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Chester County Press

A place of rest and reflection at Hosanna Church

09/22/2015 10:15AM ● By J. Chambless

The newest 'Bench by the Road' was dedicated by representatives of the Toni Morrison Society, Lincoln staff members and descendants of Hinsonville families.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Every seat was filled and the crowd spilled out into the yard at the Hosanna A.U.M.P. Church at Lincoln University on Sept. 18 for the unveiling and dedication of a bench that marks 172 years of struggle and pride.

The church has roots on the small plot of land that stretch back to 1843. The church was the spiritual center of what was once called Hinsonville, an African-American community whose residents helped establish Lincoln University. The church was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and original Hosanna trustee James Ralston Amos and his brother Thomas Henry Amos were among the first students at Ashmun Institute, founded in 1854 and later renamed Lincoln University. The graveyard holds the remains of 12 African American Civil War soldiers, as well as the ancestors of Hinsonville families.

The black metal bench, which faces the side of the Hosanna Church and is shaded by large trees, is the 16th “Bench by the Road” installed under the auspices of the Toni Morrison Society. Morrison, a Nobel Laureate, wrote in 1989 that, “There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper. There's no three-hundred-foot tower. There's no small bench by the road.”

Inspired by that quote, the society has placed benches throughout the nation to mark significant places in African American history.

 Dr. Cheryl Renee Gooch, the dean of Lincoln's College of Arts, welcomed the capacity crowd inside the small church on Friday, saying, “This church was the social and spiritual center of the community here. Hinsonville was a community of self-determined people who assisted their fellow human beings in escaping slavery, while also helping to establish a university to educate free men of color. Imagine that. A lot happened here,” she added. “There's memory here.”

Terrell Smith, the president of the Lincoln University Student Government Association, said, “Hosanna has served as a memorial stone for the students of Lincoln University from generation to generation. This great spiritual edifice has stood as a place of worship, peace and meditation for students for over a century. This church has been an ever-present memorial, both to Lincoln's spiritual foundation and the progress of the African American people throughout our sojourn in this nation.”

Evelyn Schreiber of the Toni Morrison Society gave a history of the society and traced the places where benches now stand to mark a formerly disconnected history. Holding a photo of his ancestors standing in front of Hosanna Church, Hersey Gray, a descendant of the Walls family, said, “Today, I thank you for honoring the memory of all those people who were a part of Hinsonville.”

The members of the Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware, dressed in crisp black-and-white outfits, sang as they stood in the pews, their powerful, blended voices carrying into the church yard through the open windows. Slowly, they led the way to the bench as a crowd gathered, taking photos and clapping along.

At the bench, Craig Stutman of the Toni Morrison Society welcomed the large crowd and presided over the removal of a black cloth, revealing the bench and the plaque that explains its significance.

“I've always been so incredibly moved by these grounds,” he said. “I'm so happy to be back here today. As we stand upon this hallowed ground, we commemorate the lives of Hinsonville's 19th-century African American residents – farmers, artisans, missionaries and ministers, mothers, daughters, fathers and sons -- all of whom came together to establish a community in which this church served as its heart and soul and spiritual center.”

As the crowd talked and mingled after the ceremony, descendants of Hinsonville's original families took a seat on the bench, smiling as people aimed cameras and iPhones at them, taking their own place in the long history of Hosanna Church.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].