Biography

A Saint in Georgia
A brief narrative of the life and work of the Deaconess Anna Ellison Butler Alexander

The following article first appeared in the journal Diakoneo in May, 2001. It relates, in a summary and narrative form, the broad outline of the life and times of Anna Ellison Butler Alexander. Anna Alexander, we now know, was the only African-American woman consecrated as a Deaconess (later, posthumously, understood as an ordained Deacon) in the Episcopal Church of the United States. It is based on an “historical dialogue” commissioned by the Rector of Christ Church, Frederica, the Reverend Canon Douglas Renegar, and written by Jan McM Saltzgaber and founded upon his research into the life of a Anna Alexander. This brief narrative, given in full below is published together as a PDF file with a script for a “historical dialogue” created at the request of the Rev. Canon Douglas Renegar, then the rector of Christ Church Frederica on St. Simons Island. Download the Narrative and Historical Dialogue here.

“A DEVOUT, GODLY AND RESPECTED COLORED WOMAN”

On a hot and muggy day in May of 1907, Georgia’s Bishop C. K Nelson so described Anna Alexander. It was the second annual meeting of the Council of Colored Churchmen held in a modest building housing Good Shepherd Mission, Thomasville, Georgia. High on the Bishop’s agenda was the consecration of Anna to the Order of Deaconesses. Possibly the first African-American Deaconess in the United States, she was certainly the first “set aside” in the South. In a calling of sixty years or more, her indomitable spirit and fierce devotion to God still illuminates our understanding of ministry. The present Bishop, Henry Louttit, naming her one of the “Saints of Georgia,” designated September 24th as a day to meditate on the life and times of Deaconess Alexander.

But why her? Why did Bishop Nelson take so controversial a step, one violating the mores of white congregants and even disturbing many black clergymen? And what inspired Bishop Louttit to choose this long forgotten figure, departed nearly a half century, as a paradigm for contemporary panton diakonos, service to all? As we shall see, she was a humble but determined woman of remarkable religious conviction. Her example animates the spiritual life of the contemporary Church in Georgia and beyond. Her history offers a model of faith translated into active love. She gave herself in service to God by serving her community and Church, a Church whose ministry she accepted as vital to a sinful and regressive society. She lived and worked within a culture of bigotry. Her own people were often maligned and ill-treated. And people of any race, if ensnared in the trammels of poverty, were despised and exploited by entrenched political and economic interests.

Even her Church manifested precious little concern for its African-American members and willingly mirrored the culture in which it nested. It was, after all, a human institution and feared to encourage black or needy members lest it alienate hidebound white supporters. Still, if Anna Alexander lived in a society that was often hateful, she eschewed hate. Though shrewdly aware of realities, for her the burden of race in a racist society was secondary to the values of work and learning. Anger she rejected as a wasteful emotion. Love energized. Convinced that application would be rewarded by accomplishment, she set an example for her pupils by both demanding and giving respect. Fundamentally a Christian educator, she taught Christian values and hope in a world where faith was all too easily eroded and dreams destoyed. Perhaps her strength was sourced in family and upbringing.

Anna Ellison Butler Alexander was born on Georgia’s Saint Simons Island, the youngest of eleven children. Having ten older siblings was likely to toughen anyone! Her parents, James and Daphne Alexander had been slaves on the plantations of Pierce Butler [1810 – 1867]. In 1841 James and Daphne married.

The year of Anna’s birth is a mystery she herself perpetuated. Deaconess Madeline Dunlap of Chicago worked in Georgia during the Depression years and knew Anna. Writing to inquire about her age, Anna begged her not to ask. She could not lie, Anna explained, but if she told the truth “they’ll make me stop [work].” Her death certificate had her born in 1881; Diocesan records claim 1878. Both are clearly wrong. Other calculations suggest she was born soon after the end of the Civil War. At her death in 1947, she was probably in her late seventies or early eighties.

