Submitted by Dr. Harry Watson; Summary written by Kobe M. Brown; edited by Cheri Todd Molter
In 1865, Rev. L. S. Burkhead’s kept a personal account of his experiences and perceptions of events that occurred after he was appointed to the Front Street Methodist Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. The Front Street Methodist Church had both white and Black congregation members, and Burkhead claimed to be serving in the best interests of both. He stated that he urged his congregation members to “possess their souls in patience and peace and when the Union Army should reach Wilmington to carefully refrain from all extravagance” (page 49). In his recollections, Burkhead revealed his insecurities and his weariness at the thought of Black chaplains speaking from “his” pulpit and by the possibility that Black members might gain some control and have increased involvement at “his” church. He claimed that “Yankee” chaplains, even Black ones, might work hard to win the hearts of his congregation members, possibly even persuading them to leave the church (pg 50).
When the Union Army arrived in Wilmington, the entire city was placed under martial law, and Burkhead was ordered to give two sermons a day—one for white members at noon, and the other for Black members later in the afternoon. Around that time, Burkhead met with some of the Black members of the congregation and outlined what he expected of them as Black leaders of the church. Rev. Burkhead stated that he understood that some of his congregation members had never witnessed a Black person preach and that they wanted to have that experience (p 57). However, despite his claims that he served everyone’s best interests, it is evident that he hoped to maintain the boundaries that prohibited more inclusivity or Black empowerment.
After that meeting, Rev. Burkhead remained apprehensive that Black members were planning to organize their own speakers or perhaps even arranging to replace him with a Black chaplain. After denying the request at first, Rev. Burkhead decided to compromise and permit a Black chaplain named Revered W. H. Hunter to give a speech on emancipation to the Black congregation, which was received with great applause. His Black congregation members were ecstatic to hear a Black pastor preach at Front Street Church. Afterward, Burkhead stated that he would consent to Chaplain Hunter preaching to the Front Street congregation “one, two, three, or more Sabbaths in the afternoon” (57). However, upon finding out that it was desired for both men to occupy the same pulpit and preach together, Rev. Burkhead immediately rescinded the offer. As a result, several Black leaders complained to federal authorities, who then issued a decree that gave the Black congregation members of Front Street the right to hold services with whatever pastor they desired.
Rev. Burkhead attempted to renegotiate by contacting Major Wm. M. Wherry and explaining that the church was not an “African Church” (p 60) and that “the negroes had no possible legal or moral right to the property” (p 61). He also stipulated that the Black people who attended his church and services enjoyed certain privileges that they would not find elsewhere (but doesn’t clarify what those privileges were) and that he labored extensively for their welfare. His entitlement issues are blatantly obvious as he struggles to maintain control and enforce the social hierarchy as he knew it before Union occupation. He wrote, “To grant this extraordinary request of a portion of the colored members would throw a large white membership adrift without any place or privileges of the colored people…We accept whatever the Government may propose as to their future status in society; but I most respectfully submit that it is not best even for them, to grant what a portion of them now ask” (page 63). As a pastor in a church with both white and Black members, Burkhead stated repeatedly that it was his “solemn duty to seek the spiritual welfare of all” (63), yet he antagonized half his congregation and struggled with accepting that Black people didn’t have to do as he says. Regardless of Burkhead’s comments, under orders from his commanding officer, Wherry told him that he was to hold regular Sunday morning services. In the afternoon, “the colored portion of the congregation will be permitted to hold their services under such auspices as they may desire” (p 64).
General Schofield eventually issued special orders pertaining to the church’s operations, stating that the “Church in Wilmington, known as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, [would] be subject to the use of colored members of the congregation for half a day” (p 66). The general made it clear that that was not to exclude white members from attendance. Burkhead’s response to this, according to his writings, was that it would generate a bigger rift between Black and white churchgoers. Furthermore, the fact that some of the Black leaders at Front Church felt compelled to complain to the Union officers about their treatment at the church rankled Rev. Burkhead. He believed that he was being betrayed by his Black congregation members, stating that “[they said] they would stand by me in every trying hour, and now saw them in the first gathering storm desert me and a Judas-like betrayal of me” (p 67).
