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In Darkness with God: The Life of Joseph Gomez, a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church

In Darkness with God: The Life of Joseph Gomez, a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church

4.3 6
by Annetta L Gomez-Jefferson

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Joseph Gomez (1890–1979) was a charismatic minister who rose through the ranks of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to be ordained a bishop in 1948. He was also a teacher, civil right pioneer, scholar, writer, and humanitarian. His daughter, Annetta L. Gomez-Jefferson, has drawn on letters, journals, and church records to write his biography and a


Joseph Gomez (1890–1979) was a charismatic minister who rose through the ranks of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to be ordained a bishop in 1948. He was also a teacher, civil right pioneer, scholar, writer, and humanitarian. His daughter, Annetta L. Gomez-Jefferson, has drawn on letters, journals, and church records to write his biography and a history of the age in which he lived.

Gomez-Jefferson captures the growing concern of the Black middle-class with civil rights and its persistent attempts to confront problems with tactics less confrontational than those of the sixties and seventies.

More than a biography, In Darkness with God is a history of Black life during the early part of the century and a chronicle of the political and religious struggles of the first autonomous Black church in the United States.

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Kent State University Press
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6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

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Chapter One

Antigua, Trinidad, 1890-1908

Never given to defeat by the fell circumstances of fate or opposition, neither by the barriers of time or fortune, he was born with an indomitable spirit and an unconquerable passion for facing untried frontiers. ... He was small in stature, but his compatriots had to look up to see him, for his heights of vision and his ideals made him lofty in stature. ... They called him "The Little Giant."

--Eulogy delivered by Bishop Hubert N. Robinson at the funeral of Joseph Gomez, May 2, 1979, Bethel A.M.E. Church, Detroit, Michigan

    Joseph Antonio Guminston Gomes's eighty-nine-year odyssey began in 1890 in Willikies, a village on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean. He was the first son of Rebecca Richardson, of African descent, and Manoel Gomes, a Portuguese merchant. His arrival ensured the continuation of unorthodox "firsts" for the Gomeses. Like his parents, he would courageously navigate trackless seas and flourish even in hostile environs.

    Joseph's maternal great-grandmother was known as "Miss Providence" (first name unknown). She lived with David Joseph, a slave who had been born in Anquilla in 1814. As a teenager, David had come to Antigua with his half-brother to help in the construction of a bridge. Later he worked on the sugar estates. When emancipation came to Antigua in 1834, like most other Blacks David chose not to continue to work for his former master, who was now offering the meager wage of six pence for a day's labor. Some of his friends left for Trinidad soon after they were freed, but David followed the lead of other acquaintances who moved to land outside the estates, where they soon formed villages. Appropriately, they gave these villages such names as Freetown, Liberta, and Freeman. By 1842 there were twenty-seven such independent villages on the island.

    David moved his family to Willikies Village, which had received its name from Will Hickey, a wealthy "coloured" man. There David was able to amass a large amount of land, probably by availing himself of cheap "ten-acre land" originally set aside to attract new white settlers--when only a few whites took advantage of the offer, the land was sold to emancipated Blacks.

    As in most of the villages, the majority of people who inhabited Willikies were Black and poor. They lived in one-story, two-room "spit and fire" houses made of white clay, crowned with thatched roofs of "feeble grass." The names of the type of houses and the materials used to build them are indications of how precarious they were. The villagers ate the fish they caught and the few yams, cassavas, or sweet potatoes in their gardens that managed to survive the severe droughts plaguing the island. These vegetables were complemented by mangoes, coconuts, pineapples, bananas, and other fruits found on the land.

    David Joseph was one of the few villagers who fared well. A mason, he lived in a "wall house" which he built for himself. Some time in 1836 he and Miss Providence were blessed with a son, whom they named Richard Joseph; he was to become Joseph Gomes's maternal grandfather. Richard was affectionately called "Bojo" by the villagers. When he became a man, he changed his name to Joseph Richardson, because, he said, there were too many people in Antigua with the last name of "Joseph"; consequently, Rebecca (Joseph Gomes's mother) and all his other children carried the name "Richardson."

    Joseph Gomes's other maternal great-grandfather, a Mr. Nathaniel (first name unknown), married an octoroon, Mary Anne Gordon, the daughter of a mulatto mother and a father whose family had originated in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Despising the fact that her birth had been the result of her mother's forced miscegenation with her white master, Mary Anne chose to marry a Black man rather than an octoroon like herself. It did not matter to her that according to white standards her Anglo-Saxon blood placed her "a cut above" her pure-Black husband. Mr. Nathaniel and Mary Anne gave birth to Sarah Nathaniel, who later became Rebecca's mother and Joseph Gomes's maternal grandmother.

