“How long … not long,” said Martia G. Goodson, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King as she answered how long it took her to write “Church Ladies: Untold Stories of Harlem Women in the Powell Era” (Author House, 2015). She actually began working on the book in 1992, she added, “but not continuously.”
For more than a score of years, Goodson interviewed women with memories of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Abyssinian Baptist Church. A few of them must have been in the crowded room last Sunday afternoon at the Alma Rangel Gardens to hear her recount the making of the book.
Among her principal narrators are the late Susan Ware Craig, who many considered Abyssinian’s poet laureate; Bessie Nixon; Esther McCall, whose reflections are indispensable and cited in many books, including “Witness,” which chronicles the church’s history; Grace Jones; Helen Brown; and Fannie Pennington, who graces the book’s cover with Powell.
“No, she was not Adam’s wife,” Goodson explained, who then noted that Pennington’s grandson, Grant Reid, was in the audience. Reid, who supplied several photos of his grandmother for the book, was just one of a handful of men at the event.
That same photo opens Goodson’s chapter “Operation Takedown,” which deftly explores the vote by Congress in 1967 that removed Powell from the august body. Throughout this ordeal, church ladies such as Pennington were loyal and devoted, fighting with him right to the end. The mass media, including The New York Times, buried him, Goodson wrote. Though the paper declared he had “tossed away a chance to become a genuine force for building a better country,” the church ladies, Goodson said, “begged to differ.”
“Miz Pennington,” as Goodson called her, had a long affiliation with the church and was a member of Abyssinian before it moved to Harlem. “Her father worked at the church when it was in Midtown Manhattan,” Goodson wrote. “She grew up with Adam, whom she described as a ‘little light boy,’ although she was about the same skin color.”
The collective memories of the church ladies not only chronicle the church but provide an expansive template on Harlem’s history. This is particularly evident and engrossing while reading Helen Brown’s account of Casper Holstein, the renowned numbers king of Harlem, who financed many a charitable enterprise and scholarships for aspiring students. “You would never know he had a penny,” Brown told Goodson. “He put many people through college and never asked them for a dime.”
In his foreword to the book, even Adam Clayton Powell III was stunned by the revelations the church ladies disclosed about his family. “Seen from the perspective of the ladies of Abyssinia,” Powell observed, “my father and grandfather now emerge as ever more complex and interesting. Much of the book served as both a reminder of history and the adding of crucial background.”
Among the revelations Goodson distills—and she touched on this during her discussion at the Gardens—was the church’s connection to Vermont and how children were sent there for two weeks in the summer. But digging up arcane and stimulating minutiae is Goodson’s forte—a practice she demonstrated most rewardingly in her book “New York’s African Burial Ground,” an official guide to the historic site.
Whether digging below for our culture or stitching together the memories of those above ground, Goodson, who specializes in oral history, is a master storyteller. She knows when to get out of the way and let the church ladies talk. March 6, she will divulge more of this history at Abyssinian Baptist Church’s Vestry at 2 p.m.