Editor’s note: An updated version of this post can be viewed here.
I often write about the movers and shakers of the 19th and early 20th century Brooklyn — they could be fascinating, and in their own ways, thoroughly modern people. Some of their names grace our streets, our schools, businesses and other buildings.
Most, however, are gone and forgotten, in spite of glowing like torches during their own times.
Rufus Lewis Perry, Senior and his son, also Rufus L. Perry, were quite newsworthy in their day. Between the two of them, their names appeared often in the Brooklyn papers between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression.
During those years, they were the topics of pride, envy, derision, scorn and grudging admiration. Why? Their accomplishments were impressive and many.
But for too many Brooklynites, this proud father and son were too smart for their own good, too uppity, and too grandiose; not exhibiting the proper humility expected from two sons of Africa. But that never stopped them.
Rev. Dr. Rufus L. Perry, Senior. Photo: New York Public Library
Rufus Lewis Perry, Senior was the son of a slave, and was enslaved himself as a child. He was born in 1834 to Lewis Perry and a woman named Maria. Her last name has been lost to history.
Lewis and Maria were slaves on the Smith County, Tennessee plantation of Archibald W. Overton. Perry was a gifted mechanic and cabinetmaker. Because of his skills, he was able to hire himself out as a craftsman.
Instead of staying on the plantation, he was able to move his family to Nashville, where he worked independently, but with all of his earnings going back to Overton. This illusion of freedom for skilled craftsmen was not unheard of for slaves in many areas. It was not offered to all.
Young Rufus Perry was regarded as emancipated, and was eligible to attend a school for free blacks, where he learned to read and write.
But in 1841, his father couldn’t resist the lure of freedom, and took off for Canada, leaving his wife and child behind. Archibald Overton was furious, and brought Maria and young Rufus back to the plantation. For the first time in his young life, Rufus Perry was a slave.
Although young, he was educated, which made him dangerous. Ten long years later, he was sold to a slave trader who was going to take him further south to Mississippi. Young Rufus knew that if that happened, he was lost forever.
Three weeks later, he saw his chance, and escaped, successfully traveling north with the aid of the Underground Railroad, over the Canadian border to Windsor, Ontario.
He was able to enroll in school and further his education, and took a job teaching other fugitive slaves. In 1854, he decided to go into the ministry. He was accepted at the Kalamazoo Seminary in Michigan, and was ordained in 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War. He later went on to receive a PhD in religious studies.
Rufus Perry was the pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and later pastor of churches in St. Catherine’s, Ontario and Buffalo, NY. By 1870, he had moved to Brooklyn, where he organized the Messiah Baptist Church, which he pastored until his death.
Perry home, 999 St. Marks Avenue. 1888 map, New York Public Library
He and his wife, Charlotte Handy — whom he had met and married in Canada — settled in at 999 St. Marks Avenue, with their soon-to-be family of seven children. The house was a free standing wood framed house with an extension and an out building in the back. It appears in this 1888 map.
Their house was directly across the street from the St. Johns Home for Boys, in Crown Heights, where the Albany Houses are today. Interestingly, they were one of three black families on this block when the 1880 census was taken.
Messiah Baptist Church stood on Dean Street, between Troy and Schenectady Avenues, also in Crown Heights. This entire area was the westernmost boundary of the Weeksville community. The church was near the Howard Colored Orphans Asylum, the Colored School, and several other black churches. An 1888 map shows the church.
“African Baptist Church” – 1888 map, New York Public Library
For the next twenty years, the Rev. Dr. Rufus Perry was one of the leading voices in Brooklyn’s African American community. In fact, his influence went well beyond the city.
Between 1867 and 1879 he was the Corresponding Secretary of the Consolidated American Baptist Missionary Convention, (CABMC) a large African American Baptist Mission organization. He was also co-editor of two publications for CABMC; the American Baptist and the National Monitor.
Perry was a powerful voice for the organization, a counterpoint to the often paternalistic attitudes of the white Baptist organizations that worked with Southern freedmen. CABMC felt that black missionaries and workers should be in the forefront of teaching former slaves.
During this same time period, Dr. Perry was also the Vice President of the board that managed the National Theological Institute and University, in Washington, DC. This school was founded in 1864 to train black Baptist ministers.
As important as that goal was, the school failed in 1872 because of infighting between the black administrators and their white financial sponsors. One of those sponsors, a man named Justin D. Fulton, tried to get Perry removed from the board of CABMC, implicating him in some financial malfeasance.
However the allegations were never substantiated and Perry was cleared. But the damage was done, and CABMC disbanded in 1879. Black Baptists would not organize again until after Perry’s death in 1895, when they organized the National Baptist Convention, which still exists today.
Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. Brooklyn Public Library
The Brooklyn Eagle had a robust religious readership. The paper could be counted on to chronicle the religious activities of a growing Catholic Church, as well as the activities of the many mainline Protestant churches in the city. They also had a growing readership of Jewish congregants.
The paper often printed excerpts of sermons, or wrote articles summarizing talks given by all sorts of religious leaders. Many of Brooklyn’s clergy were quite well known outside of their own houses of worship.
They kept up with the African American population as well, surprisingly enough. The paper had an “Afro-American News” page, where church news was often disseminated.
Dr. Perry was well-known enough to transcend the Afro-American page, although they usually wrote “colored” when mentioning Messiah Baptist. He was often quoted along with the other famous ministers of the day. His sermons were also summarized or printed verbatim.
In 1893, the Embury Methodist Episcopal Church on Schenectady Avenue and Herkimer Street was moving to their new church on the corner of Lewis Avenue at Decatur Street. They sold their old building to Dr. Perry’s Messiah Baptist Church. Unfortunately, the building is no longer standing today.
In addition to everything else, Dr. Perry edited several publications for black Baptists, including The People’s Journal and a magazine called the Sunbeam. He supported the Baptist missions to Haiti, and wrote a book.
His book, “The Cushite: or the Descendant of Ham as Seen by Ancient Historians and Poets” was published in 1893. It was an important work combining African history, Classical writings, and black Freemasonry to produce one of the earliest works of black cultural nationalism.
He argued that the ancient Egyptians and Ethiopians were the black descendants of the Biblical Ham, and were destined for greatness again, as were their modern day descendants and the African people.
In June of 1895, the Brooklyn Eagle announced that Dr. Perry was dying. He was in a coma after being ill for a few weeks, and was not going to recover. The paper called him a “Colored Clergyman of Considerable Local Note.”
He died on June 18, 1895, at the age of 61. The Eagle gave him full honors, including an illustration to accompany his lengthy obituary. They told of his childhood, his escape to freedom, and his many accomplishments as a preacher, teacher and educator.
It was quite an obituary, especially considering how poorly the Eagle generally treated most members of Brooklyn’s African American community.
His body lay in state at Messiah Baptist. The funeral was a private affair at the home, and the burial took place under the auspices of Concord Baptist Church, one of Brooklyn’s leading African American Baptist churches.
Dr. Perry imparted his considerable intellect and pride of people to his children. His oldest son, Rufus L. Perry, Junior would soon be a chip of the old block. He was already a lawyer practicing in Brooklyn when his father died. His story has just begun.
Top photo: Weeksville houses, Brooklyn Public Library