    When Rebecca's parents met is not documented. They must have played together as children, since both lived in the same village. What is known is that some time in the 1860s Sarah Nathaniel and Joseph Richardson lived together (only approximately 30 percent of the couples on the island were legally married). Sarah and Joseph had five children: Rebecca (called Zoe by the villagers), James, John, Manton, and Emma. Joseph made his living as a fisherman. In 1884, when Sarah was eight months pregnant with her last child, Joseph died in his fishing boat, apparently the victim of a heart attack. He was forty-eight, ten years older than Sarah, who suddenly found herself a widow with the responsibility of raising five children, one yet unborn.

    Her greatest comfort during this period was her oldest daughter, Rebecca, who even as a child was strong willed and determined to achieve. Rebecca's favorite game was "bakery shop." Every afternoon she would slip away from the house and hide in a thick grove of trees. There in the shadows she would turn out hundreds of imaginary loaves for a crowd of invisible people waiting to taste her succulent bread. Today the older villagers refer to that spot as "Zoe's Oven." It is ironic that this game became the real occupation of her future husband, and bread the means of prosperity in the early years of their relationship.

    Rebecca's future baker (Joseph Gomes's father) was Manoel Gomes. He was born in the parish of Monte in Madeira, Portugal, some time during the late 1850s (because of the scarcity of records, the exact date cannot be known). He was the son of Antonio and Antonia Gomes. Antonia had had at least three children by a former marriage, Maria, Joao, and Jose. The family loved their island home, encircled by the Atlantic Ocean. But the red clay-roofed houses ascending the picturesque mountains could not compensate for the poverty, illiteracy, and shortage of jobs.

    Beginning in 1836, enganhadores ("deceivers") went through the parishes spreading propaganda about the vast opportunities to be found in the West Indies--opportunities for any family adventurous enough to come to work on the sugar estates. The British government's Sessional Papers of 1847-1848 made the venture more inviting by offering to pay the Portuguese for one year double the wages paid emancipated Blacks. Before the end of the century, thirty-thousand Portuguese would go to British Guyana and thousands more to other parts of the West Indies. Among the number who went to Antigua were Antonio and Antonia Gomes.

    They traveled down steep, rugged mountain paths from Monte to Funchal, the capital of Madeira. There they stayed with friends while waiting for their passports and other papers to be processed. As was the custom, on the day of departure they went to the Catedral de Se to pray for a safe journey and good fortune in the New World. Finally, along with relatives, friends, and other passengers, they boarded a vessel, occupying that part of the ship designated "third class." Often these ships were little more than cattle boats, but to the passengers the crudeness of the transportation was secondary to the promise of a better existence in Antigua.

    After a long, imperiled trek across the Atlantic, weakened by seasickness and hunger, they arrived at English Harbor, Antigua. They must have been a curious sight--the men in their wrinkled, soiled cotton shirts, the women in long stained skirts and wearing scarves on their heads. Going through immigration, they heard their names anglicized from Manoel to Emanuel or Mani, from Antonia to Antonetta, Jose to Joseph, Joao to John, and their last name from Gomes (pronounced "Gomesh" in Portuguese) to a flat English "Gums." This was just the beginning of their painful introduction to the British.

    When they had passed through customs they were met by representatives of the various estates, who were to take them to their new homes. Some were to go to the Long Lane estate, others the Collins estate, or the Lavington estate, etc. It is not certain to which place the Gomeses were assigned; in any case, no transportation was provided, and they walked, carrying the younger children and all their belongings on their backs. Antonio carried Mani, while his cousin, Maria Rodrigues, carried a pestle and mortar she had brought from Madeira so she could grind cocoa in order to make extra money (these items are now the property of the author, in Wooster, Ohio).

    When the family finally arrived at their estate, they were horrified to discover they were expected to live in shacks that had once been slave quarters, the most dilapidated accommodations imaginable. They soon learned not only that living and working conditions were harsh but that they were expected to endure the exploitation, arrogance, and hatred of the owners. The English needed their labor but nonetheless looked down on the Portuguese because they were illiterate for the most part, came from the laboring class, were not English, and even worse, were Roman Catholics. Some Portuguese died from the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1858 in the capital city of St. John. Others returned to Madeira, disheartened by their experiences on the estates; but those who remained were able to survive because of their strong religious faith, tenacity of purpose, and loyalty to each other as members of a people. Unlike the Africans, they had not been unwillingly wrested from their homeland in chains, made to endure the dehumanizing effects of slavery, the brutal attempts of their master to beat from their minds and bodies every trace of their heritage and culture.

