Mississippi River Baptism

New Mardrid Mississippi River baptism 09-03-1967Three 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

Bishop Armour from New Madrid Baptism series 11-20-2013I 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.”

Meeting arranged

Bishop Armour from New Madrid Baptism series 11-20-2013After 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”

New Mardrid Mississippi River baptism 09-03-1967Feeling 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

New Mardrid Mississippi River baptism 09-03-1967The Armours are well-versed in social media. All the time we were talking, they were texting and bouncing photos back and forth to folks who might help ID or confirm the names in the pictures.

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.

17 Replies to “Mississippi River Baptism”

  1. This is a wonderful shoot and documentation of a beautiful celebration. So happy you found Bishop Armour and his family.

    1. This is an incredible day for me!! I grew up in Chicago and visited my grandmother in New Madrid in summers. I had a very vague recollection of the activity and scenes depicted in these pictures and after recalling my faint memories of this to a friend, I decided to search the term “Mississippi River baptisms,” and this unbelievable history turned up. I went further to scroll the pictures, and in picture 74 of 81 there was my grandmother, Katie Mae Wiley. What was a faint memory from my childhood, which I wasn’t absolutely certain even happened, became a vivid reality. The River came right up to my grandmother’s grass and the baptisms took place behind her house. I saw it, and this is an incredible memory brought back to reality. I greatly appreciate this marvelous piece of historic work!!

  2. What a wonderful collection of moments frozen forever in film! I so enjoyed looking at these! I felt as if I had actually been there to experience this celebration myself. Seeing the fashions of the day, the storefront, and the cars was so interesting. I especially liked seeing them in black and white.

    Hope your trip home is safe and enjoyable.

    1. Thanks. It is so neat to be able to show the photos to people who were in them and never knew they existed.

      To use one of my standard lines: I used to think I stole souls; now I recognize that I only borrowed them for a time, and now I’m returning them for someone else to safeguard.

  3. Very cool history of things we just don’t see anymore. When you get the video done will share with the rest of us? Happy Thanks Giving to all of you and your family.

  4. Ken, I have to comment on the image of the very young girl waiting for her baptism between the two adults.

    There is only one other image I can think of to rival this and that is the brilliant National Geographic portrait of the young Afgani girl that was on their cover about 20 years ago. That one deservedly became one of their most iconic images of all time.

    This image of yours stands up to that image in every way. My totally sincere congratulations on a compelling and commanding image. I hope your quest to find her is as successful as the Geographic’s search was. If you find her, please let us see side by side images of this one with herself today.


    1. Tim, Thanks for the compliment. That thought has crossed my mind from time to time over the years, but I’ve never been confident enough to express it.

      I attribute the haunting quality of the photograph to the subject, not anything the photographer did except see it.

      1. Ken, I completely agree with Tim! Your photographs are stunning!
        Her face is so familiar to me.. I thought I knew her but my sister said the girl didn’t go to our church.
        I grew up in Hayti and Elder Armour was my families pastor. Your photographs brought back so many memories..
        I’ve sent the photo of the little girl to a couple of people that I know to see if they recognize her and I will of course let you know what I find out!
        Thank you so much for sharing these with us.

  5. Thanksgiving activities or not I tune in everyday and thoroughly enjoy your posts. Stories like this always grab my attention. While working on the river a have passed by this kind of scene a few times. The last was on the Ohio River. Kind brings your life back to center. Thanks Dennis

  6. Hello. My name is Queen and I lived in Hayti Missouri. My grandmother, Letha Brooks is in the pictures of the baptism in the Mississippi. My mother was a member of that church also and said she was baptized in that river at the same church. My aunt was also a member of that church and was baptized by that pastor. Our family has a history with that church and the pastor. I also recognize the man standing beside her. Please do not hesitate to contact me about her. All of her children are still alive except one. They are mostly preachers, pastors, prophets, singers, etc.

  7. I think the people in 9 are my aunt, my cousin, my sister and me. I would love to have a copy. Please contact me.

  8. Hi Ken, I am a writer from Louisiana and would like to use one of these images on my website under construction. Can you please let me know how to contact you for permission to use. They are wonderful.

  9. What a joy to see the pass that I was part of as a young lady, My Mother was a member of Elder B.B. Gillespie Church, I see myself, mom, brothers, and Church members!!

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