Social Issues

A Humble Start

"We didn’t want to rewrite history, but we do want to promote a greater awareness of the circumstances of the time." —Erica Moffett, Task Force Member and Clerk of Session

In March of this year, a five-person Task Force (Eric Daniels, Dale Hansen, Erica Moffett (Chair), Nancy Moore, and Scott Black Johnston) was charged with guiding the Joint Boards of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in responding to the recent revelation that founding pastor John Brodhead Romeyn was a slaveholder who later repudiated the institution of slavery.

This week, the Joint Boards (Session and Trustees) unanimously voted to accept each of the Romeyn Task Force’s recommendations. They are as follows:

  • That “The Romeyn Room” keep its current name, and that the Joint Boards rename the Board Room “The Betsey Jackson Board Room.” Ms. Jackson was Rev. Romeyn’s household slave and a charter member of this church in 1808. She was manumitted (freed) by the Romeyn family in 1811.
  • That the Arts and Our Faith Committee explore a commission to create a portrait of Betsey Jackson for the Board Room. (You’ll hear more about this fascinating challenge soon!)
  • That educational plaques be installed next to the portraits of Romeyn and Jackson.
  • That Elder Kathy Henderson be asked to draft text for these plaques and provide an update to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church history.
  • That a new task force be formed and charged with producing a proposal (and budget) for a museum quality exhibit of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church’s history (to be housed in Jones Auditorium) that can grow and change with this congregation over time.

“We didn’t want to rewrite history,” says Erica Moffett, Task Force member and Clerk of Session, “but we do want to promote a greater awareness of the circumstances of the time. To rename the Board Room The Betsey Jackson Room is to give this once-enslaved woman of faith a presence—you might even say ‘a voice’—as one of the founders of this church. In a way, over two hundred years later, she will help us have conversations we need to have.”

Fifth Avenue Church archivist Dale Hansen was an essential part of the team’s fact finding. He observes that the work of the Task Force did not focus on trying to wring shame from the church’s past, but was instead focused on building a transparent and open process. “We are all God’s children—regardless of race or gender—and to the extent that leaders in our church did not treat some as equals in the eyes of God, we should seek to make amends and do better in the future.”

Elder and Task Force member, Eric Daniels said he approached his work through the lens of faith and race. “My paternal great-grandparents were born slaves in the 1850’s in Virginia. My grandmother was born to slave parents. If, as Christians, we intend to show forth the Kingdom of God, we must acknowledge, with honesty, a past that includes failings, biases, and sins.”

“The work of the Romeyn Task Force work is a humble first step,” reflected Scott Black Johnston, Senior Pastor. “In approving these recommendations, one of our trustees asked, ‘How can we be motivated by this story to change the world today?’ This is the right question. More challenging and, I pray, grace-filled conversations lie before us.”