Welcome to African American History Month

Welcome to St. John’s Celebration of African American History Month, we are celebrating our history because Absalom Jones who resisted segregation when he and other Blacks were asked to sit in a segregated section of his church after the White members became uncomfortable with the growing number of Blacks in the congregation of the church. He along with Richard Allen left that church and he eventually became the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church. We are also celebrating this month because Carter G. Woodson is known as the father of Black History. He inaugurated Negro History Week because he was an educator who knew the importance of persons knowing their history. He wanted history to be taught so that no one’s history is left out. His vision was to honor our ancestors, celebrate Black Culture, and acknowledge the pain and suffering we continue to endure. That week of celebration eventually became Black History Month in 1970.

I would like to brief you on the origins of our Black History Celebration here at St. John’s. First, let me introduce myself. I am Canon Earl L. Mounger, I was born into a Black Baptist family in MS. I will give you more information about the Black Baptist Church in a moment.  I joined Trinity Episcopal Church in Hattiesburg, MS in 1979. After graduating in 1981, I moved to Pasadena where I attended All Saints Pasadena for three years before moving to Silverlake and attending St. James Wilshire for two years before visiting St. John’s. By the time I became a member in 1986, the church was at the end of its transition from a majority White to a majority Black congregation.  The parish had called its first Black rector, Father Warner Traynham, two years earlier. It was my first time being in a congregation where the majority of the parishioners looked like me.

Around 1991 a group of choir members decided to do a fundraiser for the choir and the organ restoration, to Celebrate Black History Month.  It was to be a separate service that took place in the afternoon of the last Sunday in February. Our expressed purpose was to come together to celebrate Black Culture through poetry, dance, and music. The first program relied on the choir’s performance of Negro Spirituals and excerpts of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha or better known as the “Ragtime Opera.” The highlight of the program was Father Traynham’s charismatic reading of a classic sermon. This style of preaching was a departure from Father Traynham’s usual intellectual style of preaching. The program was such a success that the congregation requested that we repeat it again the following year. It became an annual event in 1993.

Over the years I became responsible for producing the program. The event evolved over the years to include gospel since our choir didn’t perform gospel I brought in groups like the Mary Linn Foundation Singers, a group of recovering alcoholics who were directed by Thrish Turner a former singer with Duke Ellington, The Gregory Jones Ministries Singers, and the Episcopal Chorale. Dance was provided by some of our talented dancers from the Welch family including Deshawn Ford, Velma Ford’s son who was a gifted tap dancer. I also brought in professional and semi-professional dance groups including Francis Awe African Drummer a Dancer, The Brazil Cultural Center performed Capoeira, an Afro- Brazilian martial arts with elements of dance acrobatics, music, and spirituality. Lula Washington Dance Company, Ms. Washington was a consultant for choreography for the first Avatar movie and the Founder of the dance company of majority Black dancers. After Father Traynham’s retirement, thanks to one of our members, Oz Scott, a director, we brought in professional actors to read and act out the sermon. I also added professional Jazz musicians.

I tried to always work around a theme each year. The program always included a Welcome/Occasion, a classic collected prayer, and collected Negro Folklore was added especially for the children because they always included a moral lesson, slave narratives were included so we never forget what our ancestors endured. Civil Rights were included as a reminder of our struggle for equal rights. Negro Spirituals and gospel music rounded out the program with the sermon being the highlight of the program. You can see highlights of one of our early programs on the resource page.

In 2009 because of an injury to my spine and the church was no longer available in the afternoon, it began to rent the church to another congregation.  The Committee decided to begin our observance of The Feast of Absalom Jones, the first Black priest in the Episcopal Church. The first Absalom Jones Service was held on the second Sunday in February 2009 the guest preacher was Malcolm Boyd, a Civil Rights Activist and personal friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This brings me back to my promise to give more about my Baptist upbringing. In the Black Church. Any special occasion in the church always included a Welcome Address, The Occasion Address, and Acceptance from a visitor.

It is my duty as chairperson of this year’s African American History Month planning committee to present the Welcome/Occasion Address for this year’s Celebration.

On behalf of the planning committee (Canon Lurelean Gaines, Marci Claire, Avie Kimbell, Bob Bowen, Velma Ford, Caleb Triche, Paul Adesokan, Felicia Gaddis  Gloria Flowers, and Deacon Margaret) I would like to welcome you to our celebration of African American History Month. Our theme this year is A Seat in the Kingdom: What Absalom Jones’s resistance to segregation means to the church today. This year in addition to Absalom Jones Sunday, we are expanding our activities to include a contemporary music Sunday with Jazz, and a Mardi Gras Dinner. Each week you can expect articles about the Black experience in the Episcopal church. Our Canon for music, Dr. Christopher Gravis is preparing an article on the Lift Every Voice and Sing II hymnal and its importance to the Episcopal Church, a few parishioners will write about what it means to be Black and Episcopalian. Felicia Gaddis is hard at work preparing a documentary on Blacks and their history here at St. John’s.  Expect to hear more information on how you can add your name to a new “Names Quilt”, a presentation from the Union of Black Episcopalians. We are proud to be a part of this diverse community and are happy to share a part of our African American Culture. It is our sincere hope that you will accept our offerings for this month’s African American History.