    A major disappointment for Antonio and Antonetta when they arrived in Antigua, however, was that there were only a few Catholics on the island and no church building. With the coming of more Portuguese, there grew a pressing need for a Catholic church. Until that need could be met, they had to worship in the Anglican church or attend the few masses that were held on the Blackman Sugar estate. Occasionally during the year a priest would come from another island to rebaptize or remarry those who of necessity had had these rites performed in the Anglican church. Finally, in 1871, St. Joseph Catholic Church was built in St. John. Mani's relatives, as well as other Portuguese, played a significant role in the building of the church.

    Those few Portuguese who had not come to Antigua as indentured servants established themselves in businesses in St. John almost immediately. The others soon worked off their contracts and opened shops in the villages and cities. By 1900 most of the stores on the island were owned by the Portuguese, who now formed a new merchant class. In time they began to buy parcels of the old estates, which the owners had to sell because of the declining sugar cane market.

    A few years after Antonio arrived in Antigua, he was able by working "task" rather than "hour" jobs to save enough money to move his family to Seaton Village. Most likely he chose this location because he already had relatives living there: Impolta de Sousa, Pedro Marques, and the Trinidads and de Freitas families. As soon as he had settled his family he opened up a dry goods shop. In 1987, a 102-year-old, blind villager remembered the shop. She recalled how she and the other children used to stand outside and beg for gumdrops, the store's most popular treat. She also remembered how clean the shop was always kept. "They were clean people," she repeated over and over, "Clean--clean!" In her fading memory, this image seemed to stand out more than any other.

    When Mani, Antonio's and Antonetta's son, became a teenager, he worked in his father's shop so he could save enough money to go into business for himself someday, as most enterprising Portuguese sons were expected to do. He was a quiet, thoughtful young man, whose preference was to ride around the island on his favorite horse, or sit on the beach dreaming. Like other Portuguese men of his age, he enjoyed the company of women; for a time he had an African concubine, who bore him a daughter, Victoria.

    Attitudes toward this kind of relationship differed among the races. To the English, it was acceptable for Portuguese or English males to have African mistresses, or to have relationships in addition to their wives, as long as their mistresses were not English "ladies." In Portugal, despite the dictates of the Catholic Church, there had frequently existed extramarital relationships; once in Antigua, however, finding themselves a minority in search of status, the Portuguese developed a stricter code of ethics, one that emulated the British. Consequently, it was all right for a Portuguese man to choose an African mistress, but never a Portuguese "lady." Equally as strict was the unwritten law that a Portuguese man must never "degrade" himself by marrying an African woman.

    There were many circumstances growing out of slavery that helped mold the Black woman's view of concubinage. Before emancipation she had been at the mercy of the master, who often used her at will to satisfy his sexual appetite. From this union had come mulatto children, whom the master often treated better than his other slaves. Additionally, the refusal of whites to recognize the marriages of African men and women or to consider their children to be other than chattel made such unions difficult. This was especially true because of the frequency with which masters would sell males and destroy family units, leaving the mothers to fight alone for their children's survival.

    When slavery ended, an even more rigid class structure came into existence in Antigua. At the top was the English, next the Portuguese, then the sprinkling of other races on the island. Next came the "Coloureds," and at the very bottom were those of pure African descent. Some Blacks began to equate the color of their skins with their condition of poverty, illiteracy, hopelessness, and powerlessness. A common prayer heard throughout the island was, "Lord, We beseech Thee in our darkness." Frequently women would reason that a relationship with a white man, which carried promises of economic security, was a way out of darkness to light--if not for them, for their "Coloured" children. On the other hand, with few exceptions, the Black males saw such arrangements as another means of exploitation and emasculation--the deliberate destruction of their race.

    This background is important to any appreciation of the uniqueness of the relationship between Mani and Rebecca, Joseph's father and mother. They met probably some time around 1885, in either Seaton, where he lived at the time, or Willikies, where she lived. Both villages are in St. Phillips Parish; they are adjacent to each other. Rebecca had relatives whom she often visited in Seaton; Mani's widowed sister, Maria, ran a shop in Willikies, where she lived with her four children. How or where Mani and Rebecca got together is of less importance than the fact that they not only met but formed a love relationship. Whatever their first motives, it soon became obvious theirs would be a life partnership.

    Rebecca's mother, Sarah, gave her quiet consent to the affair, believing this union with a Portuguese merchant would enable her daughter to have a better life than most Blacks had on the island. Besides, she was fond of this gentle man, who seemed from the first to worship Rebecca. Mani's parents also acquiesced, since they thought their son was just "sowing his wild oats" in a traditional Portuguese male way, as he had done with his other African mistress.

