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Historic black enclave celebrates its past

Sunday, August 3, 2008 | 6:54 p.m. CDT; updated 9:16 p.m. CDT, Sunday, August 3, 2008
Virginia Huston wipes away tears during a church service as part of the First Freewill Baptist Church of Pennytown reunion near Marshall on Sunday. The church and town were founded by freed slave Joe Penny in 1871.

MARSHALL — As the last person born in the historic black enclave of Pennytown, Virginia Huston has spent much of her life working to preserve the history of a community founded in 1871 by a freed slave.

Time is running out for the 63-year-old Huston, a retired bank teller recently diagnosed with renal failure and in need of a kidney transplant. She hopes to pass the torch to the next generation of Pennytown descendants, who came of age amid integration, not segregation.

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"Sometimes the younger adults, it doesn't hit them until later in life that their heritage is gone," Huston said. "We're trying to keep it alive."

On Sunday, Huston and other Pennytown descendants gathered at the Pennytown Freewill Baptist Church - the hamlet's sole remaining building - for an annual reunion. As they have for more than 60 years, folks gathered for a potluck supper under a pair of massive shade trees and a church service filled with gospel hymns and spiritual devotions.

Jon Lawrence, 32, spent most of his childhood in Carthage and central Iowa. It was up to his grandmother Josephine Lawrence to regale him with stories about life in Pennytown, named after Kentucky-born freed slave Joseph Penny.

Josephine Lawrence was instrumental in the restoration of the Pennytown church, helping obtain a state grant and designation on the National Register of Historic Places. She died in 1992, four years before the renovation was complete.

"It's important for me to continue that tradition," said Lawrence, who now lives outside Tulsa, Okla. "I don't want to see the church fall into disarray."

At its peak, nearly 200 settlers lived in the 64-acre village south of Marshall. Pennytown had two churches, a school, a country store, two lodges and ample Saline County farmland that its residents could call their own - not the property of a white farmer for whom they sharecropped.

By the end of World War II, migration to bigger cities and integration spelled the demise of Pennytown. The church fell into disrepair until Josephine Lawrence's restoration efforts started in the early 1980s.

Clarence "Book" Lawrence, Josephine's son and Jon's father, was born in Marshall in 1947 but spent weekends attending church in Pennytown and hunting for rabbits and squirrels in the surrounding fields. While he has no interest in revisiting the era of whites-only restaurants and segregated public schools, he realizes the close ties that bound Pennytown and even the black neighborhoods of Marshall are largely lost to history.

"Ethnic neighborhoods have really suffered," he said. "In Marshall, we had our own schools, churches, beauty shops, funeral homes and stores. We were involved in the rest of the community, but we had our own. I do miss that. Our kids don't get the sense of who they are that I had."

Amid the stifling heat Sunday, black and white guests mixed easily outside and inside the Pennytown church. Among those in attendance was author Warren Read, who wrote a memoir detailing his great-grandfather's role in a Minnesota lynching whose victims included a Pennytown native.

"There's such a rich history in this community," he said. "It's important for people who have descended from her to realize what their forefathers gave to them. In essence, it was a gift."

 


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