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A Lumbee Church on Frankford Ave: Establishing Kinship and Maintaining Identity

Last updated on May 21, 2019

Who’s your people?
Where do you stay?

If you are Lumbee, you are familiar with these questions. These are the two essential questions Lumbee people exchange when meeting one another. This is because the answers to these questions have the power to verify Lumbee identity by establishing relation and trust through kinship and place. Like many other Indigenous groups from the United States, the crux of Lumbee identity lies in the connection of the individual to certain people, places, and communities. When answering the above questions, Lumbee people exchange information about their shared cultural experience.

Who’s your people? – Family history & kinship
Where do you stay? – Connection to land & place

Though these connections are often easily distinguishable by an individual’s surname or home address, they can also be indirect in the sense that an individual does not necessarily have to be related by blood or physically live on their ancestor’s land. Malinda Maynor Lowery writes in her book The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle, “To be “from” one of these communities often, though not always, means that one’s family has lived there, on or very near the same piece of land, for at least a century. Over time, people from towns and cities such as Pembroke, Lumberton, or even Baltimore have thought of themselves the same way, as indelibly attached to those places, even though they are different from their ancestors’ original places.” Despite where a Lumbee decides to live or work in their lifetime, these connections persist and bring people together. This is why Lumbee communities can be found outside of Lumbee territory and in urban areas such as Baltimore and Philadelphia.

“Where do you go to church?” is another popular question used to identify Lumbee people, revealing connections between people and places. It is not uncommon for Lumbee families to attended the same church their ancestors attended and are often referred to as an individual’s, “home church.” Lumbee churches serve as facilitators of kinship networks, providing spaces where individuals build communities under a unified Indian identity. For generations, Lumbee churches have allowed communities to address the needs of the people they serve, whether it be through spiritual, social, or economic support. Because church is such an essential component of Lumbee identity, Indian churches have been established outside of North Carolina. Though a number of scholars have studied the Lumbee community and Lumbee churches in Baltimore, little has been written about the Lumbees of Philadelphia.

When I started this project, I knew I wouldn’t be surprised if I found that there was a Lumbee church in Philadelphia at some point. The biggest difficulty would be finding it. I went to Temple’s library to try to find books and accidentally stumbled upon an article titled, “Fayetteville or Raleigh? An Analysis of an American Indian Baptist Church” written by Elizabeth Batten, who was an undergraduate anthropology student at Bryn Mawr College. In the article, Batten describes her experience working with the congregation of a church that was mostly Lumbee. She did not mention any names of people or places, so I had to turn to my personal connections for help. I asked my dad and grandmother if they remembered a Lumbee baptist church somewhere in the city. Both of them recalled visiting a Lumbee church somewhere in Frankford, but could not remember where exactly it was located. My grandmother then directed me to her niece, who attended the church for some time. She was able to give me the names of the Lumbee pastors, Rev. Thessely “Ted” Campbell and Rev. “Butch” Hunt.

Rev. Thessely Campbell Stands outside the Southern Free Will Baptist Church located on Frankford Ave. “September 13, 1984 (Page 82 of 196).” Philadelphia Inquirer (1969-2010), Sep 13, 1984.

To my pleasant surprise, I was able to locate several newspaper articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer archives that referenced the church. The Southern Free Will Baptist Church that met at 3150 Frankford Avenue served a predominantly Lumbee congregation of about 70 people. Thessely Campbell, who moved to Philadelphia for work, began pastoring the church in 1975. Because the Lumbee people that lived in Philadelphia were residing in various neighborhoods across the city by the 1970s, the church served as a gathering place where individuals with common backgrounds supported one another amidst the stresses of inner city life. The church especially sought to assist community members who struggled with homelessness, alcoholism, and drug abuse by providing and distributing food and clothing, information on job opportunities, childcare, labor, and emotional support. According to the article by Batten, church services, including the music, closely resembled those held back in North Carolina, and conversations often revolved around stories from “back home.” For at least thirty years, this church served as a major center for the Lumbees of Philadelphia.

Photographs of the Lumbee church on Frankford Ave. Screenshots from Blue Ridge Mountain Films, and WNET (Television station: New York, N.Y.). 1984. The work I’ve done.

There are also records of the Lumbee Southern Free Will Baptist Church of Philadelphia making numerous visits to other Lumbee churches in Baltimore, where they would hold large homecoming celebrations with kin. The Lumbee church in Philadelphia closed its doors in 2005. The building still stands but was sold to a different congregation who now meets there.

If you are reading this and remember the Lumbee church on Frankford Ave. I would love to hear about your experience there. Please comment or email me at jessica.locklear@temple.edu. More to come soon!

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