Reverend Dr. Robert E. DuBose, Jr. and Mrs. Elizabeth Forrester established the Historical Society of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1981.
The Historical Society has two main goals as expressed in the mission statement. “The first is to collect, preserve, study and share the singular history and legacy of the first, and oldest, congregation in the Episcopal Church composed predominately of people of African descent. The second is to honor the life and Ministry of the first Episcopal priest of African descent and St. Thomas’s first rector, the Reverend Absalom Jones (1746-1818).” As a “function” of the church, volunteers carry out the activities of the Historical Society. The work of the Historical Society is managed through three committees, Administrative, Collections and Interpretation.
The Historical Society is responsible for the care of the church’s archival collection. In order to give church members an understanding of the collection and the church’s history, the Historical Society has an exhibit several times a year with items from the collection. In addition, the Historical Society offers several historic trips a year, and a reading and sharing group meeting once a month. The members of the Historical Society give tours of the church for school groups and various visiting groups and organizations.
Mandate for Preservation
The commitment to preserve the church records is based on the records retention schedule for congregation as mandated in the Constitutions and Canons of the Episcopal Church. The clergy and laity of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas have always been cognizant of their heritage. Concerted efforts to keep the church records have always been made. In 1981, it was formally recognized that the congregation had a duty to take appropriate care of the collection and thus established the Historical Society of the African Episcopal Church.
The Historical Society recognizes the renewed interest in early African American history and wants to be prepared to be an integral part of this exploration of the past. James Oronoko Dexter, a member of the Free African Society and member of St. Thomas’s first vestry, is featured in the new Constitution Center at Independence Park. The church archives contain some original and unique information on James Dexter that helps put his life and contributions in the appropriate historical context. This example of the use of the archives supports the need to preserve the collection to further the understanding of the history of this one congregation, the City of Philadelphia, the Episcopal Church, and the African-American community. The collection immediately gained national and international exposure when the Constitution Center opened in July 2003.