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Preserving Pennytown: A Small Church Contains a World of Memories

Emily Aiken

Outside of Marshall, Missouri there’s a strip of gravel called Kittyhawk Avenue. The unpaved road leads to family farms, pastures and a town formed by a freed slave named Joe Penny in 1871. This town no longer exists, except in the heart and memory of Virginia Huston, the last person to be born in Pennytown.

“Pennytown is my birthplace and even though I was the last person born there and I used to get kidded by my brothers and sisters about being born in the shanty and not a hospital, but this is my birthplace,” Huston said. “This is my home. And it will always be that.”

Huston is the oldest of five siblings, and the daughter of Josephine R. Lawrence, who played an integral part in preserving the town’s history. She said her mother passed down her passion and love for their family’s past.

Huston is a religious woman. She was raised religious and goes to the church for prayer and peace. But the church means a lot more than just religion. It is a physical memory of where Huston came from. Pennytown was once a thriving community, and church was right in the middle of it.

“It was day-in and day-out and they never complained because they were just trying to make a living and help with their families in this rural area,” Huston said. “They did a lot of bartering because there wasn't much money. But everyone had gardens and they had cotton, barley, beans, tomatoes, animals and cows.”

Pennytown had about 1,000 residents, many of which were freed slaves or brought in by Penny himself. It thrived through hard labor, farming and knowledge.

Huston said they would congregate at the church to share their love for their town and religion, and she said she feels the presence of her descendants every time she crosses the church’s threshold.

“I feel the presence of the lord. I feel the presence of descendants. I feel Mom's presence,” Huston said. “And as long as we have that in our heart and in this church, knowing that even though our days may be numbered, but we have the young people coming in now. And they're interested. So they gonna make sure that it all keeps on going the way that the lord wants us to do it not they way man wants us to do it.”

The church is a small room with wood floors and pews, a piano in the corner and a stained glass window visible right as you walk in. But before its restoration, Pennytown Freewill Baptist Church was almost unsalvageable.

“It just looked like something that could never be restored with all of the wood and missing bricks and you couldn't get inside without thinking you would fall through,” Huston said. “It was just like overnight and you could see the changes that they went through restoring the church. It's here and it's going to stay.”

Credit Emily Aiken
The Pennytown Freewill Baptist Church holds the history of the former Pennytown, its families and the times they lived through.

When Huston’s mother died, she said it was her duty to continue her mother’s efforts in restoring the church. She and her brother, Clarence, worked to renovate the church into what it looks like now. Huston says her mother's wish was for the church to be put on the National Historic Register, and so that’s what Huston did.

“To keep the church going we sold cookbooks, raffles, people would donate quilts or pictures. We had chicken dinners, and everyone would come and support us,” Huston said. “She wanted this to be on the National Historic Register, and it was. We not only do it for her but for all the descendants of Pennytown.”

Though the church may not hold regular services anymore, that doesn’t stop Huston and her family from celebrating their history. Every year on the first Sunday of August, the church holds a homecoming. There are guest speakers, worship services and lots of food. Huston said without the community’s support, the renovation of the church would not have been completed.

“We appreciate everything that everybody has done," said Huston. "If it hadn’t been for the people and the supporters, we wouldn’t have made it.”

When Huston goes to the church, she sits in the pew with her heated blanket and closes her eyes. Sometimes she thinks of her mother, other times she remembers her favorite scripture or psalm.

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