CHADDS FORD — Faith endures and triumphs.
As America celebrates Independence Day this weekend, the anniversary of the official establishment of the nation remains a moment of reflection.
“It was all about heaven,” Linda Townsend said at a private event at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford on June 18, the day before June 19, a federal holiday established last year to remember and recognize the emancipation of African Americans from slavery.
The event was part of a special two-part program honoring the legacy of Spring Valley African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Concord Township. The municipality recently restored the building.
Townsend was one of many speakers at the museum to discuss the history of the Spring Valley AME Church. She spoke alongside Pandora Anderson Campbell and Betty Byrd Smith, who organized the event in partnership with the Brandywine Conservancy.
Campbell is a descendant of Andrew Davis and Genevieve Davis, who served as church trustees. Andrew Davis was the father of Helen Davis Anderson. It was often painted by Andrew Wyeth, most notably in the famous piece called “The Turtle Neck”.
World renowned artist Jamie Wyeth gave a speech at the unveiling of his painting ‘Crown of Thorns’.
“It was beyond daunting for me to attempt an image of Christ,” Jamie Wyeth said.
“When I was offered to create it for Spring Valley AME Church, I was stunned,” he said.
“Ultimately, all I want is for my painting to depict a living, sentient human being,” Wyeth said.
The room was full of descendants of Spring Valley AME Church whose ancestors were members, trustees, or simply people whose families once lived in Concord Township as sharecroppers in the area.
By the late 1880s, the African American community and multitudes of people living in the Greater Philadelphia area had experienced a lifetime transformation “from slavery to religious freedom”.
On June 18, Betty Byrd Smith introduced the words “from slavery to religious freedom” to describe the journey of Reverend Richard Allen, who founded Spring Valley AME Church in 1880 at 220 Spring Valley Road. The church was built on an acre of land purchased from John Myers, a local farmer.
The congregation became the church home for many families living in sharecroppers, as noted earlier. Concord Township was a strong agrarian community, and the Spring Valley Road Church served as a popular cultural center.
For a century, the church community has thrived on Spring Valley Road.
“At the turn of the 20th century, about a third of Concord’s population was black,” said Pennie Scott of the Concord Township Historical Society in 2013.
Upon entering the church above the altar, the words “Let your heart not be troubled” from John 14:1 were carved on the wall above a painting of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns .
However, much of the church was destroyed in an arson attack decades ago in 1997.
Last year, the Township of Concord restored the church, although it is no longer a place where Sunday services are held.
The June 18 special event celebrated the restoration of the church by the Township of Concord and the enduring faith of the African-American community that once attended Sunday services there.
After the unveiling of Jaime Wyeth’s “Crown of Thorns” painting, the group moved on to see many paintings by Andrew Wyeth, who often depicted his friends and neighbors from the black community living in Chadds Ford in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950.
Some portraits featured former church members, said Andrew Stewart, director of marketing and communications at Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art.
Due to declining and aging membership, the church closed in the 1980s, with worshipers moving to Thornbury AME. The derelict property, consisting of the sanctuary and meeting hall, was purchased in November 1997 by local businessman and township resident Thomas Gillespie, who apparently wanted to restore it for use as a starter church or for community functions, as mentioned above.
Then the fire broke out. The parish hall was set on fire in a fire that investigators described as arson. The southwest corner of the shrine was also damaged, although firefighters were able to save it, as previously reported.
Concord Township purchased the property in 2014 for $65,000.
Prior to the event at the museum on June 18, a private invocation and acknowledgment of a burial monument was held at the church with township officials and church descendants as well as Jamie Wyeth, who presented a panel Welcome refurbished.
In 2019, Concord Township learned of graves on the property near the church from a group of former parishioners, as previously reported. The municipality then hired a company to use ground-penetrating radar to locate the graves. When the analysis was completed in 2020, authorities found up to 10 potential burial sites.
Betty Byrd Smith attended services in Spring Valley until the early 1950s.
“We rise in faith,” Smith said June 24.
Smith’s father was James T. Byrd and his mother was Olga Clark Byrd, who were sharecroppers in Concord Township for 40 years.
“I’m originally from Concord,” Smith said.
She said the Spring Valley AME Church founder was kicked out of worship in Philadelphia at St. George’s United Methodist Church at 235 N. 4th St., but that didn’t stop Richard Allen from seeking freedom religious elsewhere.
“He was looking for freedom of religion,” Smith said. “He got it in Concordville.”
“We’re not going back,” Smith said of the future. “We have gone too far.”