In Archery, a black man enjoyed the highest social and, our community believed, financial status. He was African Methodist Episcopal Bishop William Decker Johnson, whose primary religious responsibilities encompassed five Midwestern states. His home base was a combination private school, insurance company, and publishing company located across the railroad from St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church. The entire Plains community knew when Bishop Johnson was at home, and about once a year he invited our family and perhaps the Watsons to come to the worship service at St. Mark AME Church. In honor of his presence, a choir from Spelman College, or one of the other black institutions in Atlanta, would come down to sing, and the bishop would preach.
In addition to St. Mark AME Church and one still-occupied tenant house, the most important landmark in Archery now is one of the few historical markers erected in Georgia to commemorate important events or the lives of outstanding citizens. This one, in a couple of hundred words, recounts the notable contributions of a famous son, William Decker Johnson. (In one phrase, it also mentions that the thirty-ninth president of the United States was his neighbor.)
As a little boy, I was accustomed to the relatively sedate and time-constrained services of our own congregation at Plains Baptist Church, so our family's visits to St. Mark were strange experiences. The small white clapboard building was always overflowing with worshipers and would rock with music and with religious spirit far exceeding anything we ever experienced. We knew the words to many of the hymns, but we had to struggle to keep proper time with the strange, slow rhythms, with syllables often stretched into words, and words into entire verses. Soon, however, we would be rocking back and forth in harmony with the swaying bodies of the beautifully dressed choir behind the altar.
Bishop Johnson would preach, and his character seemed to change during his sermon. He was well educated and a master of the English language, but would shift to the vernacular of a semiliterate sharecropper when he wanted to emphasize a key point. His voice would sometimes become so soft that the congregation would lean forward to hear, and then he would erupt with a startling volume of sound. He used a singsong rhythm on occasion, even when quoting scripture, so that long-familiar words assumed a different meaning. There was no doubt that he dominated the consciousness of everyone in the church, and, at least during the sermon, the sense of being brothers and sisters in Christ wiped away any thoughts of racial differences. To me, he seemed the epitome of success and power.
At some time during the seemingly interminable service, when emotion was at a high point, everyone would line up and pass by the offering plates placed on a table immediately in front of the pulpit, and the church stewards would call out the amount of each offering. Daddy would always make a generous gift, acknowledged with clapping and amens from the congregation.
Bishop Johnson was certainly aware of the racial customs of the day, but he did not consider it appropriate to comply with all of them. It was understood, for instance, that he would not come to our front door when he wished to talk to my father -- but neither would he deign to come to the back. After ascertaining through a messenger that we were at home, he would arrive in his chauffeured black Packard or Cadillac, park in our front yard, and sound the horn. My father would go outside to the automobile for a conversation, while Bishop Johnson either stayed in the car or came out so the two men could stand together under the shade of a large magnolia tree. I don't remember that he ever came closer to our house. We could see them talking and laughing together, and afterward Daddy always said that they just exchanged ideas about the bishop's work and the farming situation around home.
Copyright © 2001 by Jimmy Carter
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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