I first saw the First Freewill Baptist Church of Pennytown on a hot summer day in August 1988. I was there at the request of a local historian, the late Josephine Lawrence. During the course of several phone conversations, Josephine had gently insisted that I must come and see the last remaining building in the once-thriving village of Pennytown - her home town.
I found Josephine Lawrence much more impressive than the church building. The church was a small, badly deteriorated structure constructed of hollow terra cotta block. Josephine was a petite, plump, black woman with an angelic countenance, which gave her an appearance much younger than her years. She exuded charm without artifice - the natural warmth of a pure spirit. And she told me the story of Pennytown.
Pennytown's founder was Joe Penny, an ex-slave from Kentucky who arrived in Saline County in the late 1860s. Penny purchased eight acres of land south of Marshall. He paid white owner John Haggin the sum of $160 for his land and the deed was duly recorded. It was a rare business transaction - possibly the only instance at this early period of legal transfer of land to a freedman.
Penny then divided his land into small lots and sold them to other black settlers. More land was acquired over the years and similarly divided and sold. By 1900, the town consumed approximately 64 acres and had 40 families living in a dense collection of small frame houses. Pennytown also eventually contained two churches, a school, a store, and two communal lodges.
The first church building to be built on the same site began immediately following the fire. Pennytowners purchased hollow tile blocks a few at a time until they had accumulated enough to build the church. The construction was accomplished by church members, and the cornerstone was laid in 1926.
"Life was hard, but God was good," said Josephine of the years she spent in Pennytown. "There was never any money, but we worked together and helped each other." Pennytowners lived a semi-communal, semi-subsistence existence. Many chores were shared. Josephine remembered everyone pitching in to help with hog butchering, wood splitting, water carrying, and building projects. And because all women over the age of 14 worked away from home during the day, the women who were too old to work cooperated in childrearing as well.
Life was hard for post-Civil War black Missourians. Most lived in fear of their white neighbors - murders, beatings, rapes, and robberies were not uncommon. All of these tragedies also happened at Pennytown but probably less frequently than elsewhere in the state.
Pennytowners generally had an uneasy truce with their white neighbors. As a group, they were vitally important to Saline County's plantation economy, providing the same farm and household labor pool they had provided as slaves.
Their importance to the former slave-holding gentry provided Pennytown's citizens with some measure of security in post-Civil War Missouri. More important, perhaps, was the leadership of Joe Penny and his insistence that the residents hold legal title to their Pennytown property. There were attempts from time to time to deprive Pennytowners of their property, by one sort of chicanery or another, but their legal titles prevented this. The citizens of other freemen's hamlets were not as fortunate. Nor were residents of the black ghettos in Missouri's towns and cities, where blacks could be evicted at the whim of the white property owner.
(Photo by Lynn Morrow) The population of Pennytown began to decline in the late 1920s along with falling farm prices. Pennytown men began traveling farther and farther from home to find farm work, and many eventually moved their families away. By this time, the purchase of property in urban areas had become easier for black citizens, and several families had purchased property in Marshall. The last families left Pennytown in 1943, leaving only the elderly who died there.
As Pennytowners took up residence elsewhere in order to have better jobs and better education for their children, they also sought to establish a connection with the past. At the end of World War II, former Pennytowners organized an annual homecoming to be held on the first Sunday in August.
For nearly 50 years, homecoming has ben held at the last building still owned by Pennytowners - the First Freewill Baptist Church. And each year, Pennytowners and their descendants gather there to sing long-remembered spirituals and illuminate the past for younger generations. The little church grew frail over the years; it lost its windows to vandals, its roof to the elements, the mortar holding it together crumbled, and it began to collapse. But still the Pennytowners assembled there annually to stand on the front lawn and stare up at the church in awe. It was, they believed, the very embodiment of their history.
In 1980, Josephine Lawrence began the lengthy process of bringing national recognition to the Pennytown church, believed by many historians to be the last of its type in Missouri. Using her collection of historic documents and uncanny memory for detail, a nomination was prepared, and the church was finally listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
Pennytown men posed for a rare photo ca 1890s. Town founder Joe Penny stands center. Note the houses of Pennytown in the background. (Photo courtesy Josephine Lawrence Collection. [Permission for electronic display is being requested. Taylor])
As we concluded our visit on that hot day in August, Josephine told me she was going to begin in earnest a fundraising campaign to restore the church. "How will you raise such a large amount of money?" I asked. "With the Lord's help," she replied, "with the Lord's help, I know we can do it."
Josephine began her fundraising for the church, "the Pennytown way." Quilts were hand stitched and raffled, dinners held, pastries baked and sold, and a Pennytown cookbook produced. At every street festival, county fair, or church supper in Saline County, Pennytowners were there, raising money to save their church. By the time of Josephine's death in 1992, the group had raised nearly half of the estimated $35,00 necessary for the church building's restoration.
Josephine's daughter Virginia Houston took charge of the fundraising effort following her mother's death. She said the group now has more than $18,000 in its Marshall bank account; she too has faith that their fundraising goal will be reached and the church restored.
The First Freewill Baptist Church of Pennytown is a registered not-for-profit organization with the state of Missouri. Donations may be tax-deductible. For more information about the "Pennytown Project," write or call Dr. Daniel Fahnestock, 269 S. Jefferson, Marshall, MO 65340, (816) 886-6903 or Virginia Houston, 770 W. Clara, Apt. 1, Marshall, MO 65340, (816)886-8418