James Alexander – nicknamed “Aleck” by his owner, Pierce Butler – was a man of strength, spirit and intelligence. Trained as a house servant, he became Butler’s personal aide and was responsible for virtually all arrangements when Butler traveled or resided on his Georgia plantations. As Anna proudly wrote, “. . he was not disputed in hotels in Savannah and Charleston . . . he saw to everything.” Yet, Anna’s father was no mere factotum. As a youth he defied Georgia’s draconian law against educating slaves and taught himself to read and write fluently, a thirst for education he transmitted to his wife and children. His talents were many – he was a skilled builder, much in demand by both races – and he gave of them generously.

Anna stated that her mother’s kin came from “Madigasker Island” and were sold in North Carolina but later carried to Georgia to help settle St. Simons Island. Daphne was the child of “Minda” a slave woman raped by Butler’s overseer, Roswell King Jr.,. Such vile acts were rare on Butler’s Coastal and island plantations abandoned during the war recovered slowly and the Alexander family settled in Pennick where James became a leading figure. It was a tract of “Piney Woods” south of the Altamaha River previously occupied by a “poorer class of white people.” The whites fled to take advantage of the Southern Homestead Act and claim free land in Florida. What they abandoned was a lowland of numerous “branches” or creeks, swampy and pocked by countless ponds (little changed today). Its soil was exhausted by years of primitive subsistence farming. Poor land but all former slaves could afford. Pooling resources, they shared it out among themselves. Poor land but their land!

Most Freedmen were woefully ignorant of construction and rarely possessed more than a single, all-purpose tool, an axe. Anna’s father, a skillful carpenter-builder, shared his talents with those less knowledgeable. He encouraged the building of a school and his homestead was an experimental farm to teach others. With a substantial house, the farm combined orchards, crops and animal husbandry. “[It was] from this center the unfortunate people . . . see and learn to do likewise,”Anna reported with some pride. James Alexander’s sense of communal responsibility was not lost on his children, especially Anna and her sisters.

Anna, a confirmed Episcopalian, was dissatisfied with public education. “I pitied the poor little ones,” she recalled, “but cannot teach the church in school.” She left Pennick’s public school to join her two sisters, Mary and Dora, in the school founded by Mary and affiliated with St. Cyprian’s Church in Darien at the mouth of the Altamaha River. There she offered her charges a Christian education and honed her already formidable skills as a teacher, At this time – given the state of Georgia’s roads – Darien was Pennick’s closest town, readily accessible by boat. Such accessibility proved important.

By one of those providential “coincidences,” she attended a service at St. Athanasius Church in Brunswick and fell into conversation with a lay reader, Charles A. Shaw. Their talk gave rise to a dream. She would establish a mission in Pennick. A dream, indeed! Anna had no more than Shaw’s promise to “hold service.” St. Athanasius’ priest, the Reverend J. J. Perry, agreed to baptize “any that I can present for baptism.” One suspects he did not take her too seriously and hardly expected to make the difficult journey to Pennick with any frequency!

Too inexperienced to know what cannot be done and convinced that God would provide, she began to organize her mission. It first met in the open on a fall morning in 1894 on a slight rise near “Sapp’s Still” close to a small Baptist Church. A week or two later, Reverend Perry found himself making the weary journey to Pennick to baptize the first six children of the new congregation! He was joined by two mission-minded “white ladies” with cornets to make a joyful sound and accompany the hymns. Music drew the Baptist congregation to the “hill” and their preacher proclaimed that Reverend Perry “brought light to the woods.” Other Baptist preachers were not so sure. After a hasty consultation, they warned their members that they would be “turned out” if they attended any more of Anna’s meetings. A young women told the Baptist preachers to go ahead and turn her out! Her five children were baptized as Episcopalians a few weeks later.

Anna hoped to “borrow” the Baptist’s Church after they completed their Sunday worship. While the rank-and-file were happy to lend the facility, the leadership saw her as a threat and refused This led to a long struggle to find a permanent site for the mission. At first, a white landowner gave Anna use of a tumbled-down house until he could rent or sell it. It was in terrible condition. Anna wrote that “you can throw a small cat or dog through the top of the house!” But she and her brother Charles cleaned and repaired it as best they could. It offered a rough but functional place of worship. If it rained they protected the priests vestments with umbrellas. Even this make-shift mission did not last. Local Baptist leaders hatched a plot to deprive them of the house and they began all over in an ancient “store” where they transformed the rickety old “whiskey bar” into an altar. The problem was that land bordering a road was considered too valuable for a church: “let them go in the swamp and build a log house for a church.”