    On May 23, 1887, Rebecca bore Mania daughter, whom they named Mary Justina Gomes. Mani had insisted the baby carry his name, despite his father's strong objection. Mary was baptized by the Roman Catholic priest, even though at the time Rebecca was Anglican. Rebecca had promised Mani that all her children would be baptized by a Catholic priest. Following the birth, Mani made the unorthodox decision not only to build a house for Rebecca but to live with her. This was a "first" in Antigua, and it was the final blow to Antonio, who from that day until his last never acknowledged Mani as his son and refused to allow Antonetta to visit Mani or his "Black bastards."

    Undeterred by his father's extreme reaction, Mani built Rebecca what was considered at the time a spacious house in the center of Willikies. Its living room, dining room, kitchen, three bedrooms, long front porch, bakery, stable, and outhouse were the envy of the villagers. (The house later was made into a police station, and Mani's bakery outside the main house was divided into cells. In 1994 the entire compound burned to the ground.) The villagers were even more amazed when they saw the fancy carriage and thoroughbred horses Mani bought to carry Rebecca and her daughter around the island.

    In the late summer of 1888, Rebecca found she was again pregnant; on December 27 another daughter was born, Amanda Indiana. To assist Rebecca, Mani hired a housekeeper. Mani demanded that people treat Rebecca with the same respect they would have had she been his legal wife, but instead they politely ignored or avoided her. She was an affront to the Portuguese, and a traitor to some of the Blacks. She did have a good relationship with her mother and her favorite brother, James, but not with other family members. Mani still maintained contact with his brothers and his sister Maria, but it was taken for granted among his other relatives that the subject of Rebecca was taboo. Mani was not to mention her in their presence.

    In March of 1890, Antonio became seriously ill, and Antonetta sent for Mani to come to his father's bedside. Although he knew his father would not forgive him even on his deathbed, he went. To erase any doubts as to how he felt toward his son, Antonio drew up a new will leaving Mani what amounted to about one dollar in American money. On March 17 he died of pulmonary tuberculosis without having uttered a single word to his son. His death left Mani guilt ridden and filled with grief for a father he continued to love despite his rejection of his son and Rebecca.

    Mani's depression was relieved in the early summer when he learned Rebecca was again with child. He hoped this time the baby would be a boy, who would carry the family name. Mani had his wish. On November 26, 1890, a son was born and was registered under the name of Antonio, after his deceased grandfather. In the early spring (March 21, 1891), Antonio was baptized at St. Phillips Anglican Church, with the understanding that he would be Catholic (there was no Catholic church nearby). His first name was changed to Joseph, after his father's brother; Antonio became his second name, and his third Guminston, the middle name of Rebecca's father--Joseph Antonio Guminston Gomes.

    As soon as Antonetta learned of the birth of her grandson, she became reconciled with Mani. Soon all the children were visiting her with their father and calling her "Avo" (Grandmother). Rebecca never accompanied him, because Antonetta made it quite clear that to accept Rebecca in the house would be a desecration of her husband's wishes. When Joseph was old enough to understand the situation, he deeply resented this.

    During the first five years following Joseph's birth, the bakery flourished. The family increased by two: Sarah Elvira (named after Rebecca's mother) was born in 1893, and a second son, James Methuselah (named after Rebecca's brother), was born October 18, 1895. The household had expanded in other ways as well. In addition to the housekeeper, Mani had hired a governess for the children and a highly recommended British tutor for Joseph. He did not want his older son to go to the understaffed village schools, and to send him all the way to St. John was out of the question. In order for Joseph to thrive in a colonial society, he had to learn to be more English than the English. A well-rounded education that included the classical languages, art, literature, music, science, mathematics, and history was one way to do that.

    When Rebecca was not supervising the servants or making new clothes for her family, she took the children to visit their Grandmother Sarah and their Aunt Emma. On those afternoons Sarah would see that her grandchildren had plenty of mangoes and sweet apples, as well as the pepperpot soup for which she was famous. While the children played, Sarah and Rebecca shared the latest melee (gossip), lapsing at times into thick West Indian patois and roaring with laughter.

    Six years after the death of his father, Mani decided there were no longer any barriers to his marrying Rebecca. In his eyes she had always been his wife, but if the union had to be legalized to silence malicious tongues, then that was what he would do. He knew he would be setting a precedent as the first Portuguese man in the parish to wed a Black woman and that he would offend many people, Black and white. Nevertheless, this was something he had to do.

    On September 3, 1896, Manoel Gomes and Rebecca Richardson drove their carriage through the soft rain to St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. There they were met by Rev. James McConny, who had come from All Saints Church to perform the marriage, and by David Nathaniel (a relative of Rebecca) and Randolph Abbot, who were to be witnesses.

