A Sermon for Deaconess Alexander’s Feast Day
The Rev. Canon Frank Logue have this sermon at the Diocese of Georgia Fall Clergy Conference in the Chapel of Our Savior at Honey Creek on September 28, 2015
The Subversive Act of Teaching
A sermon for the feast of Deaconess Alexander
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Teaching was a subversive act. Teaching changes attitudes and opinions. Not everyone wanted change. So the State of Georgia punished teaching enslaved Africans to read with heavy fines and imprisonment.
“Merely teaching them to read, ‘impairs their value as slaves, for it instantly destroys their contentedness.” Fanny Kemble wrote this to a friend in an 1839 letter from Butler Plantation near Darien. She was quoting her husband Pierce Butler. She went on with his words, “A slave is ignorant; he eats, drinks, sleeps, labours, and is happy. He learns to read; he feels, thinks, reflects, and becomes miserable.”
Frances Anne Kemble had been a stage actress that could be rightly acclaimed an international star. Fanny retired from the theatre on marrying Pierce Butler in 1834. Some years later, she visited Butler Plantation and St. Simons Island in a visit her slave-owning husband hoped would rid Fanny of her abolitionist bent. She describes less a Plantation ideal and more accurately a forced-labor camp.
In an 1839 letter during the same visit, Fanny wrote in a letter, “I have been delighted, surprised, and the very least perplexed, by the sudden petition on the part of our young waiter [and slave] Aleck, that I will teach him to read. He is a very intelligent lad of about sixteen, and preferred his request with an urgent humility that was very touching…. I will do it; and yet, it is simply breaking the laws of the government under which I am living. Unrighteous laws are made to be broken – perhaps.”
She later wrote that Aleck “takes an extreme interest in his newly acquired alphabetical lore. He is a very quick and attentive scholar, and I should think a very short time would suffice to teach him to read; but, alas! I have not even that short time.” Aleck was smart and determined. Unknown to Fanny, who would never return to Georgia, the young man did continue to teach himself to read. In a few years he became indispensable and moved from household staff to becoming his owner’s personal aid. He traveled with Mr. Butler and “was not disputed in hotels in Savannah or Charleston.” Just two years after Fanny’s visit, Aleck married Daphne, an enslaved house servant who was herself the product of the overseer’s rape of a woman named Minda, from the island of Madagascar.
Daphne and Aleck would have 11 children who came to share their parents’ passion for education. The youngest they named Anna Ellison Butler Alexander. She is the Anna whose feast we celebrate today.
Anna was, like her parents and siblings, a confirmed Episcopalian. Frustrated that she could not teach about faith and generally dissatisfied by public education, she and her sisters Mary and Dora founded a school at St. Cyprian’s Church in Darien. Though forty rough miles from Pennick by road, boats could access Darien more easily. After what she thought of as a providential coincidence, Anna attended a service at St. Athanasius’ Episcopal Church in Brunswick which led to a conversation with lay reader Charles Shaw which sparked the dream of a mission church in Pennick, the community her parents had settled in after emancipation.
By 1894, Anna Alexander, along with Hattie Forester Stafford, and Pierce Butler Alexander founded Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, meeting first in a Baptist Church. Within two weeks she had six children to present for baptism and in 1902, Anna founded the Good Shepherd Parochial School.
In 1907 at a service at Good Shepherd Thomasville as a part of the Convention for Colored Episcopalians, Bishop C.K. Nelson set Anna aside as a deaconess. He wrote in his diary for May 3 of that year, “Admitted as Deaconess Anna E. B. Alexander, a devout, godly and respected colored woman, to serve as teacher and helper in the Mission of the Good Shepherd, Pennick, Ga.” She would be the only African American to serve as a deaconess.
Her ministry coincided completely with the segregation of this Diocese. The Diocese of Georgia segregated its convention in 1906, creating the Council of Colored Churchmen the year before she was set aside as a deaconess. The conventions were reunited in 1947, the year of Deaconess Alexander’s death.
In speaking with those who remember the Deaconess, a member of Good Shepherd asked another if he remembered when even after the conventions were integrated they still had to sit in the balcony for convention. “I never understood that,” he said. Another member shot back, “That was segregation. You understood exactly what that was.” The first member said, “No, this was my church. I never understood it.”
During the segregated conventions, work of colored congregations largely went unremarked. In his 1930 convention address, Bishop F.F. Reese, the longest serving Bishop of Georgia, to tell the convention of the work of Deaconess Alexander. He said, “She has been school teacher, friend, and helper of the poor and ignorant, and a witness to the whole neighborhood, of the truth and love of God, as she has learned of Him through the Church.”
He told the all white congregation of “the faith and courage and persistency of this good woman.” He added, “I think that it is proper and just that I should make this notice, because this woman is entitled to it, and because her example is a good and encouraging one to all of us.”
Our reading from Second Timothy states, “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”
Anna Ellison Butler Alexander lived in an unfavorable time. And yet against the odds her parents thrived, raising 11 children who valued learning. Then Anna convinced, rebuked, and encouraged her fellow African Americans with the utmost patience across 53 years of ministry. Throughout her ministry, education remained a subversive act.
She prodded many of her students to further their educations at St. Paul College in Virginia, St. Augustine College in North Carolina, Voorhees College in South Carolina, and Fort Valley State University in Georgia. Her ministry was so successful that the thriving black community of Pennick depopulated. That only a small congregation now worship at Good Shepherd is part of The Deaconess’ legacy of raising up her community. As a former student told me of those she taught, “All of them I can remember and I can remember way back to some who were grown men when I was a boy, and all of them tried to better their lives.” These were, he said, students who would have gone to the wayside if not for the Deaconess.
Deaconess Alexander also taught the children how to act. She had to teach them this for their safety. One student told me of how she said “When somebody calls you, stop right there and see what they want. Don’t make them call you twice.” She then explained to her students how she was once in the McIntosh County bus station in Darien with another traveler. The man went to restroom and Deaconess Alexander told her students she called out to him, but he did not pay her any attention. He was a colored man she said and he was going into the restroom for white men. She said, “Come here. Come here.” She tried to warn him, but he wouldn’t pay her any attention. She told her students it was luck that they were the only two in the station and nothing bad happened. She warned her students of the danger that had been present that day when he failed to listen. Real trouble could have followed.
The danger remains. Black teachers still warn their students of color to be careful of their actions. They have to teach this. The list of things blacks better not do that whites would never consider just grows, concerns well beyond now wearing a hoodie or selling loose cigarettes. For persons of color, we still live in dangerous times.
Y’all read the news. I don’t have to draw the diagram between from slavery to lynching to mass incarceration and grossly disproportionate use of the death penalty. Everything is different in so many ways, but so little has changed in others. Yet many people can not see the connection. They need to be taught if they are to have the eyes to see the link. This is not a political message, but a Gospel message. Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself is bound up in justice. Being more concerned about the other person than yourself is how Jesus lived and what he taught. And as his followers, we dare not shrink back from standing up against injustice.
We the clergy of the Diocese of Georgia are heirs to both the sin of racism and the call of Deaconess Alexander. We can not remain silent. In the words of our epistle, “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”
But know this. Teaching changes things and not everyone wants change. Teaching remains a subversive act.
Interviews with some of Deaconess Alexander’s former students, some portions of which are found in this video created by Frank Logue: Deaconess Alexander video
Fanny Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1961)
Saltzgaber, Jan McM., A Saint in Georgia: A brief narrative of the life and work of the Deaconess Anna Ellison Butler Alexander, 2000 http://georgiaepiscopal.org/docs/DeaconessAlexander.pdf