Throughout this whole desperate Period Anna continued to teach in Darien. Each Sunday she made a round trip of forty miles or more by boat and afoot. In 1897, however, Anna was accepted at St. Paul’s School [now College] in Virginia. Without her guidance and leadership, the mission faltered. She returned three years later and Archdeacon Harry Castle and Reverend Perry (acting for the Bishop) set her a daunting task: revive the fledgling mission which she renamed “The Church of the Good Shepherd” and, equally important, establish a church-based school in Pennick. Such a school was vital to her community. Under “Jim Crow,” educating rural black children mattered little. What the state denied, the Church must provide. Bishop Nelson saw Anna as a means to realize what he could not achieve. Frustrated by the tide of segregation at the tum of the century, he reluctantly bowed to societal pressure.

Nelson, who was to be Bishop of the new Diocese of Atlanta in 1907, was forced to deny African..Americans a voice in Diocesan governance. However muted, they had exercised such a voice since 1872. But in 1906, as the Diocese of Georgia was preparing to yield its northern and central parishes to the new Diocese of Atlanta, and for over three decades, black churchmen were segregated and wielded meager influence through the “Council of Colored Churchmen,” excluded from Diocese of Georgia Conferences and merely “represented” on Committees. Bishop Reese replaced Nelson as Bishop of Georgia in 1908 and led the Diocese until 1936, further eroding support for black ministries. Despite pious verbal support, Reese hoped to avoid using Diocesan funds for black education. He succeeded famously. Virtually no building or maintenance costs and only 3% of salaries in black Episcopal schools derived from the Diocese of Georgia. Whatever Anna accomplished, she must garner the resources herself.

For the first year, Anna taught at home and supported herself by taking in sewing. The next year, 1902, marked a decided turn for the better. A landowner on Pennick Road sold his land to Anna. Drawing on the local community’s slim means, small donations by black church groups and appealing to national philanthropic organizations and individuals, Anna raised funds to buy the land and purchase lumber for the school. Local men, led by her brother Charles, subscribed their labor to raise a tin-roofed “pole house” of smoothed logs enclosed in clapboards. The Good Shepherd School opened on the first Monday of September. On Sundays it served as the church. Bishop Nelson, nearing retirement, gave money to add a small room and help with expenses. She not only added a room but bought land for a future church. During his last year, visiting the mission and deeply impressed by Anna’s achievements, Bishop Nelson told Anna he intended to consecrate her as Deaconess.

The need for the school was great. Between 1902 and 1914 the Deaconess averaged forty day students and over sixty Sunday School enrollments. Still, this was a transitional time for Southern blacks and a northern migration, already underway, was accelerated by the insatiable demands of the “Great War of 1914 – 1918. Young families fled the segregated South for the broader horizons of Northern industrial cities. By was end, enrollments had fallen but remained steady in the twenties and thirties. In theory, the school charged tuition. But no student was ever turned away for lack of funds. In 1934 only two of the thirty pupils paid their nickel-a-week fee.

Throughout the years, Deaconess Alexander was active in Diocesan affairs though always centered on her mission church. Unassertive but quietly effective, one of her students recalled:

“This Church was her life, this school. She was very persuasive and went to all the meetings but she lived for this church. . . She influenced people all over the world . . . but here was her center. Everybody respected Deaconess Alexander . . . whites and blacks took off their hats to her.”

In 1919 she decided it was time to build a church apart from the school, a more “becoming” edifice. The Diocese offered no help, so for almost a decade she gleaned pennies and nickels from the congregation. She added to the building fund bit by agonizingly slow bit: “The congregation is very willing and trying to do what they can.” Good Shepherd s corner stone was laid in 1929 but the work often stopped for lack of funds. In 1934, the national Church Building Fund, not the Diocese, provided the few hundred dollars needed to finish Good Shepherd, Pennick. It has stood now for nearly seventy years.