    As Mani and Rebecca walked down the aisle, they were a picture in contrasts. Both were short, but where he was slight in build, she had become buxom. His skin was pale white, and his features keen; she was dark and had broad African features. He was elegantly attired, his wide mustache stiffly waxed; as usual, he carried a hand-carved cane at his side and a pipe hidden in his pocket. Rebecca was simply but tastefully dressed in a long, wide skirt; her naturally crinkly hair was carefully combed. No doubt on this day she fit the picture Joseph always painted to his children in later years: "She carried herself high like a Senegalese Queen, strong and determined."

    At the close of the ceremony, Mani took Rebecca in his arms as he had so many times and again pledged his love. None of the children were present. In fact, they knew nothing about the wedding, assuming their parents had always been married. To be sure they did, Rebecca had told Joseph he had been born in Trinidad and that the family had moved to Antigua when he was still an infant, then back to Trinidad. Consequently, Joseph always claimed Trinidad as his birthplace, even though he could never find his birth certificate. Whenever he needed a passport or other papers requiring proof of his birth, his mother signed a notarized statement that he had been born in Trinidad in 1889. The reason for the discrepancy in the year is still not known. It was not until 1980, after his death, that his grandson Curtis Gomez located his birth certificate in Antigua. It was dated 1890.

    After the excitement of the wedding, Mani and Rebecca returned to their daily pursuits, he to his bakery and she to the children and household. Nothing had really changed. On May 1, 1897, Rebecca gave birth to another daughter, Arramenta Christophine. She welcomed this child as she had all the others, but it was no secret that Joseph was her favorite and would continue to be. This did not sit well with some of his siblings, especially James, who admitted later in life that he had always been jealous of Joseph. When the children went swimming in Spencer's Bay, Rebecca would not allow Joseph to go into the water above his knees. When the others underwent the island ritual of being rowed out into the deep water and thrown overboard so they would have to swim, his mother kept him on the beach, close to her side. As a result, although Joseph loved to sail and did learn to swim, he had a fear of water and always imagined that one day he would die of drowning. The ocean remained his greatest love and his greatest fear.

    Joseph was also the favorite of his grandmother Antonetta, who tried to devise ways to take him from his parents and prepare him for the Catholic priesthood. Rebecca, who was as determined as her mother-in-law, had other plans for her son: he would go to London some day and study to be a lawyer or doctor.

    From the very beginning, Joseph found himself torn between two worlds, one white, the other black. His grandmothers, both of whom frequently attended St. Stephen's, vied for his affection. When he went to church with his father, he had to confront them both. They would hug him affectionately while openly avoiding one another. This was not the only conflict into which he was thrust; every day presented a paradox of some kind. He became increasingly aware that the English hated the Portuguese, his father's people; that many Portuguese considered his mother and other Blacks an inferior breed; that Afro-West Indians had little love for the English, their former masters, or for the Portuguese; and that children from mixed marriages like himself were sometimes loved, but frequently rejected, even though the general consensus was that they were a cut above their black mothers. Joseph was fascinated by the West Indian jumbi (patois for ghost) stories about the Obeah Woman, who would catch the jumbis and put them in a bottle and bury them on the beach. On the other hand, he never tired of listening to the wistful songs of Portugal, which some of his mother's people said were lacking in rhythm, like most white folks' music. He adored his father but worshipped his mother and wanted to protect her from the ugly looks and words her presence often evoked when she walked with Mani. This fight for his mother's dignity would be the impetus for many struggles he would wage when he reached America.

    Joseph's religious training was as confusing as the rest of his childhood. Mani was a devout Catholic, and in time Rebecca defied her family, who had always been Anglican, and joined the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Unlike her husband or her family, Rebecca preferred the simplicity of Methodism to the more ritualistic services of the Catholics or Anglicans. She told Joseph how Methodism in Antigua had been founded by Nathaniel Gilbert, who had been so influenced by John Wesley in England that he returned to preach Methodism to his slaves on his estate. Because of his efforts Antigua became the first island in the Caribbean to practice Methodism. After emancipation, Zion Hill Methodist church was built, its name later changed to Gilbert Memorial in honor of the founder.

    Joseph often went to Gilbert with his mother. In years to come he remembered riding through a long grove of trees to the small stone church at its end. He enjoyed the communal atmosphere as he sat beside his mother listening to her sing the old Methodist hymns. At Gilbert he did not have constantly to kneel and rise as he did in his father's church, where the service was in a language he could not understand. Laughingly, he told his daughters when they were in their teens that he had no doubt the tenderness of his knees had as much to do with his being Methodist as anything else. Nevertheless, it was in Antigua that his love for Methodism was planted.

    As a young boy, Joseph resembled his father, with his short stature and mop of unruly red hair. (When he grew older, his hair turned dark brown and then silvery white.) Arthur Bowers, a New Yorker formerly from Antigua, remembered Joseph as being a loner. As soon as he learned to read Joseph would spend hours poring over books of history and classical literature, his two favorite subjects. He was extremely fussy about cleanliness. If anyone sat in his chair, the housekeeper would have to scrub it thoroughly before he would sit in it again; if a fly landed in his food, he would refuse to eat it.

