February is Black History Month, but few people would suspect that semi-rural Putnam Valley has any meaningful ties to black history.
But I've got a story for you!
Turn off Route 6 onto Barger Street, just opposite the sign for Route 132. As you go past Stephen Smith Drive, less than a mile up, you'll pass two concrete columns on the right, roughly opposite a small sign for Larksburg Avenue. Some of us may realize that the columns are markers for a cemetery, variously known as the Lawson, Larksburg, or the Emmanuel Cemetery. It is here that the Rev. Bishop Robert C. Lawson and at least 30 of his family, friends, and disciples are laid to rest. Bishop Lawson was one of the founding fathers of the Pentecostal movement, and his followers today credit him with the creation of over 600 churches worldwide, with over 600,000 members.
Robert Lawson was born on May 5, 1883 in New Iberia, La. In 1913, Lawson was a well-educated and ambitious young man, considering a career in law, when he suddenly took ill. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he was given little hope to survive. An elderly visitor, a “Holy Ghost Woman”, urged him to start praying—something he had never been in the habit of doing!
One evening, while praying, an overwhelming Divine Vision came to him, saying, “Go preach my word…” He was healed, and the rest is history.
He came to Harlem, and began his ministry. This lead to the creation of several churches, and his founding of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Church, Inc. He became hugely successful. In 1932, he began a radio broadcast career that continued for almost 30 years, often “butting heads” with famous adversaries Father Divine and Charles "Sweet Daddy" Grace.
His influence and church-building spread nationwide, and he followed up with a foreign mission program. Bishop Lawson traveled all over the world, establishing churches in the West Indies, Africa and elsewhere.
He was also quite the entrepreneur. Near his main church, he owned a day care center, print shop, grocery store, book and record store, and funeral home (he eventually owned four). In 1926 he founded the Church of Christ Bible Institute, a seminary which was accredited by the NYS Board of Regents. He was also a prolific author and composer of religious songs. In 1951, Lawson was presented the Carver Award of Merit. To put this in perspective, other recipients include Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, William Randolph Hearst, Joe Louis, and Darryl Zanuck.
In 1954, the Star of Ethiopia Medal was presented to him by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. And in 1957, he spoke at the first March on Washington, along with two younger ministers-—Rev. Ralph J. Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
A bit closer to home, in the area near the cemetery, Bishop Lawson established a summer colony for middle-class blacks in 1927. The Emmanuel Inn had 20 rooms, a swimming pool, garage, gas station, and grocery store, set on 121 acres. Ads for the Inn show rates of $8 a week for children, and $12 a week for adults. The foundations of the hotel and gas station are still visible. There were numerous other summer homes built around the Inn, some of which are in use today as full-time residences.
Lawson’s friend, attorney George D. Lark, who is also interred here, owned a home with 200 acres. Larksburg Avenue is named after him. Bishop Lawson had his own personal 66-acre farm, which he shared with the Refuge Temple Boy Scouts.
Bishop Larson passed away on June 30, 1961, at the age of 78. He chose to rest here, amid the serenity he so enjoyed. A remarkable man and a historic figure who did so much for so many, Lawson seems to have gradually faded into obscurity. I am very happy to rekindle awareness of him in our community and honor his memory this Black History Month.
By his farmhouse door, he wrote this from a favorite poem:
“Let me live in the house by the side of the road and be a friend to man."
May we walk in his footsteps.