Pennick was dirt poor. But Deaconess Alexander never let her flock forget those even less fortunate. She taught her pupils about the world and Christian responsibility to all peoples. Proportionately, Good Shepherd gave more support to needy folk throughout the world than any church in the Diocese. When more than 200,000 people died during an earthquake that devastated Tokyo-Yokohama in 1923, Anna’s mission diverted building funds to aid the victims. Sunday school pupils regularly contributed their pennies and nickels to victims of hunger and hardship.

Hardship was never distant or abstract in the rural south. Hunger and illness stalked the lives of black and white alike. The end of the 19th century saw a collapse of farm prices and land values coupled with rising costs. There was a brief respite until the 1920s and then more hard times culminated in the worst depression in the nation’s history, scourging plain folk until a second war’s voracious appetites restored prosperity. The Depression expanded Deaconess Alexander’s ministry exponentially. Her years of service won her the trust of all, those in authority as well as those in need. Already in her fifties, she not only had a school and church to keep alive but a broken community.

With an intimate and compassionate knowledge of a region whose roads she trod for more than three decades, Anna became the agent for government and private aid and Good Shepherd Mission its distribution center. No one questioned her objectivity as she served the needs of both races.

“I am to see everyone gets what they need…some folk don’t need help now and I know who they are. The old people and the children, they need the most…when I tell some they can’t get help just now…that others come first, they get mad, a little, but I don’t pay no mind and soon they forget to be mad.”

Meticulous records and old accounts attest to the scope and character of her ministry. She forgot no one. Among hundreds receiving help one finds an elderly blind woman and a young girl expecting her first child. She provided for a motherless boy and a “1 legged” woman in her seventieth year. A white father, his wife and five children stood in line for flour beside a black father with his wife and four children. A 79 year-old white neighbor delivered “rations” to an 87 year-old black farmer, too weak to pick them up himself.

The decade of the thirties was a period of intense strain for Anna. Her’s was a community confronting calamity, perhaps more unified because of common distress and quickened by the example of one who made no distinctions or race or condition. Whatever added burdens imposed by the times, she did not neglect her other ministries. The school continued, often short of textbooks but never lacking the Prayer Book and Bible. Good Shepherd Church flourished under her leadership and the help of priests and committed laymen from St. Athanasius and other African-American parishes. She conscientiously attended Diocesan meetings as a firm but patient advocate of black Episcopalian interests. Each summer, to supplement her meager salary as teacher, she cooked for Camp Reese, the Diocesan summer camp on St. Simons Island. To help, she brought small groups of African-American boys and girls who, though barred as campers, at least informally shared in the joys of the shore and the beauty of the island. Her quiet dignity, devotion and wise counsel so inspired campers that they demanded a cabin named in her honor. [Her work at Camp Reese may have led her to worship at St. Ignatius Church though there is no documentary evidence of this. There is a window in the church dedicated to her memory.]

Twenty years after her death, the Lambeth Conference recognized as ordained to the Diaconate all those many women consecrated as deaconesses. In 1970, the decision was confirmed by the general Convention and Anna Ellison Butler Alexander was posthumously ordained in the Episcopal Church. Anna’s life is an unfinished book. The depth of her contribution to the Episcopal Church of Georgia and perhaps beyond, lies hidden in Church archives and as of yet undiscovered manuscripts in private hands. Scattered like chaff over the floor of her old school are the envelopes from friends all over the United States and Europe. Yet even a fragmentary account of her life-long ministry provides an archetype of diaconal service. An irresistible vocation, her devotion to God and His children discredit the prejudices of time and place, defy even her Church’s indifference. Resting now in an unmarked grave, she carried out His will humbly without expectation of honors. [In 2004, Deaconess Alexander was disinterred from her grave in the Camp Cemetery and re-interred at Good Shepherd Church.] Unwaveringly loyal but reliant on her own resourcefulness, indefatigable energy and the scanty means of an impoverished community, she praised the Lord in loving action, a builder of tabernacles and character.

Jan McM. Saltzgaber, Ph.D.