Three Church of God in Christ congregations would gather in New Madrid on the first Sunday in September to hold a church service, then walk through downtown New Madrid to the Mississippi River where they would hold a baptism.
I don’t know what drew me there in 1967 – so far as I know, The Missourian didn’t run any photos of it. Before the month was out, I transferred to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and started the next phase of my career. In fact, I look back at this set of photos as being kind of a “final exam” before I left Cape. It was the culmination of everything I had learned stumbling around in photojournalism with no real guidance.
Except for making a few prints for my portfolio, most of these pictures have been sitting in a filing cabinet for close to half a century. Last summer, I made a concerted effort to find the people in the pictures, much like I’ve been doing with the Smelterville project.
I walked up and down the New Madrid streets near the church, talked to people on their porches and attended Sunday church services to show the photos around. I went on wild goose chases to Sikeston and a tiny community near Bird’s Point.
Bishop Benjamin is still alive
I finally caught a break when I received an email from Beverly Armour Gilyard: “This is my dad, Elder B. A. Armour (preacher on the left), many, many years ago when the saints were still baptizing once a year in the Mississippi River. wow!!!!!
Not long after, Martha J. Armour-Dunmore, wrote, “I’m also the daughter of Bishop Armour and I was home to visit and saw the picture. Showed my father and he says he conducted the baptisms with JC Pullen (preacher on the right). Not sure who the child in the photo is, but he says he conducted them every year for 7 years. This is a wonderful photo of my father. We had a very long conversation about this.”
After trading emails, we set up a meeting on Wednesday with Bishop Armour, his wife. Osie and Granddaughter Sondoia Armour West in Hayti. Elder Robert L. Bell, Jr., was also there. We went through all the photos trying to put as many names to faces as possible. The challenge is that different combinations of people remember different things.
When I got back to Cape to download the nearly two hours of video I shot, I was disappointed (that’s a mild term) to discover that I had exactly one minute and 35 seconds of content. I had gotten sloppy since I had been shooting so much video on my Perry county project that I thought I knew what I was doing. I had a wireless mike clipped to Bishop Armour and my video camera audio meter was bouncing around like crazy, so I assumed that I was capturing it. What I had neglected to do was to press the RECORD button on the camera. I had a few still photos and lots of audio captured by my digital voice recorder, but I wanted to see the rich expressions of Bishop Armour while he was telling his stories.
“That was Beverly Armour in high school”
Feeling extremely sheepish, I contacted Elder Bell and Sondoia to see if they thought Bishop Armour would be up for another meeting if I hadn’t tired him out too much (he’ll turn 90 next spring). All was GO, until I got a message saying that he had taken a fall and we would have to postpone until Saturday.
Mother had said it had been years since she had been to Hayti, so I popped her in the car, assuring her that the follow-up interview shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes since I knew what ground I wanted to cover. Fortunately, Bishop Armour had bounced back from his fall quite nicely. Mother was greeted like she was a long-lost friend. The house was full of warmth.
Daughter Beverly was down visiting from Atlanta. “I’m IN one of those pictures,” she exclaimed. “When I first saw this, I thought, ‘Oh, my God. That was Beverly Armour in high school. That’s Beverly.'” [Beverly is the girl all the way on the right side of the picture.]
As it turned out, 20 minutes turned into nearly two hours. Bishop Armour hadn’t told me of his World War II Navy years where he served in the Navy aboard an LST. You’ll see that next Memorial Day.
Looking to ID more photos
To that end, I’m going to post a gallery of the whole take so they have a common place to see the photos. I figure most of my readers are going to busy with Thanksgiving activities and won’t be around anyway. If you see someone you recognize or have participated in a Mississippi River baptism, I’d love to hear from you. Click on any photo to make it larger, then click on the sides to move through the gallery. The little girl above is one person, in particular, I’d like to track down.