Arts & Life

Tradition in Transition – Voices, February 2011

Written by Janelle Harris | Jan 24, 2011 6:54 PM

From an outside perspective, Mount Sinai Union American Methodist Episcopal must look like little more than an aging one-room church.

Nestled in rural Peach Bottom, a community small enough to qualify as a village on the very southern end of Lancaster County, it lacks big-church glamour. There is no elaborate décor, no stained-glassed windows, no breathtaking architecture. There are more trees than congregation members, and one lone street lamp lights the property.

Yet the treasures of African-American history and culture alive within that tiny church are the wealth of its entire community.

Every second Sunday in August at Mount Sinai is annual Rigby Day — and has been for at least the past 150 years, probably longer. Part outdoor barbecue, part family reunion and part church revival, it's a celebration of faith, family and fellowship that brings out the best in already good people. And it might be the only day of the year that Peach Bottom sees traffic in the double digits.

Each carload traveling Arcadia Trace and Cherry Hill Roads has it own reason for being there. "I think people come to Rigby because it's somewhere their parents came years ago," says Mildred Harris, former pastor steward and secretary at Mount Sinai. "They know they can hear the gospel, eat good food and see people they haven't seen in years."

That the tradition has survived six generations is a testament to its resilience. Now, however, as the once hearty community of black folks age and pass away, and their children and grandchildren leave the community to chase their own stars elsewhere, the future of Rigby — and other African-American traditions like it all over the country — hang in limbo.

Rigby began as a day to commemorate Jarrett Rigby, a property-owning black man who donated land to build the original Union Church of Africans in 1834. (Many sources have credited James Milburn for also donating some land). The church gave permanence to the religious meetings regularly held at Rigby's home in Arcadia. Because of his gift and because it was close to his home, the church became known as Rigby's Meeting House. It was there that an annual meeting of ministers, trustees and preachers convened on the second Sunday of August to discuss church affairs, social issues and the welfare of the people in the small but tight-knit cluster of African-Americans.

As the Rigby meeting grew from general business to include an early morning Love Feast and afternoon festivities, meeting attendees brought along their families to enjoy the day-long event. Rigby Day, as it is today, was born. No one knows exactly when it started — some aged documents say immediately after the building of the church; elders who have lived in the area for decades claim it was as late as 1850. But this much is certain: Rigby has been a fixture in Lancaster County for more than a century.

At one time, Rigby drew hundreds of people to Peach Bottom from surrounding states and cities. They traveled by foot, wagon, horseback and the Narrow Gauge Train, nicknamed the Rigby Special to acknowledge the influx of riders on that special day. Until the Narrow Gauge's discontinuance in 1919, Rigby Day was the rail company's single largest source of revenue. Every available car would be installed with seats and benches to accommodate the increased number of riders.

But on the second Sunday in August for years now, the cars, which once snaked along the steep embankment on Arcadia Trace Road, have been sparse. The church grounds, though still busier than normal, aren't as thick with people as they used to be. The tradition is sputtering, struggling from lack of interest from younger people and the fact that older ones haven't instilled an appreciation for the importance of this institution or others like it.

Locally, the only African-American event that compared to the popularity of Rigby was Homecoming Day at Mount Zoar African Methodist Episcopal Church in Conowingo, Maryland. Unfortunately, that celebration has become a thing of the past.

Some think that's the fate of Rigby Day, too — that it, like so many other extraordinary parts of our heritage, will eventually dissolve into photographs and second-hand memories. "Most of the old people who know the tradition have died," says former church trustee and Peach Bottom native Emma Murray. "And the young people aren't old enough to appreciate the tradition."

There are a few, this writer included, who understand the value of upholding customs and preserving Rigby Day, especially in an area where black history isn't the first thing to come to mind. It's the least younger folks can do to pay homage to their forefathers and mothers, who had to work so much harder for the things they take for granted daily, and a small way to acknowledge where their help has — and still does — come from.

Published in Voices

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