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Slavery: ‘Apology without cost would be empty’

07 June 2019

Rosie Dawson travelled to New York to discover how one diocese is reckoning with the legacy of slavery


Sandra Walker, who works on the St Augustine’s project

Sandra Walker, who works on the St Augustine’s project

THE day that Fr Nathanael Saint-Pierre visited the slave galleries was the day he knew that he wanted to be the priest at St Augustine’s, on Lower East Side, Manhattan.

“I wasn’t attracted to St Augustine’s for any other reason,” he says. “Its pertinence for me was that the church was an accomplice to slavery. . . Some of the lords of the Church — that is, the bishops — supported and promoted slavery; so it’s not surprising that St Augustine’s existed. I wanted to be here to understand what happened, and to retell the story.”

There are three entrances to the church: a set of double doors in the middle, and another door on either side.

“The white parishioners would enter and exit through the middle doors,” explains Barbara King, who co-chairs the St Augustine’s project, which oversaw the restoration of the galleries. “We believe the side doors were used only by people of colour — both enslaved and indentured servants.”

Indentured servants and freed slaves would ascend to the balcony overlooking the church. Slaves would continue up a narrow spiral staircase to the galleries. Today, visitors can stand in the galleries and look down onto the church below. But, originally, the rooms were sealed off so that the slaves could be neither seen nor heard by their worshipping masters.

“Such a design in the architecture — the very layout of a church in New York — shows how the Church was prepared to perpetuate behaviours of separating people from one another and isolating them, even when coming into a sacred place to worship one God,” Fr Nathanael observes.


ALTHOUGH slavery in the state was officially outlawed in 1827, a year before St Augustine’s (formerly known as All Saints’ Free Church) was consecrated, abolition was a slow process, and the last slaves in New York were not freed until 1841.

“Some of the congregation were wealthy merchant seaman who lived in New Jersey where slavery still existed,” Sandra Walker, who also works on the St Augustine’s project, explains. “The story is that their slaves would row them to church in boats from New Jersey, and then they’d be forced to sit in the slave galleries.

ROSIE DAWSONCynthia Copeland, a member of the congregation at St Mark’s and a co-chair of the diocesan Reparations Committee

“The same way that today, when your cell phone becomes obsolete, you don’t chuck it in the garbage, but carry it around with you because your contact list is in it, many behaviours of slavery continued to happen here,” Fr Nathanel says. “There’s no reason why people of different races can’t worship the same God in the same place, but they segregated them, and told them that they couldn’t take communion from the same cup.”

In the years before the outbreak of the Civil War, the abolitionist John Jay made heartfelt pleas to the diocesan convention to pass resolutions against the evils of slavery. It never did, because, as Jay reminded them, the diocese was supported and funded by the mercantile interests tied up with the trade. An article in The Times in 1860 named New York as the largest slave market in the world, as captives brought from Africa to the city were sold to traders who took them to the South.


IN 2006, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention called on all its dioceses to investigate and report back on the part they had played in slavery and its aftermath of discrimination and segregation. The diocese of New York responded by creating a Reparations Committee to collect and document its findings.

The Bishop of New York, the Rt Revd Andrew Dietsche, says that they came as a shock for many: “We have a huge bit of our history which has been lost and forgotten — sometimes intentionally. Most people think of slavery as entirely a Southern matter, so they’ve been surprised to find the extent of slavery in New York State.”

The Reparations Committee went on to propose a three-year programme of lamentation, repentance, and apology, and reparation in the diocese.

“The Year of Lamentation offered many different cultural and artistic opportunities to explore the weight of human suffering that marked the institution of slavery,” Bishop Dietsche says. “It was an opportunity for black and white Christians to grieve together. Many people made that journey and were transformed by it.”


THE diocese is now midway through the Year of Repentance and Apology. At St Marks-in-the-Bowery, in the East Village neighbourhood of Manhattan, repentance for slavery has been made an explicit part of the liturgy.

