Lynn Blue, minister of music at Poplar Springs Baptist Church near Richmond, is interested in his family’s history and shared with the Virginia Baptist Historical Society an overlooked story about one of his ancestors.
Blue grew up in Richmond and heard family stories from his great-aunt, Florence “Flossie” Leach Wiltshire, whom the family nicknamed “Shoshe.” She was a member of Pine Street Baptist Church in Richmond, and when Lynn’s father came to Richmond as a young man, he stayed with his aunt. The young man was Presbyterian but staying with “Shoshe” brought him and eventually his family into the Baptist fold.
In going through some of the family’s mementoes, Lynn discovered the story of his great-great grandfather, Daniel Fowler Leach. In 1870 during Reconstruction, Leach came South from New York where he was an official “Exploring Missionary” for the Baptist State Convention of New York. He settled on a farm in Southside Virginia and began to minister to the newly-freed blacks of the area. He brought with him his wife, Levantia, and their younger children.
For nine years, 1872-1881, he served the rural counties of Mecklenburg, Lunenburg and Charlotte under the auspices of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. A biographical sketch written by his son attests that Daniel Leach was “training colored preachers, ordaining pastors, assisting the churches to get houses of worship, gathering them into associations, and guiding them in associational work.” The stats show that Leach planted five churches, preached 1,193 sermons, and baptized 1,089 men and women.
Imagine the situation. In the years immediately following emancipation, Virginia Baptists — white and black — found their world turned upside down. With emancipation, the formerly enslaved were free to remain or to leave, and many walked away from the farms and plantations where they had labored. Some stayed in the only place they knew. Either way, they had nothing.
Julia Wilbur came South immediately after the War in mid-1865 and reported what she discovered for the Rochester (N.Y.) Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. She brought barrels of clothing and other provisions for the freed people. She found that the almshouse in Richmond was “a receiving place for those who have been driven from their homes by their masters.” She wrote: “As soon as the slaves were made free by the advance of the Union army, the masters refused to keep the old and disabled who had been worn out in their service, and sent them to this place to die. They also turned out the sick and the young children. Some of the old people looked more like moving bundles of rags than like human beings.” She distributed 600 new garments.
The post-war attitude of white Virginia Baptists was mixed. With the old order gone, they wrestled with a new order which had not yet been formed. Some encouraged blacks to remain in the churches. Some wanted to recreate the old order. Some helped the blacks form new churches. Some showed them the door.
Northern “do-gooders” like Julia Wilbur or Daniel Leach were resented by most whites. Leach’s son, Henry Curtis Leach, who also became a minister, noted that “when [father] first began to labor among the colored people, he and his family shared with other workers from the North a good deal of social and religious ostracism.” Imagine the scenario: Living in the isolated countryside of Virginia and identifying yourself with former slaves. It was difficult enough for a man, but consider what it must have been like for his wife. Henry remembered that his mother “shared her husband’s labors, privations and hardships.”
In time, white Baptists in the area accepted Leach and acknowledged his good work. In 1878 the Concord Baptist Association met at Boydton, and when the subject of the Ministers’ Relief Fund was under discussion, Leach addressed the association on the subject. Immediately afterwards, another white pastor made the following motion: “That this Association is in full sympathy with our esteemed brother, D.F. Leach … and that we bid him God-speed in his work and cordially recommend him to the sympathy of our brethren.” The outcast had been accepted.
In 1889, at age 72, which was ancient for the times, Leach was still preaching about twice a month, without pay, and teaching a class of men. Near the end of his life, the old man reflected: “I find much to be thankful for and in myself much to regret. Some lessons I have learned slowly and some I have not yet learned well. But God is merciful and I can trust him.”
Generations came and went. One of Leach’s sons, Alutus, lived at the homeplace and this is the line from which Lynn Blue descends. The family which had been ostracized in Reconstruction became socially accepted. Alutus became a member of local white churches and was regarded “as one of our truest and best men.” By 1877 he was a delegate to the meeting of the Concord Association of which he became treasurer and served on the local school board.
Three more generations and Blue enters the family chart. He remembers the great-aunt —“Shoshe” — who regaled the family with its own history. In time, Blue felt led into church music. He studied at the University of Richmond and at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has served churches in the areas of music, youth and education in Kentucky, Georgia, West Virginia and Virginia. Leach’s kinfolks, including Blue, have made contributions to the communities in which they have lived.
Much pre- and post-Civil War Virginia Baptist history was told by and about white Baptists who had been loyal to the old order. Only in recent years have the stories of African-American Baptists been repeated to larger audiences.
The stories of white Baptists from “up north” help supply some of the missing pieces of our common history. They have been an overlooked story until now.
Fred Anderson ([email protected]) is executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies.