railroad in Ohio, personally supplying wagons and teams of horses to help fugitive slaves on their journey to Canada. During the Civil War Poindexter and his wife formed the Colored Soldiers Relief Society to help give soldiers and their families’ assistance since the State of Ohio failed to support its black veterans. As a well known minister in Columbus, Poindexter on August 1 of each year delivered the West Indian Emancipation Day Speech.
When the 15th Amendment allowed black voting throughout Ohio in 1870, Poindexter began his political career. In January 1871 he led the call for a statewide convention of African American men to encourage voting. Two years later Poindexter was nominated by the Republican Party for a seat in the Ohio House of Representatives. He lost but in 1880 he became the first African American elected to the Columbus City Council. Reelected in 1882 Poindexter remained in the seat until 1884 when he was named to the Board of Trustees of the Ohio School for the Blind. In 1884 Poindexter was also appointed to the Columbus Board of Education and was reelected four times. Poindexter was nominated by Democratic Governor George Hoardley to the Board of Ohio University but the nomination was blocked in the Ohio state legislature. In 1887 he was named to the Board of Directors of the State Forestry Bureau and in 1896 he was appointed to the Board of Trustees of Wilberforce University, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) College in Xenia, Ohio.