Built in 1799 on the site of a Dutch Reform chapel, St Mark’s incorporates the family vault of Petrus Stuyvesant, who died in 1672. Stuyvesant, according to a 1792 inscription, was “late captain general and governor of Amsterdam in New Netherlands now known as New York”: the largest landowner in Manhattan, and a slave owner.

In its weekly liturgy, the congregation acknowledges before God “the pervasive presence of racism in our country’s origins, in our institutions and politics, in our diocese and its churches, and in our hearts”, and goes on to repent of “the many ways — social, economic, and political — that white supremacy has accrued benefits to some of us at the expense of others.”

Cynthia Copeland, a member of the congregation at St Mark’s and a co-chair of the diocesan Reparations Committee, says that the adoption of the liturgy has exposed deep hurt and rifts in the congregation.

“Some people are new to conversations about white supremacy, privilege, and power, and it’s difficult to talk about what that means. Those who have most trouble are those who take it personally; no one wants to be accused of being racist. It’s only when we reframe it and say, ‘Look, we are all part of a system, we all breathe the same air,’ that people can start to relax and really engage.”


CANON Eve Pitts, the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Birchfield, in Birmingham, says that there remains a reluctance to talk about such issues in the Church of England (News, 29 July 2016).

“I’ve said to a number of bishops over the years, ‘Whether you like it or not, you are part of my history.’ I’m not convinced that the Church is ready to have honest conversations about slavery, and, until it’s ready to engage with black communities on the subject, it’s difficult to talk about repentance.”

ROSIE DAWSONThe Bishop of New York, the Rt Revd Andrew Dietsche

The Church of England’s General Synod issued an apology for slavery in 2006, ahead of the bicentennial commemorations of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire (News, 10 February 2006).

The General Secretary of USPG, Duncan Dormor, says that the commemorations overall failed to do much more than tell the stories of white abolitionists, rather than of the resistance of the enslaved, and of black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano.

This was a concern shared by the Vicar of Emmanuel, Forest Gate, the Revd Chigor Chike, who published a book, Voices from Slavery, the following year, to redress it (News, 15 February 2019).

Dr Dormor believes that the country suffers from “a collective, deliberate amnesia about slavery in Britain” (News, 22 March).

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, as it was then called, owned the Codrington plantations in Barbados, branded its slaves, and, when emancipations came, paid compensation not to the slaves but to slaveowners such as the Bishop of Exeter.


THE question of reparations for slavery has recently resurfaced on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, the conversation is taking place in the context of the race for the Democratic nomination for the White House. Several of the candidates, including Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and the writer Marianne Williamson support the idea in principle.

The University of Cambridge made headlines last month when it announced an inquiry into its historical links to slavery. Glasgow University is establishing a centre for the study of slavery as part of a reparative-justice programme, while the chair of governors at East London University has called on all universities who benefited from slavery to contribute to a grant fund for black and ethnic minority students.

“I think universities and churches are well placed to take the lead in this discussion,” Mr Dormor says. “The universities have the advantage of discipline in searching for truth, and churches — in theory — start from the premise of priority of relationship. My concern with reparations more widely is that you can send money as if that is enough, but still continue oppressive patterns of relationship. The primary concern has to be relationship.”

Bishop Dietsche and Ms Copeland both say that it is too early to know what reparations might mean for the New York diocese. “But apology without cost to it or action would be empty,” the Bishop says. “Undoubtedly there will be an economic aspect, but another element may simply be to recognise how clergy of colour don’t get what we might call the career-advancement positions in our Church, and to take a deeper look at how we repair the processes by which we deploy them.

“It may be that, as a Church, we are a bit ahead on some of those conversations. I don’t know the degree to which the Church has influence in the larger culture at all. But what we are doing is changing the lives of people inside the Church, and, if they carry their new learning out in the world, then we may be making a difference which is hard to quantify, but which is really how the Church exercises the gospel in the world, which is through the lives and witness of ordinary people.”

“We were supposed to be about love and freedom and respect for the dignity of the human being,” Fr Nathanael says. “We have not always been respectful — and still that is the case. So it’s a story in the making.”


Rosie Dawson is a freelance religion journalist and Assistant Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation.

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