Woonsocket's St. James Baptist Church

PROVIDENCE, RI – Back in the late 1930's, early 40's, during the Great Migration, black families started moving from rural South Carolina to Woonsocket for jobs in the mills and factories.

Dorothy Chaplin was a little girl when her family moved from Newberry, South Carolina to Woonsocket. Her family, like others, came for the jobs. The men found work at places like clothing manufacturer Jacob Finkelsteins and Sons, the women worked in wealthy homes.

"My Uncle Thomas, uncle Moose we'd call, he'd make frequent trips to the south. He has drove cars back with nine or ten people in one car," says Chaplin.

When they arrived,they were told they could only live on River or Front Streets.

There was probably two or three houses that all the blacks lived in," says Chaplin. "And a majority of them, they came and they stayed with family and then we moved across the street."

James Hinson was one of those River Street residents. He owned a store there as well. It's where Dora Wilson and other southern transplants could buy food that tasted like home.

"We could find the collards, we could find the fish because we weren't use to all of this spaghetti and stuff," says Wilson.

When he wasn't running the store, Hinson was a pastor at Olney Street Baptist Church in Providence. He saw that Woonsocket's growing black population needed its own Baptist church, so he rented a meeting hall on River Street, borrowed chairs from a funeral home, and started what would become St. James Baptist Church. Dorothy Chaplin remembers those early days, "The first church was right there on the corner, High Street and River, just like a dingy hall, a little dingy, dirty dusty hall."

Nearly six decades and three locations later, St. James Baptist Church has 350 members, about 175 who attend regularly. St. James has a youth ministry, five choirs, collects clothing and school supplies for needy families, and runs a food pantry out of a back room.

Pastor Sammy Vaughn has spent the last 20 years preaching from the pulpit. And he's finding himself comforting many in his flock who are broke and unemployed.

But the congregation has been here before. It has weathered the closing of American Copper Sponge, A.T. Cross and Miller Electric. Josie Byrd was one of those workers at Miller Electric. She got married at St. James Baptist Church more than 40 years ago. It's where she raised her kids.

"My daughter is still, she's still in church. The boys went their separate ways and I try to encourage them to get their children involved because their life is what it is because they grew up in the church," says Byrd.

Like all pastors, Reverend Vaughn worries about growth. His dream for St. James ten years from now

"If you come to church at 10:30 you won't get a seat I would love to see that happen. You would have to be here early to get a seat, yeah," he says.

When Vaughn needs a little does of determination he looks at the old records to remind himself that with a little money and a lot of faith, 15 people and a pastor built a church that now serves the community both inside and outside its doors.

Personal Stories of Race Relations in Woonsocket
Four members of St. James Baptist Church tell their stories of growing up and raising families in Woonsocket.

To hear their stories, click here.

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