The fifteen-month-old son of African Methodist Episcopal preacher Jarena Lee died this date, August 24th, in 1818 of Cholera and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. The child’s father, Rev. Joseph Lee, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, also died in 1818. Existing records do not indicate if his death occurred before or after the child mentioned above. The Lees had another son James who reached maturity. *
Mrs. Lee was an early feminist, abolitionist, equal rights advocate, author and a determined champion for women in the ministry. She rose up from servitude to become the first female preacher in the largest African American denomination of the era. She was born to free Black parents in Cape May, New Jersey on February 11, 1783. Her family name has not be recorded. At the young age of seven years, she was sent away by her parents to the Sharp family, sixty miles away, to work as a “servant maid.” According to her Journal, her adolescence was marked by episodes of severe depression and suicidal thoughts that would continue into her adulthood.
Mrs. Lee initially published her autobiography in 1839 and updated it in 1849. It is a chronicle of her long spiritual journey. Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar observed that “The writings of African American women, both elite and ordinary, demonstrate the difficulties of racism, sexism, motherhood, and familial obligations during the nineteenth century.” The male-dominated Bethel church congregation did not initially approve of a female preacher. However, when they saw the outpouring of support, they deferred to Bishop Richard Allen’s decision to give her access to the pulpit. Many men and women of both races traveled long distances to hear Mrs. Lee sermonize and conduct prayer meetings.***
Jarena Lee died February 5, 1864, at the age of eighty-one, impoverished and having to rely on others to keep alive. A social worker interviewed her several weeks before she died and reported ” . . . she endeavored to support herself for as long as she could (washerwoman) but in her last days depended upon the contributions of others, this was so distasteful to her that a short time before her death she remarked, ‘she wished she was done with begging’.” Her occupation listed on her death certificate was recorded as “Missionary.”*** During her lifetime, she preached up and down the Atlantic seaboard, often in slaveholding states, fulfilling her life’s mission while enduring many emotional and physical trials. She lamented in the 1849 edition of her autobiography that there was a wall between the white community and her “which was higher than I could possibly see over.”
**Erica Armstrong Dunbar, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City, p. 97, 111-119.
*** Knight, p. 63.