    Joseph's parents were indulgent of some of his idiosyncrasies, but he was raised by a strict code of ethics that never left him. Rebecca was the disciplinarian in the household. Whenever some infraction of the rules occurred and no one would confess, she would line up all the children and say, "You're too nuf [gone too far]. If you can't hear, then you must feel." Then she would make them drop the flaps of their underwear and give a "good t'ump" to their bare behinds. Mani did not always escape her fiery West Indian temper, either. There was no doubt as to who ruled the roost, but Mani never seemed to mind. He was probably relieved, since he was temperamentally unsuited to inflict any kind of corporal punishment. The only time Joseph ever remembered his father striking him was once when Mani caught him smoking his pipe. Afterwards, Mani was far more shaken than Joseph, who hardly felt the blow.

    Amanda was Joseph's favorite sister; she, in turn, worshipped him. He often recalled how he would climb on her back and play horsey. Her long, black braids became his reins. Sometimes he would pull them so hard that tears would fill her eyes, but she never complained.

    Along with this make-believe mount, Joseph loved to ride real horses. He admired their majestic bearing and the feel of their sweaty hide against his bare legs. When he was not studying he would spend hours in the stable, helping Ezekiel Dublin, the stable boy, who talked more than he worked. Mani gave Joseph his own pony, whom he named Beauty. Joseph would hop on Beauty and ride bareback, imagining he was a knight from some Arthurian legend. On one occasion when he had gone riding, Ezekiel forgot to lift the bar in front of the stable door. Joseph rode into the yard at full speed, and, seeing the bar in front of the door, jumped from the horse to keep from being knocked off. He landed on a sharp rock, which penetrated his back. Some village women found him lying unconscious on the ground and carried him into the house. Rebecca called Aunt Polly, the folk doctor, who treated him with herbs and poultices. When the doctor from St. John came, he said Polly had saved Joseph's life.

    Rebecca boxed Ezekiel's ears for his negligence, and when Mani returned home she reminded him with scathing words that she had never wanted Joseph to have a horse, and now the horse had almost killed him. Mani did not say a word, but just walked out into the backyard. Shortly the entire house rang with a deafening sound--Mani had been so upset that he shot the horse. When Joseph found out what had happened, he was inconsolable; his father later bought him other horses, but none ever meant as much to him as had Beauty.

    As Joseph grew older, he helped Mani in the bakery and stable or assisted in making Mani's popular wine. Like most Portuguese, Mani grew in his backyard grapevines that had come from sprouts brought from Madeira. After Joseph helped him crush the grapes, they would put the juice in earthen jars and bury them underground until they fermented. When friends visited, Mani would offer his vinho da casa with pride. He was never much of a drinker himself, but he liked to take a few sips, smoke his pipe, and listen to his guests sing Portuguese songs to the accompaniment of an accordion. Joseph would sit at his feet until Rebecca hustled him off to bed.

    On June 12, 1899, when Joseph was nine, Rebecca gave birth to another daughter, Violet Viviana, a noisy, spunky baby with hazel eyes that changed colors according to her moods. Her arrival was not greeted with the same enthusiasm as the other children's. Mani was preoccupied with his declining business. More and more he found it impossible to play the role of the "colonial businessman." Perhaps it was because he had never forgotten the early days, when his family first arrived from Madeira, and how hard times had been for them. Or perhaps it was because of his basic decency and gentility. At any rate, he developed the habit of allowing people to buy on credit and then forgetting to collect from them at the end of the month. People took advantage of his good nature and often did not pay at all.

    Ezekiel was a perfect example of the kind of ingratitude Mani experienced. The stable boy slept and ate more than he worked. His behavior was ridiculed by the village boys, who would gather outside of Mani's house and sing, "'Zekiel won't work. Nyam Satchel bread" (he eats up Satchel's bread--"Satchel" was the four-year-old James's nickname). But Mani would not fire Ezekiel, because after all "he was just a boy." Mani was not a businessman like his cousin Antonio, who lived in town and had become so wealthy Antiguans called him "Spit Gold," because they heard him say, "When I cough, I cough silver. When I spit, I spit gold." Antonio had warned Mani that his unsound business practices would eventually bring him to ruin.

    The failure of the family business came gradually, but to Joseph it seemed as if everything tragic was happening at once. First, Rebecca's brother James, his favorite uncle, moved to Trinidad. Then Aunt Maria moved with her children from Seaton to St. John. Finally, Rebecca dismissed the governess and tutor, and Mani let go his employees at the bakery. As Mani watched everything he had built disappear, he withdrew inside himself. He rarely had anything to say to his wife or children. He stopped hugging Joseph and asking "Como estai meu querido filho?"; he seemed not to see him at all. Rebecca was concerned about his growing depression.

