An Unexpected Surprise: New Findings on Rev. J.J. Sawyer

Still searching for a living descendant. 

I spent the majority of my research this month on compiling primary sources about Reverend Joseph J. Sawyer. Sawyer is a recent addition to my research; therefore, I need to ensure there is a good amount of information for his biography. I wrongly assumed a lot about his life and he proved me wrong. I did not expect to find much; however, the more I searched the more I found. To my amazement, Sawyer was not just a shoe-maker or minister; he was a professor, bishop, business owner, and a pioneer for the Florida AME church. Before I dive into his life, I wanted to share a few helpful databases.

Primary Sources:

  1. The Christian Recorder– The AME Church began this weekly bulletin in 1854. I found over 35 entries referencing Sawyer’s work with two written by the reverend himself. I accessed their archives through my university. 
  2. African American Newspapers Archives– This database includes only seven early black newspapers. I only found three article referencing Sawyer. 
  3. Florida MemoryFlorida Memory includes selected digitized collections from the Florida State Archives. 

Ministers in the African M.E. Church, in Eastern Florida

Picture Source

Perhaps this is the only image that exists of Sawyer (My mom said he looked like the actor from 227). It is the same image found in Laborers of the Vineyard: The Beginnings of the AME Church in FloridaAccording to Florida Memory, the image is entitled “Ministers in the African M.E. Church, in Eastern Florida. The general note stated, “Proceedings of the Quarto Centennial Conference of the African M.E. Church of South Carolina at Charleston, S.C.. May 15, 16, and 17, 1889.” I’m also interesting in learning more about the men included in the picture–Rev. W.W. Sampson, Rev. Thomas W. Long, and Penn Brooke Braddock–but my research hands are full at the moment.

So what did I find? Let’s begin with the African American newspaper database.

 From this database alone, it was surprising to find three articles. The most significant included an article which allowed me to add some bullet points to Sawyer’s resume.

Article for Sawyer

The Freeman, 1893

I only included a portion, but on the right you will see Rev. J.J. Sawyer listed as an instructor in phonography, shoe-making, and shoe repairing. He was a professor at Edward Waters College, the first institution to educate African Americans in Florida. Founded in 1866, Edward Waters College began as Brown Theological Institute. The lack of finances and mismanagement caused the school to close until 1883. Sawyer assisted in the acquisition of more funds for a school. I am unsure of which school, but perhaps it was Edward Waters College.

The Christian Recorder? 

Here, I would like to focus on the two publications by Sawyer. Published on July 26, 1877, “Palatka”, referencing a city in Florida, noted Sawyer’s success as a minister in Florida. These articles will help create a timeline as to when the family relocated from North Carolina to Florida.

For the Christian Recorder.

—–EDITOR: – Palatka, a beautiful and healthy town, is situated on the St. John’s River, 75 miles above Jacksonville. It is not very large, it is however a place of considerable importance; particularly as a winter resort for pleasure and health seeking travellers. Many steamers ply the St. John’s and stop here, some of which are very fine, and all give ample accommodation. In Palatka there are several hotel. Besides them a goodly number of boarding houses.
Our people are doing very well here. they are buying and building homes. The hammers and trowels, and paint brushes have played no small part in our community since the season is over. In the midst of Palatka, we have a church (33 x 54) the foundation of which was laid two years ago; soon after Rev. F. Carolina was appointed to the change. Through his labors it was weather boarded, covered and floored, so that the first sermon ever preached in the church was by him after my appointment; the next was mine. From the favorable impression he had left upon the minds of the people about their coming preacher, a great many met me, among them some Methodist ministers of your own city who would not leave the church until they had invoked the blessing of God on me and encouraged the brethren to stand by me. Our collections was good and that same day some unknown parties present, agreed to surprise us with the sashes for our windows, which were open. The windows would have cost us $70. 
I reached here in the latter part of Feb., and during the season my congregations (mostly white) were large and the collections good. On one occasion a minister of John St. Church, M.E. New York, added considerable worth to a sermon which I had preached by an exhortation, and after liberally contributing for himself gave $5 on behalf of his church. Many members of our church concluded to give a dollar a piece, additional to the general collection. Our collections in all have been over three hundred dollars. The first Sunday in June a revival of religion commenced. On Monday night after church, I was surprised by friends. The meeting went on, Mr. McCook a worthy gentleman and pastor of the M.E. Church (white) South here assisted me till the Presiding Elder, Bro. Scott came who spent all the time with me that he could. Elder Scott is much beloved here. Fifty joined the church; 26 were soundly converted at other points of the circuit. The Lord is blessing us also.

Bethel A.M.E. Church
Palatka, Fla. July 1877.

It was exciting to read this article written by Sawyer himself. I discover where he served including a church (Bethel AME Church), his success, his congregation which was largely white, and the welcoming of his church by the Palatka community and the greater community.

Fernandina, Florida, April 15, 1875.

DEAR RECORDER: – Thinking that perhaps some of your many readers might be pleased to know how we are getting along in the Island City of the land of flowers, I write the following:
Our church here has been surrounded by unfavorable circumstances from its organization, except a period of two years when elder John R. Scott had charge of the congregation, and built the house in which we now worship, which is in every way what we want when it is finished.
It pleased Bishop Ward to send us here this year, and we are doing the best we can.
Fernandina is a beautiful place in many respects, with about two thousand inhabitants. St. Fernandina is warmed by a genial sun and fanned by the waves of the sea. There are in the city two flourishing Baptist Churches, one M.E. North, a strong colored membership in the Roman Catholic Church. A few intelligent and influential members in the Protestant Episcopal and our Church. Now unlike every other place in the state we are the fifth, numerically, and the wall of prejudice would seem to a beholder impenetrable, yet it yields. One of the means which operates very efficiently is truth and candor. Presiding elder W.W. Sampson of Jacksonville and Professor C.B. Smith of Savannah visited our city last Friday, and on Sunday Elder Sampson preached twice to a well pleased audience, after which he gave a brief and pointed lecture, which was received with enthusiasm, showing the adaptedness of our church to the general interest of our race.
One of the kind ministers of the city knowing that Professor Smith would exhibit his panoramic scenes in our church on Monday night, ordered (so I am told) every one of his members to fill their places in his church on that night, with the information that if any of his subjects obeyed the voice of Momus, or the Muses; instead of his royal edict, they might stay at the place where the panorama was exhibited. Monday night came – the moon shone in that manner which makes Fernandina unusually beautiful. The bell of the church in question rang its warning peals, but the R.S.D. Brass Band of Fernandina composed of Fernandina’s most amiable young men, and lead by Mr. Moses Nelson, in friendship to us appeared in the street opposite to our church, and played in strains which perhaps the Psalmist would not have been ashamed to hear. Nor did they cease till our church was filled with the fairest, the proudest, and most intelligent of the city. The Professor commenced to show the best of the many panoramas that we have seen here or elsewhere, for some time. He fully meets the spirit of the times; what he shows is new, instructive, and impressive. Mr. Smith does not only present to the eye a pleasing scene, but gives in connection an appropriate lecture.
The likeness of Bishops Allen and Quinn with their history as given by Mr. Smith enhanced the value of the exhibition very much – his success here is flattering, a large crowd every night.
On the 22nd inst., we hope to have a living panorama, Bishop T.M.D. Ward at the head to grace our church and city.
Yours in Christ,

Until the next post,


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