A Hidden New Jersey Historical Treasure

Posted on 28 March 2011

Photos Courtesy of Martin Griff / The Times


Hollywood launched Roots, a blockbuster mini-series that captured our hearts in illustrating the struggles of Negroes in pre-Civil War America.  With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X at the helm of later struggles, history relates the diverse approaches used to achieve racial equality as promised by the Constitution of the United States of America.  But perhaps nothing tells more about a people than their artifacts: the things they leave behind them as roadmaps to and touchstones of the past.  Some of these artifacts can be found in a seemingly unlikely locale: the Geraldine Carter-Bethel Library within the Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, New Jersey, at 340 S. Howard Woodson Jr. Way.

Upon reflection, this landmark church is the perfect place to serve as a library/museum for literature, photographs, and items used in donors’ daily lives.  Down through history, African-Americans have embraced the Lord as a respite from their travails and a source of strength leading to empowerment.  So it stands to reason that a church should become the repository of the things that marked life’s experiences for the faithful of the Shiloh Baptist Church.

Established in 1972 with donations of little more than $3,000, the library/museum, housed within the late nineteenth century church, rests in the capable hands of Elizabeth Carter Lacy.  At the age of 77, this retiree is well motivated to source, catalog, preserve, and showcase the myriad historical items.  Ms. Lacy, you see, has been a member of the Shiloh Baptist Church since infancy; her uncle, Deacon Robert Carter and his wife, Esther, were the library/museum’s founders.  The library/museum continues to evolve with the memorabilia of family, friends, and the congregation, items that track African-American moments in history.

Ms. Lacy herself represents one such moment.   She watched her father, who was forced to abandon his education after the 5th Grade, strive to create a better life for his family.  Progressing by degrees from chauffeur to PSE&G’s first Black boiler-operator, Elizabeth’s dad realized his dreams.  His hard work and focus sent Elizabeth to Cheney State Teachers University (formerly, College) and financed her sister’s education, which culminated in a Master’s degree and a career as a nurse.

As curator of the library/museum, Ms. Lacy proudly explains the rich heritage of the objects entrusted to her care.   Among the treasures are:

– A letter dated 1913 from former Pastor, John A. White, requesting that the congregation confer in order to establish the Trenton chapter of the NAACP

– A photograph of Barack Obama commemorating his visit to the church prior to his Presidential campaign

– A World War I helmet bestowed by a church member, and a World War II bugle donated by Elizabeth’s husband, musician Bill Lacy: testimonies to African-Americans having served in every war in which our nation was engaged

Less sensational but no less indicative of life in this community are antique cookie jars and a Black baby doll, obituaries, and photographs, some of which Elizabeth Lacy herself has collected.  She displays a special fondness for a photo of a Miss Mae Rose, who once presented the young Ms. Lacy with a heavy glass water bottle.  Although the bottle was completely empty, it symbolized the meaningful adage about seeing the glass half empty or half full.  Miss Mae Rose had advised young Elizabeth that she could fill the bottle up with pennies to help “an average girl” foot her college tuition.

Elizabeth is now paying it forward with another large glass water bottle on display at the library/museum.  She is filling it up with pennies in the hope of helping fund the education of “an average woman.”

Tradition is kept alive in other ways: with the aid of the church’s historical society, Elizabeth’s children, Wanda Lacy McNeill and Susan Lacy, help to maintain the library/museum at Shiloh Baptist Church.

If you are interested in experiencing this slice of American history, please call the church at (609) 695-2448 to arrange for an enjoyable and unforgettable tour.


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6 Responses to “A Hidden New Jersey Historical Treasure”

  1. Editor says:

    Kudos to Kathleen for uncovering this little known piece of Americana in New Jersey’s capital.

  2. Sallie Beach says:

    Thanks for sharing this information.

  3. Regina Kirkland says:

    After reading this article, I may pay a visit to the museum myself.

  4. CC says:

    Lots of New Jersey college students should be interested in this little piece of NJ history.

  5. Marian Suarez says:

    Great post!

  6. Glenna says:

    The information in this article is not at all well known. Thanks for bringing it to my attentions.

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