If the walls of the old Presbyterian church at 801 Main St. in Oxford could talk, what sort of story would they tell?
Minister Becky Davis thinks they might whisper of fugitive slaves finding shelter beneath the sacred building’s wooden floors.
Members of Davis' flock at Dodson Memorial Presbyterian believe their church served as a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1860s. Recent renovations to the church floor revealed evidence that could either support or repudiate that belief. Whether it’s true or not, though, it’s a legend that, like all good stories, draws those who share it closer together.
Dodson Memorial, originally called Oxford Presbyterian, was built in 1857 by slaves belonging to Choccolocco Valley’s first settlers. When Munford resident John Berry began renovating the church floors in May, he was supposed to remove and seal several of the floor furnace registers. Beneath the register at the front of the sanctuary, Berry found something he couldn’t explain: a space dug out of the foundation. The hole is a small, rough cellar, about 10 feet long and just wide and deep enough for two people to stand shoulder to shoulder.
When Berry climbed down into the dark room, he found a half-rotten wooden ladder discarded in what looked like a trench or tunnel. The tunnel extended from the cellar’s corner toward the church’s brick foundation.
After he mentioned what he found to churchgoers, they told him the story they’ve swapped with each other for years: During the 1860s, Dodson Memorial Presbyterian was a part of the Underground Railroad.
Not a real railway, the Underground Railroad was a secret network of abolitionists and safe houses that fugitive slaves relied on to escape to freedom. The network stretched from deep in the South, as far as New Orleans and Mexico, to slavery-free northern states and Canada.
Berry believes the story. “It didn’t make sense to me that they’d have that hole dug out like that,” he said. “Finding the ladder was even more convincing. It was there for a reason.”
Linda Crow, a member of Dodson’s congregation since the 1980s, wants to believe it, too. She just wishes there was more evidence to support the story. Crow compiled a history of the church for its 150th anniversary in 2007.
She based her history on the church’s session minutes, newspaper articles and several previous histories including the biography of John McIver Forbes, a wealthy slave owner who helped build the church, and the private records of John L. Dodson, for whom it was named.
But the only source that mentions the church and the Underground Railroad is an out-of-print publication by the Alabama Bureau of Tourism called “Alabama’s Black Heritage.”
Crow said she wasn’t aware of that part of Dodson’s history until the late 1990s, when the tourism bureau’s publication was circulating. But other members who grew up in the congregation remember hearing the story as children.
Davis also wants to believe her church was a stop on the Underground Railroad. She said it would “add to the legacy of one of Calhoun County’s oldest places of worship.” It might also offer some redemption to a church built by slave labor.
A tantalizing story
Paul Beezley, an assistant professor of history at Jacksonville State University, thinks Dodson’s story could be true for two reasons.
First, the Underground Railroad did extend into the Deep South, even as far as New Orleans, and this part of Alabama, he said, was an important corridor for travel back in the 19th century.
Second, the Presbyterian Church accepted that all men were created equal in God's eyes. In 1861 the church decreed no slave owner could be a member in good standing of any Presbyterian church, then the largest denomination.
Southern Presbyterians rejected this decree and broke away, justifying slavery by stating inequality on earth was part of God’s plan. The split would not be mended until 1983. Still, Beezley said “some whites recognized the basic humanity of blacks (because) Christianity encouraged this and predisposed them to help.”
John Giggie, an associate professor of American and Southern history at the University of Alabama, also thinks Dodson Memorial’s connection to the Underground Railroad could be real.
“It was rare, though not unheard of, for Southern Presbyterian churches to question slavery,” he said. “There were other instances of such churches expending their resources to help slaves escape.”
But, Giggie added, it also wasn’t uncommon for churches to have root cellars where they would store canned goods and valuables. These cellars were often discovered and looted by Union troops during the Civil War.
“It’s a tantalizing story,” he said, and one with little evidence to back it up. With the rediscovery of the cellar and trench, “the congregation could be one step closer to confirming it was a stop on the Underground Railroad” — or it could just be proof the church had a cool place to store canned goods.
Dodson Memorial was Mike Winship’s first assignment as a Presbyterian minister. He lead the church from 1963 to 1967, during the height of the civil rights movement, and remembers meeting with ministers from other Anniston churches the day after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham.
“We all met to try and figure out what we could say from the pulpit,” he recalled. “We knew we had to preach about it.”
Winship, who now lives in Butler, Pa., doesn’t remember hearing about Dodson’s Underground Railroad legend, though. It was the church’s 150th anniversary in 2007 when he first heard the story.
But whether or not it was a hideaway for slaves seeking freedom won’t change how Crow views her place of worship.
“If it’s not true, that doesn’t affect my view of the church at all,” she said. “It doesn’t change the positive impact Dodson Memorial has had on its community for so many years.”
Although she wishes the story could be proven: “This is not something you talk about if it isn’t true.”
A common bond
True or not, Bob Dunaway, a member of Dodson’s congregation for the last eight years, feels the story has become a part of the church.
He remembers some of the oldest church members telling him about it when he started attending. They’ve since passed, he said, but the story continues to be shared. Dunaway is now a member of Dodson’s governing body, and he believes it — even if he realizes “there’s just no way to know for sure.”
Dodson’s legend does seem to be an inseparable part of its current congregation’s history. Nancy Whitley remembers hearing about its history in the Underground Railroad from churchgoers who were old when she first began attending as an 8-year-old in 1958. During winter months, she said it was her father who removed the floor register and lit the church’s furnace — he wouldn’t have missed seeing the cellar.
Whitley thinks the story gives the congregation a “common bond.”
“No one wants to think that the original church members back in the 1800s tortured or beat their slaves,” she said. “I’d love to think that they tried to do something like this — tried to risk their lives for this cause.”
“The church is a sanctuary,” he said — a refuge for the repressed. “That’s what a sanctuary is supposed to be.”