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James Kinner: A Middlesex pioneer in religion and education

The home (above) of Rev. James Kinner was built in the 1870s on Town Bridge Road close to Route 17. The home remained in the Kinner family until the late 1940s. (Photo courtesy of James Conway)

by Larry S. Chowning

James Conway and Otelia Arugunes of Gloucester County have deep roots in Middlesex County. Their ancestors were once slaves at Wood Farm and Woodstock at Hartfield, owned by the Segar and Healy families.

Their most famous Middlesex relative was their maternal great-grandfather, Rev. James Kinner, who was a pioneer in bringing religion and education to former slaves of Middlesex.

Recently, Conway and Arugunes were provided with a copy of an old book from Antioch Baptist Church’s library about their great-grandfather. Kinner’s life was documented by H. Val Washington who, in March 1899, published a small booklet about the struggles of local black ministers in the years following slavery.

Kinner was born September 19, 1821, a slave to Warner Lewis, who owned a plantation near Tappahannock. As part of a marriage commitment in the Lewis family, Kinner was exchanged to the Catesby Toms family of Black Stump in Lancaster County.

As a boy there, he started attending religious meetings that were “greatly in vogue” and held in log cabin homes of slaves on the Toms plantation.

The meetings had to be held with the written permission of the slave master or else slaves ran the risk of being caught meeting unlawfully and given “nine to thirty” lashes, the book stated.

As time passed, Kinner showed an aptitude for learning and became a leader at these religious meetings. After slavery, he went to Washington, D.C., and attended Wayland Seminary to become a Baptist minister. After completing seminary, he was called to pastor two churches in Middlesex—Antioch Baptist Church in Saluda and Grafton Baptist Church in Hartfield.

Antioch was founded in 1866 and Grafton in 1867. By 1870, church records show Rev. Kinner was officiating weddings and funerals at the two churches. Rev. William Thornton was the first pastor at Antioch and Rev. Kinner was the second.

Prior to the Civil War, Baptist churches in Middlesex were integrated. Slaves and free-blacks separated from whites in churches by sitting in the balcony or on a separate side. Also, some churches allowed blacks to meet and worship separately at different times using the church facilities.

Shortly after the defeat of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army in 1865, blacks began to establish their own churches in Middlesex. The congregation at Antioch primarily came from Clark Neck Baptist Church, today’s Saluda Baptist Church, and the Grafton congregation primarily came from Harmony Grove Baptist Church.

This portrait of Rev. James Kinner hung in the family home on Town Bridge Road until the home and property were sold in the 1940s. (Photo courtesy of James Conway)

Rev. Kinner preached at Antioch on the first and third Sundays of each month, and at Grafton the second and fourth Sundays.

Just as significant, Kinner taught former slaves, young and old, to read, write and “think for themselves” at Antioch School. The old two-room school stands today beside the church in Saluda as a reminder that early black churches and ministers were instrumental in bringing not only religion to former slaves, but also education. 

Antioch and Grafton are 12 miles apart and when preaching at Grafton, Kinner spent Saturday nights at the home of either deacon Robert Harris or deacon Henry Robinson.

In the early years, Grafton held its services in a brush arbor (outdoors) and later in a log cabin before the present church was built, wrote Washington.

Rev. Kinner baptized Washington in the Piankatank River and Washington wrote in his book about the event. “I was led with 62 other converts into the baptismal waters of the Piankatank, all with hands joined, as was the custom. A large concourse of people, both white and colored, gazed at us from the shore. I can never, ’til my dying day, forget the words that Pastor Kinner spoke to me when it came my turn to be baptized, I being one of the smallest. They were, ‘Ah, my son, though I may be dead and gone, you are intended for some good purpose.’ ”

Rev. Kinner built a two-story wood home on 50 acres of land on Town Bridge Road between Saluda and Urbanna. His daughter, Emma Jane (Kinner) Arugunes, inherited the farm. Emma and her husband, Richard Arugunes, were grandparents to James Conway and Otelia Arugunes.

Richard was an oysterman-farmer and worked at Lord Mott, a canning factory located a couple miles outside of Urbanna.

First cousins James Kinner Conway and Otelia Arugunes of Gloucester County (above) are the great-grandchildren of Rev. James Kinner, a black minister during the Reconstruction Era in Middlesex. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

Otelia was raised by the couple and remembers life on the farm. “I was born in my great-grandfather’s house. I also went to elementary school at Antioch where he taught. Everybody in the family was proud of our great-grandfather and his accomplishments, especially concerning the education of former slaves. He was well educated.

“I always heard that my grandmother (Emma) was born in Washington, D.C., when my great-grandfather was in seminary,” said Conway. “That would have been around 1867 or 1868 (right after slavery). She died in 1946 and we weren’t sure how old she was but we think she was in her 80s.

“My grandmother (Emma) was a doll,” said Otelia. “Grandmother and Granddaddy lived in the old ways. They made their own butter, raised chickens and hogs, had cows and horses, and she made the best home-made ice cream in the world.

“We smoked hams and canned all of our vegetables and fruits,” Otelia said. “I dug potatoes and picked beans. Grandmother canned apples, peaches and pears. We had an apple orchard with all different kinds of apples and we had crab apples too for cooking.

“Lord could she cook,” she said. “Sweet potato pie was the best. She also made sweet potato puffs. 

“I didn’t like it when they killed hogs,” continued Otelia. “I made sure I wasn’t home on that day because I couldn’t stand it.

“I loved being there though and a portrait of my great-grandfather (James Kinner) hung on the wall as a reminder of our past. He must have been a strong man to have brought the gospel and education to Middlesex in those dark days of Reconstruction,” said Otelia.

“I’m sure they were uneasy times,” said Conway. “Everyone was trying to figure out what to do next. I think my great-grandfather brought hope of better days to many people living here then.”

posted 02.15.2012

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