St Peter’s Church hosted a special service assembled by its member Grace Rawlins on Sunday, July 30, 2023.
The event was held to commemorate the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Bermuda on August 1, 1834 and to remember the Black Bermudians of that time and their life experiences.
The historic church does not have a resident priest but Ms Rawlins was “keen” to keep the tradition of the service, which was first held in 2015.
“I am a member of St Peter’s so I’ve been involved in it right from the very beginning,“ she said. ”We don’t have a permanent minister but I felt it was important that we continue this tradition to minister to this part of our culture, and I quite enjoy it actually.”
Ms Rawlins’ prepared homily consisted of excerpts from various literature and included historic accounts and literary compositions as well as her family heritage.
“I have always been interested in [research],” she said. “In my ‘other’ life I was a reference librarian for the Bermuda Library, so I have been doing research all of my professional life. I even had a stint at the Bermuda Archives briefly, but I have always been interested in the history of Black Bermudians and the slave experience that we unfortunately had.”
She was able to draw on a vast amount of material for her sermon at St Peter’s.
“I’ve done a lot of reading and research on slavery both in Bermuda and in the United States. I’m fascinated with it really, so I was able to pull information from the various sources that I have used and read. There is one book that is fascinating and it is called God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons In Verse. There are some wonderful perceptions of the Black experience, so I was able to use that,” Ms Rawlins said.
“I have done considerable research on Bermudian history due to my job at the library and family history. I was able to go back and find some interesting information about my family and ancestors.”
The congregation of worshippers present at the Sunday service were given rich insight into the culture and history of Black Bermudians in the 1800s. Ms Rawlins recalled the account of one gentleman. According to the register he was buried at St Peter’s on October 16, 1833 under his only given name, John.
“He was described as being 65 years old, coloured, and an old African. No doubt he was laid to rest in the section set aside for slaves and free persons of colour,” she said. “Mr John or Uncle John – in the Black community we always give the old ones the due respect of a title – died ten months before the Emancipation Act of 1833 took effect on August 1, 1834 in the British Empire.”
Ms Rawlins told the gathered congregation that the anniversary of the Act was remembered “with utmost sadness” as well as “an underlay of anger” because of the “more than 200 years of the enslavement of Blacks and Native Americans in Bermuda”.
“But today we also remember with joy and thankfulness the Emancipation Act which took effect on August 1, 1834,” she said. “At this time we especially pay tribute to the forgotten slaves and the disappeared, the unaccounted-for slaves.”
Although a “tragic history“ the period of slavery is also a ”reminder of love, gratitude, and the spirit of forgiveness in faith as we continue to move forward in the journey of life, together as an island family“, Ms Rawlins added.
The service was followed by a ceremony led by Joy Wilson-Tucker, the founder of the Bermudian Heritage Museum. A wreath was laid at the entrance of the slaves and free Blacks graveyard, at the historic St Peter’s Church.
Chelsea Crockwell, Religion Correspondent
The emancipation service at St Peter’s Church can be found on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JAS59fnPyI