Southern Dinners and Plantation Melodies | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Southern Dinners and Plantation Melodies

Aug 3, 2019

The Second Baptist Church, Bismarck, North Dakota, organized in 1917 to serve the African-American residents of the city, some of whom previously had attended the predominantly white First Methodist Episcopal Church--now known as McCabe United Methodist Church.

Immediate impetus for organization of Second Baptist came from a series of rally meetings led by a visiting female evangelist, Mrs. O. G. Snellgro, early in the year. On May 3, 1917, the Bismarck Tribune announced, “The second Baptist church (or colored church) is now a reality in Bismarck.” A soliciting committee raised $534.40 to purchase a residential bungalow at 305 South 8th Street which was remodeled as a church.

This Rev. Snellgro is a shadowy figure. She came from a town in Nevada, where she had been a church organizer and had become controversial on account of matters of finance. In Bismarck and thereafter she always said she was from California. She successfully left behind her history in Nevada--which comes to light now with benefit of digital search capacity. After her sojourn in Bismarck she went on to other eastern and southern cities, achieving some celebrity for making prophecies about the outcome of the Great War.

The Lord works in mysterious ways, for after the Snellgro meetings, the black citizens of Bismarck bestirred themselves to organize Second Baptist Church. Later they would credit their origins to their first pastor, Rev. Moseley W. Withers--but he was not there at the beginning, he came out later in the year from St. Paul.

It was laypersons who did the organizing, indeed, mainly women--including the widow and laundress, Mary Spriggs, and Mrs. Jessie Coleman, wife of the only African American businessman in Bismarck, George H. Coleman. They raised $534.40 to purchase a residential bungalow at 305 South 8th Street which was remodeled for a church. (The site is now a parking lot, directly across the street east of the present Bisman Community Food Co-op.)

Second Baptist punched above its weight on the Bismarck community scene, its church dinners getting considerable ink in the local press. On 2 June 1921 the Tribune marked the service of a “truly high class dinner,” a “regular southern dinner . . . with Chicken a la Maryland, boiled ham, apple dumplings, peach cobbler, and all the rest of it.”

For the city’s loyalty rally in June 1918, Mrs. D. E. Beasley, the pastor’s wife, chaired the committee on arrangements, and the church ladies served refreshments. White community members also were drawn to Second Baptist events and services by the music, which featured, as the newspaper said, “the old plantation melodies.”

Although the surrounding community and its press may have considered the church and its activities matters of picturesque interest, its members consciously strove to better their standing through constructive engagement. One congregational leader told a reporter in 1920 that they hoped to “bring about a better understanding of the moral, social and industrial conditions of the race.”

Which brings us to the question: Why did the black citizens of Bismarck want their own church, rather than continuing to attend a predominantly white church? Why did they, we might say, self-segregate? I cannot answer this definitely from the historical sources, but I think we can understand the desire to create a space for the perpetuation of culture and the expression of identity through worship. More than doctrinal distinctions, these are the things that define denominations.

~Tom Isern