Bettie Thompson and the James Street Holiness Church by Sonja Ingram

Bettie Thompson was a young African American woman who, in 1891, despite opposition, founded the James Street Holiness Church in Danville, Virginia during a time when African Americans, women, and the religious movement she embraced were all being excluded and ill-treated. Under Thompson’s guidance, the James Street Holiness Church endured and grew to become a successful church that, at its height, had over eight hundred members.

Today the James Street Church is no longer a place of worship, but it embodies the rich history and contributions of African American women in Virginia, North Carolina, and the nation—history that has been continually and systematically underrepresented for centuries; but once these stories are told, they reveal how black women have been breaking down barriers for generations.

Bettie Thompson was born in the 1860s-1870s (the exact date is currently unknown) in the Oberlin Neighborhood of Raleigh,[1] a freedman’s village established by African Americans after Emancipation. While a young woman, Thompson joined a local Holiness group to her parents’ great distress. An article from the Wilmington Messenger in 1892 reads, “The family of Bettie Thompson are seeking to recover that lamb from the wolf’s clutches. Bettie was one of the prettiest mulatto girls in Oberlin and was one of the ‘Holiness’ women whom Loney [a leader of the local holiness Movement] made crazy.[2]

The Holiness Movement, which began in the 19th century, traces its roots to the Methodist Church, but developed into its own sect with different practices such as sanctification and perfectionism. While members of the Holiness Movement were often violently treated early on,[3] the Movement grew in numbers, and included many African American and women leaders.[4]

Based on the limited research done on Bettie Thompson, it appears that she moved to North Danville[5]  in the 1880s. Danville, at one time known as the “World’s Largest Tobacco Manufacturer,” was a tobacco marketing and manufacturing town located in the heart of the “Old Belt”—the Piedmont region of Virginia and North Carolina known for growing bright-leaf tobacco.

But despite Danville’s economic advantages from its strong tobacco-based economy, it, like many southern cities, struggled with civil unrest during Reconstruction as white residents began to resent the political, economic and social gains of freed African Americans. In 1883, the “Danville Riot,”[6] a racially motivated street fight between Danville citizens, ended in the deaths of at least five people and began an unfortunate downward turn for mobility among local African Americans. Still, eight years later, a young Bettie Thompson had enough drive and resources to start her own church in Danville.

In 1894, three years after the James Street Holiness Church was established, several local newspapers, as well as the New York Times, printed articles that revealed how some Black Baptist leaders in Danville thought Thompson was deluding people to join her church, and how they wanted Thompson and her followers excommunicated. The article states:

The colored Baptist churches and their pastors in this city, North Danville, and the surrounding country are thoroughly stirred up and alarmed over the work of this woman. This alarm has been intensified because a church in North Danville has gone over almost bodily to Bettie Thompson’s beliefs, including the pastor.  The preachers have held a meeting and threaten to withdraw the hand of fellowship from the church, and have resolved to excommunicate all their members who run after the Thompson woman. The colored preachers and members of their flocks declare the fight is on and they will not rest content until the woman shall be driven from this section.[7]

Clearly Thompson overcame this hostility and the James Street Holiness Church remained active until 2017. News articles and census records provide a glimpse of what Bettie Thompson was like. Census records from the early 20th century and Thompson’s 1951 death certificate list her profession as either “pastor,” “minister,” or “preacher.”  But more research is necessary to uncover more about her character and accomplishments, including her life growing up in the Oberlin Community, her decision to join a Movement that was being heavily persecuted at the time, her parents’ distress over her spiritual leanings, and her leadership skills and charisma.

The James Street Holiness Church endured for 125 years, but after membership declined, services stopped being held sometime around 2017. Over the years flooding from a nearby creek has caused damage to the church’s basement. In 2018, Hurricanes Florence and Michael caused one of the biggest flooding events Danville has ever witnessed, and the James Street Church was not spared.  The church’s basement flooded and a layer of mud was deposited over almost everything in building’s lower levels. The church’s (possibly original) tin roof was also damaged and unfortunately, the building is now becoming vulnerable to maintenance notices by city inspection officials.