In response to this perceived affront, Burkhead went to General Scofield’s headquarters to discuss the order. Burkhead claimed that no such thing as a “African Methodist Church” existed in Wilmington and maintained that the general was interfering with the “legitimate work of the pastorate” (68). Burkhead declared that what the general was doing was wrong and disorderly, claiming “you give these negroes the right and defend them in its exercise, of electing a new pastor in contravention of the laws and usages of the church to which they belong” (p 69). In response, General Schofield claimed that he cannot alter that, but it was his duty to recognize that the people have a right to practice their faith as they see fit, and if “colored people violate their church obligations, the matters are with themselves” (p 69).
Afterward, General Schofield wrote a letter to the African American church leaders, including James Galley, and David Nichols, and assured them that Black congregations were perfectly free to worship any way they desired. After Burkhead heard of what Gen. Schofield wrote, he declared that the letter was “well calculated to mislead the colored people” (p 72). To maintain his dominance over the situation, he also proclaims that “colored leaders have no official position in any church” (p 72). Regardless of his feelings on the matter, Burkhead had to comply. When Chaplain Hunter arrived with an adjunct of the 4th U.S. Colored Troops, who happened to be white (p 76), to ask if Burkhead had received orders from General Schofield about the occupancy of the church, Burkhead declared that they needed to set a schedule for the times of the different services. After a discussion, an agreement was made: Burkhead was to use the church in the morning, and Hunter was to use it in the afternoon. Furthermore, Burkhead was to have “every other Sabbath night” (p 76).
After a group of Black congregation members declined to sit in the gallery and sat among white members instead and the white members reacted badly, Burkhead feared that more of his congregation would “secede” from his “flock” and attend Hunter’s services instead. He asked Chaplain Hunter for a list of Black members who had recently joined his congregation/services; however, Hunter refused to provide him with that information. Burkhead later confronted Chaplain Hunter, referring to him as “African Highness,” and declared that “leaders have no right to transfer the names of members, this the members must do for themselves” (p 79). He then told Hunter to “furnish [him] a list of all such names, that [he] may know who [his] members [were]” (p 79). Hunter declined again. Then, Burkhead contacted General Hawley, who “promised to protect us from further trouble in our religious services on Sabbath mornings” (p 79). Burkhead stated that he went so far as to threaten to forbid Black members from attending church if they attempted to sit among white members again. Burkhead believed that Hunter and his satellites were actively working to sabotage him, claiming that “[n]o flout or insult was too bad to be cast at [him]” (p 80).
As time passed and Black church leaders continued to advocate for the acknowledgment of the agency and rights of people of color, Burkhead’s recollections revealed his engrained racial prejudices. Burkhead admitted that he feared that “the sudden emancipation of the negro [would] not be of much service to a large majority of them” (p 83). He even compared the emancipation of 4 million people of color to giving sharp razors to children to play with (83). Somewhat bitter about what he saw as the loss of the control of his church, Burkhead wrote about what it would have taken for him to allow the Black leaders of the community back into his congregation: He wrote, “If these colored leaders will rescind all they have done; put themselves back under my pastoral care, apologize for their un-Christian conduct, pledge themselves anew to obey the rules of the church, contribute to the support of the church, and ask General [Schofield] to restore to me my church as it was, I will then overlook the past and take them back into the church, but I will not obligate myself to make the same men leaders” (84).
In April 1865, a general meeting was held so members could vote on whether they wanted to stay in the M.E. Church South or to “secede” to A.M.E. Church of the United States. All Black members present except for four—James Scull, Thomas Smith, Joseph Hall, and Jack Hooper—voted themselves into the “African Church,” as Burkhead called it. On April 16th, 1865, Burkhead stated that “although they had seceded from the M.E. Church South, perhaps there were some Black members who still wished to remain in our church. Hence, I will give them another week to consider the whole matter” (p 85).