    Once everything began to unravel, the end came swiftly. Mani had to sell the house and his business to his cousin, Albert Pestana. He moved his family temporarily into grandmother Sarah's house until he could decide what to do. Sarah's house was too small to accommodate eight additional bodies, and everyone was in everyone else's way. Mani developed stomach trouble and refused to see anyone who came to the house, including the doctor. He felt he had failed Rebecca and his children, who had looked to him for security.

    Within a few weeks the solution came in a letter from Uncle James. He urged the Gomeses to move to Trinidad, where opportunities for business were much better. Rebecca convinced Mani that they should leave Antigua for Trinidad, where they could start over again. Eventually, he agreed. There did not seem to be any alternative.

    During the family's final week on the island, Sarah clung to Rebecca. She sensed that Rebecca's favorite motto--"Mountain, be thou removed into the sea"--would be sorely tested in Trinidad. Instead of her customary "Ate logo" (until later), Antonetta said to Mani the more final "Adeis, meu querido filho." Somehow Joseph sensed he would never see his grandmothers again, or any of the other people he was leaving behind. (His prediction was correct. Antonetta was to die May 31, 1902, of senile decay. There was not enough money for Joseph or Mani to attend her funeral. Sarah died January 16, 1916, at the age of seventy-two, while Joseph was living in Bermuda. During his eighty-nine years, Joseph never returned to Antigua.)

    Some time around the turn of the century, the Gomeses sailed the Atlantic southward past Guadeloupe, Martinique, Grenada, and Tobago, to Trinidad. Like Antigua, Trinidad was still a British colony, but its population was far more diversified. Among the whites on the island were Spanish, French, and British. Because of miscegenation and other kinds of racial mixing, "Coloureds" had some of the characteristics of these groups as well as African. Blacks born in Trinidad were referred to as "Creole"; those transported to the island during slavery were called "Africans." In addition, a few Chinese and Portuguese had been encouraged to immigrate after emancipation to work on the sugar estates, but most of them went into business for themselves. In 1845 the first shipload of East Indians, referred to as "coolies," were brought to the island as indentured servants. Those who did not return to India were encouraged by the government to buy land after finishing their period of indenture. They created small villages, as had the Blacks in Antigua. In time, the East Indians were to compete with the Portuguese in business ventures.

    These then were the races the Gomeses were immediately exposed to when they landed at Port of Spain, the capital, a city far more cosmopolitan than St. John. Located on the Gulf of Paria about two miles from the mouth of the Caroni River, it was marked by shaded streets, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, public buildings, and a bustling business district. Its most famous landmarks were Woodford Square, with its large fountain, and Columbus Square, where one could see a life-size statue of the explorer.

    The influence of the British could be felt and seen everywhere: in the hotels, boarding houses, shops, the library, newspaper offices, the post office; in the architecture of the governor's elaborate mansion in the exclusive St. Anne's section; and in the islanders' feverish attempt to conquer the English language, particularly the verbose and flowery phrases used by the politicians and statesmen. Having come from the small, less progressive Antigua, Joseph fell instantly in love with Trinidad; believing this was the place of his birth, he was determined to learn all he could from it. He especially wanted to learn to speak English with the precision he heard at the government buildings. If Antigua had been where he became aware of the injustices of racism and developed his love for the Methodist Church, Trinidad was where he developed a passion for rhetoric and poetic imagery.

    With money he borrowed from Antonetta and Sarah and from the local banks, who considered him a good risk, Mani bought a house on Tragarete Street, in a middle-class neighborhood. Shortly afterwards he put a down payment on a bakery in Frederick Street. At first his business flourished, and again there was enough money for a housekeeper and a tutor for the boys.

    On January 28, 1904, Rebecca had her eighth child, Walter Gomes. With such a large family, she did not have time to brood over the racial slurs she still occasionally received because of her mixed marriage. She joined the Hanover Wesleyan Methodist Church and became involved in its functions when she could. As in Antigua, she took Joseph with her there while Mani and the other children attended the Catholic church.

    Mani seemed to have regained his optimism, and the children rapidly adjusted to their new environment. Port of Spain offered many more activities than had the small village of Willikies. The boys spent the morning hours and part of the afternoon with the British tutor. Afterward they were free to pursue their own interests. Joseph used that time to explore the library or ride the horse his father had finally persuaded Rebecca to let him have.