In 2017, Rita Smith, a member of the James Street Holiness Church, reached out to Preservation Virginia, the state’s historic preservation non-profit organization, for assistance in saving the church. [8]

The building has been altered some over the years as exterior siding was installed over the original wood siding and the ceilings were lowered for better heat retention, but the original windows and church pews remain in place.

As the church Trustees showed Preservation Virginia staff around, they noticed a black snake hiding in the window blinds. After a bit of a kerfuffle, a local police officer arrived and moved it outside near a tree, which itself appeared to have stories to tell, as it looked as if it had been decorated over the years, perhaps during outside gatherings.

In May 2020, Preservation Virginia [9] added the James Street Holiness Church to Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places List [10] as a way to help raise awareness to save the church and its rich history.  Preservation Virginia is currently assisting the church trustees with a grant to help repair the hurricane damage.

The trustees want the church restored and have it put back into use as a place of worship, or as a community education center. Trustee Rita Smith stated in a recent local news article [11] that she would not want to see Thompson’s legacy disappear.

Smith’s comments have been far too long the norm, as historians have habitually ignored the lives and contributions of black women. But in the 19th century and before, Black  women, whether enslaved, free, or freed in later life, resisted the oppressive systems in which they lived and became successful politicians, educators, entrepreneurs, religious leaders and other successful trailblazers.

As further research uncovers more about Bettie Thompson and the James Street Holiness Church, the church Trustees and Preservation Virginia are optimistic that more about Thompson’s life and accomplishments will be uncovered and that the church building will be rehabilitated so it can be put back to use for the North Danville community–a community likely full of more amazing African American women whose stories have yet to be discovered.

 Sonja Ingram is a historic preservationist and an archaeologist. She works for Preservation Virginia, the nation’s oldest statewide historic preservation organization, assisting organizations and individuals across the state in preserving important and irreplaceable historic places.

[1] Oberlin Village, Raleigh Historic Development Commission. Raleigh Historic. (Retrieved: June 3, 2020).

[2] ‘Our Raleigh Letter.’ The Wilmington Messenger, Wilmington, North Carolina. December 22, 1892. Page 1. (Retrieved: March 19, 2020).

[3] ‘North State Cullings.’ Bryson City Times, Bryson City, North Carolina. September 4, 1896. (Retrieved: March 19, 2020).

One of the most violent episodes against members of the Holiness Movement in North Carolina was an attack on a group called “the Sanctified Band” who were living in boats on the Chowan River. Newspaper articles state that about 150 heavily armed people shot at the boats for hours, killing at least one person and wounding several others.

[4] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. ‘Phoebe Worrall Palmer, American Evangelist and Writer’.  Encyclopedia Britannica. (Retrieved: June 3, 2020).

[5]  Teresa Douglass, Peggy Nickell, Phil Thomason, Thomason & Associates.  North Danville Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. December 2, 2003.  North Danville, also called Neapolis, was a commercial and residential community on the north side of the Dan River north of Danville City proper. North Danville was later annexed into Danville City. Today North Danville is a National Register of Historic Places Historic District and it maintains a strong sense of time and place of its turn-of-the-century character.

[6] Brendan Wolfe, ‘Danville Riot.’ Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities. (Retrieved: June 5, 2020).

[8] ‘Danville woman seeks to restore James Street church built in 1891: Rita Smith hopes to bring back house of worship after it closed two years ago.’ Danville Register & Bee. Aug 7, 2017 (Retrieved: June 5, 2020).

[9] Preservation Virginia. (Retrieved: June 5, 2020).

[10] ‘Most Endangered Historic Places’ Preservation Virginia. June 5, 2020).

[11] John Crane. ‘Church landing on endangered historic sites list embodies history of African American community and women in Danville, historical leader says.’  Danville Register & Bee. May 25, 2020. (Retrieved: June 3, 2020).