On Sunday, June 13, 1865, a quarterly meeting was to take place and the presiding elder, Rev. D. B. Nicholson, was supposed to preach. Instead, Burkhead recalled that “negro soldiers [had] gone in and taken possession of the body of the church” (p 87), and he claimed that the Black citizens who witnessed the scene were gazing on it with satisfaction. Upon their entry, Burkhead placed himself in front of the soldiers and was given the military order legitimizing their occupation of the church. He sent them to the gallery.
The following week, according to Burkhead, a Black man attended the white service, which was seen as a disturbance. That time, the person of color was accompanied by a white man. Burkhead was able to talk him into going to the gallery, much to the frustration of soldiers present. Burkhead described another disruption that occurred in July: “[A] very large African Lady” walked into the church and up the aisle looking from left to right “as though she expected some white gentleman or lady to invite her to a seat” (p 88). One of Burkhead’s friends loudly told her to take a seat in the gallery. In response, Burkhead stated that around a “dozen negro soldiers arose and marched out of the church, making as much noise as possible” (p 88). Burkhead later claimed that those soldiers were heard plotting his murder, which led him to contact General Duncan. General Duncan responded by saying that the “matter [would] be at once referred to the Post Commander Col Goff for a full investigation” (p 90). An officer was sent to discuss Burkhead’s concerns with him, and a guard was placed at the church door with orders to “allow no colored person to go into the body of the church when [Burkhead] preached” (p 90).
At this point, Burkhead desired to have the “special orders of General [Schofield] revoked” (p 96). However, he believed that the “negroes have told so many miserable stories on [him] in reference to [his] political views, and the military authorities seemed to give so much more attention to the negroes then [him]self, that [he] had little hope that any appeal which [he] might make would be heard at all. [He] finally determined to get the facts before the authorities by applying to ‘Headquarters’ in Raleigh” (p 96). With his goal in mind, Burkhead gave Dr. B. Craven, pastor of the M.E. Church in Raleigh, the pertinent information about the case (from his point of view) and asked him to provide a necessary petition to the authorities.
On June 14, 1865, Dr B. Craven wrote to General Schofield, stating, “I have the honor to present the petition of the Trustees, Official Board and Pastor of Front Street Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in Wilmington, N.C., praying that said church may be restored to the use and direction of Pastor Rev. L.S. Burkhead and the members of said church” (page 96). In response, Burkhead was invited to appear before Col. A. G. Chamberlain, who desired to hear directly from the Trustees of Front Street Church. Burkhead presented him with a paper written, in part, by the Trustees, which explained that the real estate known as the Front St. Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington legally belonged to them, as Trustees and that they held the property for the good of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and not for any specific congregation, either white or Black. The Trustees also affirmed that it was not an “African Church” (p 98). The Trustees—all white men—also wanted to express that they, the Pastor (Rev. Burkhead), and every other white member of the church had taken the Oath of Allegiance to the United States and were loyal. Finally, the Trustees requested that the order made by Maj. Gen. Schofield be revoked, and that the property be restored to its original “legal and rightful” owners, and that the “unjust” limitations on Burkhead be removed (p 99). Burkhead stated, “I also assure you that those colored members who have remained faithful to this church and have not seceded to another endorse the claims and requests of the trustees are as set forth in this paper” (p.100).
The church’s trustees also wrote a petition to President Johnson, stating “We respectfully ask you to restore the church to our full use and control, and to prove that our petition is founded in truth and justice” (p 121). In the recorded actions of the N.C. Congress of 1866, it is documented that a decision was made: It was favorable to Methodist Episcopal Church, South, (p125).
In conclusion, the History of the Difficulties is a memoir of L.S. Burkhead’s responses to the events that occurred at the end of the war and to the increasing social changes that he did not want and was not prepared to handle.