Challenging America’s “Most Segregated Hour”
Half a century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King said 11 a.m. on Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation.” The segregation persists: a 2015 poll found that 53% of churchgoers disagreed with the statement “we need to be more ethnically diverse.” Almost 9 of 10 (86%) of clergy reported congregations are comprised mainly of one racial group.
Asheville’s St. Matthias Episcopal Church has vigorously fought this segregation. Its predominantly African American congregation decided to be “an intentionally diverse and inclusive family of faith” and acted on it. On any given Sunday at 11 a.m., St. Matthias may be the most integrated place in Asheville.
Ironically, St. Matthias community began in 1865 with resources and assistance from slave-holding white Confederate officers: Capt. Thomas Patton and General James Martin, who were members of Trinity Episcopal Church. Capt. Patton donated land for the current church site on Dundee Street. It was called “The Freedmen’s Church.”
In 1870, Trinity created the first school providing formal education for blacks in Asheville. (Slaves had been forbidden to learn how to read and write by North Carolina law.) In 1894, the Freedmen’s Church became St. Matthias when the current brick structure was consecrated.
St. Matthias has been fertile ground for African American leadership in Asheville. James Vester Miller, who built the municipal building now housing the police and fire departments, the old post office, and other public buildings and churches (including St. Matthias), was born a slave and became a member of the congregation.
Isaac Dickson, who was central in establishing Asheville’s public school system and was perhaps the first black to serve on a school board in North Carolina, was a member. Francine Delany, the first African American to graduate from what is now UNCA, was a member.
David Jones, Jr., who led the city’s Public Housing Authority for over 30 years is a member, as is retired Mission Health System Vice President William (Bill) Mance.
St. Matthias women have not only enjoyed successful careers, but risen to leadership positions in the Episcopal Diocese. Barbara Jones was the first woman Senior Warden and Glenda McDowell became the first African American woman to be ordained a Deacon.
St. Matthias will open its doors to all of Asheville to celebrate its 150-year history of uplifting the African American community and promoting diversity at 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 23 at the church on 1 Dundee Street, across from the Public Works Building on Charlotte Street.