Thursday, May 22, 2014

Fr. Moses Berry on his slavery exhibit

( - Father Moses Berry isn’t afraid to discuss a subject that can make many people uncomfortable — slavery.

And he doesn’t just like to talk about it. He brings artifacts — neck irons, balls, chains and other pieces, all handed down from his ancestors who were slaves — that he puts in people’s hands, allowing them to get a very real sense of that history.

Father Moses, who is a black pastor of Theotokos “Unexpected Joy” Orthodox Christian Church in Ash Grove, said his purpose isn’t to make white people feel guilty or black people indignant. He does it to bring both sides together.

“I want to show how we, as black and white people, have a certain common heritage,” Father Moses said.
Whites and blacks worked together to end slavery, he said, mentioning the Underground Railroad as one example.

“You hear a lot about Harriet Tubman, but at the same time, those safe houses were all owned by white people,” he said. “Black escapees were harbored by white people who were in fear of being put to death themselves . . . these are unsung heroes who make up the canopy of our shared heritage.”

That will be the focus of a presentation, “Honoring Our Shared Heritage,” that Father Moses will give this Sunday, Nov. 6, at the 11th annual Franklin County History Fair.

This year’s event will be held at the Franklin Baptist Association building from 1 to 5 p.m. Father Moses is expected to arrive around 3 p.m.

He will bring with him several of the artifacts from his family collection, which are displayed year-round at his Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum ( in Ash Grove, a small town just west of Springfield.

Father Moses opened the museum in 2002 shortly after he and his family moved to Ash Grove from South St. Louis. They were living in a three-story Victorian house near the Missouri Botanical Gardens when he inherited a 40-acre farm in Ash Grove from his uncle and decided to return to his hometown.

The family moved into the home where Father Moses was born — the same home that his great-grandparents built in 1872 and where both his grandfather and father also were born.

They cleaned up the circa 1875 family cemetery that was dedicated for burial of “slaves, paupers and Indians” who in those early days were excluded from other burial places, said Father Moses. And they took steps to have the Berry Cemetery, as it is known, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

When Father Moses and his family moved to Ash Grove in the late ’90s, he never intended to open a museum of his ancestral artifacts or begin a lecture series on slavery, but he was drawn into it by the encouragement of those who saw his collection, among them country music legend Mel Tillis.

Tillis, who has a music show in nearby Branson, also has a talent for painting. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Springfield News Leader ran a photo of Father Moses and his daughter at his church with an American flag flying outside.

The photo inspired Tillis to create a painting, which he later presented to Father Moses.
When Tillis saw the many family artifacts Father Moses had, he encouraged the pastor to do something with all of that history.
‘Pretty Overwhelming’

Since opening the museum in 2002, Father Moses has told the story of his family’s ancestral artifacts to visitors from all over the country. He leads a lecture series at the museum, and also is a frequent speaker at events.

He often brings artifacts from the museum to share in his presentations. Among the items in Father Moses’ collection are the lock from his great-grandfather’s slave chains, a slave tag from the lot of slaves for sale that included his great-grandmother, neck irons and slave chains.

“It’s pretty overwhelming to see the irons and chains,” Father Moses admits, noting together they weigh around 20 pounds.

He doesn’t hesitate to put the irons on himself as a demonstration, but is careful to ask anyone else before doing it to them because the irons do have “a certain impact.”

He recalled one day when a group of teens from a detention center visited the museum for a field trip and one of the boys “who probably shouldn’t have been allowed to go on the outing” began acting out.
“I put the neck irons on him and made him hold the ball and chains, and he started crying,” recalled Father Moses.

“I told him, ‘Let that be a lesson . . . your relatives who suffered powerfully at the hands of slavery would turn over in their graves at how you are behaving.’ ”

In the presentation that he gives, Father Moses draws a connection between slavery of the past to perceived freedom of today.

“I use a quote from St. Ambrose in the first century, ‘Sin is slavish, while blamelessness is free,’ ” said Father Moses. “What really holds a man or a woman captive?”

Today many people who are free are held captive by things like debt, addiction and other social ills.

The museum collection also includes pre-Civil War quilts sewn by Father Berry’s ancestors and family portraits, among them a photo of his great-grandmother, Caroline Boone Berry, “dressed like a queen” on her wedding day.

Caroline Boone Berry was the daughter of Marie Boone, or more correctly, “Boone’s Marie,” a slave of Nathan Boone. Caroline, says Father Moses, was the daughter of Nathan Boone and his slave Marie.

Father Moses believes the discussion of slavery should include a sense of pride that the country did outlaw it.

“It’s a strong testament to the character of our nation,” he said. “Slavery didn’t last long (here) in comparison to the rest of the world.”

History Fair

An exact time for Father Moses’ presentation at the History Fair this Sunday is uncertain, although he is expected to arrive around 3 p.m., said Sue Blesi, a member of the Franklin County Historical Society which is organizing the event.

The fair will begin at 1 p.m.

Numerous vendors and exhibitors will have displays relating to area history. The history fair provides one-stop shopping for information or purchases, by bringing area historical societies together under one roof for a few hours each year.

If you want to learn how to qualify to become a member of Daughters of the American Revolution, this is the place to come. Or how to get information about a veteran included in the Hall of Honor at the Old Courthouse. Or how to arrange for a World War II veteran to go to Washington, D.C., to see the Veterans Memorial. Or how to join Sons of the American Revolution.

In addition to historical and genealogical societies, other organizations planning to be represented include Franklin County Cemetery Association, Friends of Daniel Boone Burial Site in Missouri, Scenic Regional Library, Harney Foundation, Veteran’s Hall of Honor, Honor Flight, a display of Surrey Clothes by LaVada Schulte, an exhibit on Mining and Furnaces by Leonard Butts, and likely several other groups who haven’t yet confirmed their plans. Historical societies from St. Charles, Warren, St. Louis, and Crawford counties plan to be represented.

There will be a silent auction featuring a variety of items, including Busch Brewery stock and framed prints of Randy Tyree’s rural store paintings.

Music will be provided by Don and Linda Jo Huber, The Bluegill Buddies.

There will be desserts for sale, and drinks, barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs will be available for a donation.

If You Go . . .

Franklin Baptist Association is located on Butterfield on the east side of Highway 47 between Union and St. Clair.

There is no admission charge. All are welcome.

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