Joseph Sandiford Atwell: Religious trailblazer

Barbadians are to be found across the globe working in a variety of spheres and contributing significantly to the landscape of wherever they call their home.

Whether in politics, education, agriculture, manufacturing, the arts or service industries, Barbadians have and continue to make a global impact. One such individual made a major contribution in the area of religion and is still held in high esteem more than a century after departing to join the Creator he served during his adult life.

Joseph Sandiford Atwell was born on July 1, 1831, in Barbados. After completing his education at Codrington College, he moved to the United States in 1863.

Caribbean migration to the United States was relatively small in the first years of the nineteenth century. It grew in significant manner after the American Civil War (1865), which brought about the abolition of slavery. So, in the 19th century America attracted many Caribbean immigrants who excelled in various professions such as craftsmen, scholars, teachers, preachers, doctors, inventors and religious leaders. Atwell, along with personalities such as the Bahamian comic Bert Williams, politicians like Robert Brown Elliot, U.S.A. Congressman and Attorney General of South Carolina, poets, songwriters, and activists like brothers James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson were among the early arrivals.

From the end of the nineteenth century up to 1905, most West Indian people emigrated to South Florida, New York and Massachusetts. Shortly after, New York would become the main destination for the West Indian immigrants.

After arriving in America Atwell attended Divinity Hall, forerunner of the Philadelphia Divinity School, from which he graduated in 1866. He also raised funds to help residents of Barbados immigrate to Liberia.

The emancipation of four million people from slavery drew Atwell to the southern states to participate in the Episcopal Church’s efforts to evangelize the freed people. The church’s American Missionary Society sent him first to Louisville, Kentucky, to serve a newly organized church and school for African Americans. While there, he met and married Cordelia A. Jennings, a graduate of the Institute for Coloured Youth in Philadelphia and one of the school’s teachers. They had four children – Joseph Jennings Atwell (b. 1868), Marion L. Atwell (b. 1870), Robert Malcom Atwell (b. 1873), and Earnest Atwell b. 1878).

Jennings had a significant impact on her husband and was herself a quite vibrant activist.

In 1856, she enrolled at the Institute for Coloured Youth at age 13. Jennings was an exceptional student who won a prize for “study and conduct” in 1859 and a $15 prize for Latin in 1860. On October 15, 1860, she was one of three students to graduate from the Institute. Following graduation, Jennings opened her own school in her mother’s home at 10th St. and South St. in the Pine Ward of Philadelphia. Jennings’ school quickly became popular and attached thirty African-American students.

As a result, Jennings hired three teachers including Institute graduates, Caroline LeCount (Class of 1863) and Mary V. Brown (Class of 1864). Jennings was named principal of the school when it was incorporated into the Philadelphia Public School system in 1864. After gaining recognition from the school board, Jennings moved the school to Ohio Street where it was renamed the Ohio Street Unclassified School. The Ohio Street Unclassified School was prominent within Philadelphia’s African-American community. In fact, the Institute’s 1865 Board of Manager’s report commended Jennings and her school for having “coloured teachers teaching coloured students.” In 1867, Jennings resigned her position as principal and Caroline LeCount was chosen as her replacement. 

In February 1867, Jennings moved to Louisville, KY to become the principal of a Freedmen’s school. The Christian Recorder described Jennings’ appointment as principal as “this person spoken of in the above extract is Miss Cordelia Jennings, who would not have been appointed to her present position if she did not possess moral worth, education and refinement. According to our American idea, these qualifications in a female constitute her a lady.”

She was the perfect partner for her devoutly religious Barbadian husband.

In 1867 having graduated from the Philadelphia Divinity School, Atwell was ordained by Bishop Benjamin Smith as the first black deacon in the Diocese of Kentucky and Atwell’s parish of Saint Mark’s was received as the first black Episcopal congregation in the state.
In 1868 the Diocese of Virginia persuaded Atwell to move to Petersburg to serve as minister of Saint Stephen’s Church. On May 7, 1869, Bishop Coadjutor Francis McNeece Whittle ordained him to the priesthood, making Atwell the first black priest in the diocese.

Atwell’s parish, though dedicated in 1868, operated under a diocesan Committee on Coloured Congregations. Despite this administrative restriction, Atwell helped the church grow towards self-sufficiency, and he raised funds to improve the interior of the wooden structure in which the members worshiped. His ministry was successful. In 1869 he baptized thirty-six people, presented twelve for confirmation, and enrolled more than one hundred students in the church school. He also served in 1870 as pastor of Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, where he conducted services twice a month. Atwell actively participated in diocesan meetings and, according to one contemporary, “was treated precisely like all of the other clergy,” but he continued to be dissatisfied with the subordinate status of his Petersburg parish, which remained subject to a special diocesan committee.

In part as a consequence of his disappointment at this ongoing snub to his parish, Atwell left Virginia in 1873 to accept the pastorate of Saint Stephen’s Church in Savannah, Georgia, a parish established in 1856. He won wide recognition from his contemporaries for bringing some of the first black Episcopal churches in the South from infancy to maturity and for pioneering in the full acceptance of black clergymen in the southern Episcopal Church. In 1875 he moved to Saint Philip’s Church in New York City, one of the oldest African American Episcopal congregations in the nation. Atwell served that church until his death from typhoid fever at his home in New York on October 8, 1881.

Following Atwell’s death, his wife’s historical record goes quiet until 1910 when she was listed as living in Macon, Alabama. She continued teaching until her death on September 29, 1921 at age 78.

Source: (Adapted)

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