    Once again Mani began to lose money, because he gave too much credit and collected too little cash. Once again the tutor had to be dismissed. Joseph and James were sent to Tranquility, the private school run by the Methodist Church on Woodbrook, which was less expensive than the private tutor. Joseph liked the school, especially most of the teachers, who encouraged his intellectual curiosity. James called him "teacher's pet" and was delighted when, as a result of a dare, Joseph put glass in the teacher's seat and was thrashed both at school and at home.

    Within a few years it became necessary for Mani to sell the house on Tragarete and buy a smaller dwelling at 10 Picton, New Town. James and Joseph were removed from Tranquility and sent to Regis, a public school. There Joseph continued to excel in his studies, but not in sports.

    In 1907 the family was forced to move once again, this time to a two-bedroom apartment at 40 Besson Street. Mani had to sell his bakery. As if tragedy traveled in pairs, Mary Justina, Joseph's oldest sister, died of pneumonia, and the family went into a prolonged period of mourning. Joseph never forgot how at the funeral he was forced to follow the custom of kissing the corpse. He said it seemed as if her entire body had been stuffed with ice. So affected was he that he developed a dread of dead people which continued for years; for a long time he refused to sleep without a lighted lamp beside his bed.

    The following year Rebecca, who was in her forties, delivered her last child, Cyril Gomes. From the beginning he was "a child of sorrow," and he suffered all his life from mental disorders which no one was able to diagnose. Despite all the setbacks, Rebecca faced her change in fortune with courage and determination. Joseph would often relate how she tore up sheets to make shirts for the children and how she created thick soups from leftovers and herbs. At the Wesleyan Methodist Church she sang the old hymns with an even stronger conviction. As her religious zeal grew stronger, Mani too clung to his Catholic faith. The islanders remember him during this period walking through the streets, immaculately dressed in outdated clothes, carrying his cane with one hand and tipping his hat politely to passers-by with the other. Then he would go to a small one-room shack, remove his coat and hat, and sell coal to make a living for his family.

    The older children got jobs to help with the family finances, and Mani supplemented his coal business by going to work in an East Indian bakery. Joseph was employed as a cash boy at the shop of Waterman the hatter. It was his job to take the money the salesman received from the customer to the cashier; he then waited for the change and brought it back to the salesman, who gave it to the customer. His bosses were fond of him, and when he returned to Trinidad some years later they welcomed him as a celebrity.

    In November 1907 Joseph turned seventeen, the age at which he had planned to attend college; however, any thought of his studying in London was out of the question. The resourceful Rebecca had an alternate plan for his education. Her brother James, who had encouraged them to move to Trinidad, was now living in New York City. His letters home were filled with enthusiasm for America, and he urged them to come. The entire family could not afford the passage to the United States, but Mani could borrow enough money for Joseph to go. Once there, he could live with his Uncle James and work until he had sufficient funds to attend college. Mani was reluctant to let his oldest son move so far away, but realizing he could do little else for Joseph, finally gave his consent.

    On July 25, 1908, Joseph Antonio Guminston Gomes boarded the Maraval, bound for the United States. On the ship's records he was listed as a clerk, five feet three inches tall, leaving Trinidad, Port of Spain, the residence of R. Gomes of 40 Besson Street, to stay with James Richardson. Traveling with him was a relative, George de Silva, a twenty-eight-year-old merchant of fair complexion, who was going to a Mr. Hittock at the Bowling Green Building, New York City. As the two men stood on the deck waving, the Maraval moved slowly out onto the ocean. Joseph's family. became a shadowy blur on a retreating tropical canvas.

    He later remembered little about the crossing except that he slept on the lower deck with the other third-class passengers and ate stale food someone forced into his hands. He was not seasick, but there was a hollowness in his stomach that came from a different kind of malady. The vastness of the ocean and sky made him feel insignificant and alone. At one point the ship ran into a violent storm, and Joseph was swept overboard. De Silva, who had spent the entire trip drunk, did not see him thrashing about in the ocean; one of the crew members jumped into the water and rescued him. Even when Joseph was lifted back onto the deck, de Silva did not seem to understand why he was soaking wet and coughing up saltwater. The episode intensified Joseph's fear of the water and initiated his hatred of alcohol.

    After days of alternating calm and turbulence, Joseph saw the Statue of Liberty and knew that this part of his odyssey had come to an end. The date was August 3, 1908. He would be eighteen in November and still had not been introduced to long pants.

Meet the Author

Annetta L. Gomez-Jefferson is professor emeritus of theatre at the College of Wooster. She is the editor of Through Love to Light: The Sermons, Addresses, and Prayers of Bishop Joseph Gomez; and the author of Mazes (poetry).

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In Darkness with God: The Life of Joseph Gomez, a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Crys alone and trembles.... so confused
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Walks in heyllo.
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Dont post at my camp and l wont post here...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hello maiden of love"bows"
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So did u se the anouncment