In the middle of a lengthy, lively service at St. Stephen’s Church in Marble Hill on Sunday, community member Paulette Shomo gave a short talk about a once famous entertainer named Moms Mabley. The speech was part of a series celebrating prominent African American writers, scientists, musicians and others for black history month.
“We just want to let people know that there are many people of black African descent that have contributed quite a bit to the world,” Ms. Shomo said following the service. “A lot of education needs to be done.”
Rev. Nathaniel Dixon has made education a central part of his approach since coming to the church nearly a decade ago. During a recent interview at his office at St. Stephen’s — which celebrated its 189th anniversary on Sunday — he shared what black history month means to his congregation and called for closer ties between Marble Hill and neighboring communities.
“There’s a painful history of slavery, Jim Crow and even job discrimination,” Rev. Dixon said. “All of that is still present. Those vestiges are still with us.”
The religious leader said when he grew up in the Bronx, classroom discussion of African Americans was confined to slavery.
He said while education has improved since then, black history month’s emphasis on accomplishments helps African Americans come out of what he called “mental, physical and emotional slavery” to this day.
Rev. Dixon added such teaching also broadens non-African Americans’ understanding of their country.
“Black history month is an important piece for everybody, whether they realize it or not,” he said. “I think if you give it an opportunity, you grow.”
The history of St. Stephen’s, located at 146 W. 228th Street, is itself a lesson in the African American experience. A commemorative speech at the Sunday service pointed out that for a long time whites were the only congregants. In 1946, the reverend at the time opened the church’s doors to people of color and recruited members from Marble Hill’s public housing projects.