What strikes me most about the rich history of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church are the fascinating people who have sat in these pews and served this congregation over the past two centuries.
From well-known civic leaders to Presidential families, from world-class scholars to celebrated artists, these faithful pioneers shaped the church we know today.
For me, one individual stands out among them all. One member who has done more for this community than we will ever know. One woman who paved the path I travel as a woman of color in ministry. Her name was Betsey Jackson.
Although she was among the 28 founding members of this congregation in 1808, we know very little about her. We don’t know her date of birth or death. We don’t know about her children. We don’t know anything about her experience of church, of God, or of New York City.
What we do know about Betsey is that she was a black woman. Born Elizabeth Andrivet, Betsey married Gilbert Jackson on March 25, 1771, in Richmond, New York. She lived in Albany before she moved to New York in the same year as our first pastor, the Rev. Dr. John Brodhead Romeyn. This was no coincidence. Prior to joining the Presbyterian Church on Cedar Street (our original name), Betsey was a member of First Presbyterian Church in Albany, the same church that Dr. Romeyn served prior to receiving a call to Manhattan. Her transfer of membership was written and signed by Dr. Romeyn.
And we know this: Within the historical documentation of slaves and slaveowners in New York state is a record of emancipation of an adult female slave named Elizabeth, associated with the John B. Romeyn household in New York County. It is dated 1811—three years after this church was founded. So it appears that Betsey Jackson, while still enslaved, was a founding member of a predominantly white, New York City church nearly 20 years before slavery officially ended in this state, a half century before the Civil War, and well over 100 years before entrenched systems of segregation began to be dismantled.
As the first woman of color to serve as a pastor of this church, I owe a debt of gratitude to this remarkable woman of faith, who bravely worshipped, served and participated in a congregation where, in almost every respect, she was an outsider. Her presence in our pews was an act of courage on her part, an act of radical inclusion on ours. At least I’d like to think so.
I believe that it is because of Betsey Jackson that our church has always strived to err on the side of inclusion, acceptance and love. We may not know much about her, but I know this: We are a better church, and I am a better pastor, because she was here.
About the Writer
Charlene Han Powell is the Executive Pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and a member of the staff since 2010. A second-generation Korean American, she is the granddaughter of Han Suk Jin, the first moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly in Korea. As the first woman of color to be ordained and installed as a pastor at Fifth Avenue, Charlene is passionate about convening conversations between faith and culture.