“Is this repudiation? Is this congratulations? Is this a secret sign?” said Arnold.
Raguin and other experts confirmed that the skin tones – in black and brown paint on milky white glass that was fired in an oven to set the image – were original and deliberate. The piece shows some signs of ageing but remains in very good condition, she said.
But does it depict a black Jesus? Arnold doesn’t feel comfortable using that term, preferring to say it depicts Christ as a person of colour, probably Middle Eastern, which she says would make sense, given where the Galilean Jewish preacher was from.
Others think it’s open to interpretation.
“To me, being of African American and Native American heritage, I think that it could represent both people,” said Linda A’Vant-Deishinni, the former executive director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. She now runs the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence’s St Martin de Porres Centre, which provides services to older residents.
“The first time I saw it, it just kind of just blew me away,” A’Vant-Deishinni said.
Victoria Johnson, a retired educator who was the first black woman named principal of a Rhode Island high school, thinks the figures in the glass are most certainly black.
“When I see it, I see black,” she said. “It was created in an era when at a white church in the North, the only people of colour they knew were black.”
Warren’s economy had been based on the building and outfitting of ships, some used in the slave trade, according to the town history. And although there are records of enslaved people in town before the Civil War, the racial makeup of St. Mark’s was likely mostly if not all white.
The window was commissioned by a Mary P. Carr in honour of two women, apparently her late aunts, whose names appear on the glass, Arnold said. Mrs H. Gibbs and Mrs R.B. DeWolf were sisters, and both married into families involved in the slave trade. The DeWolf family made a fortune as one of the nation’s leading slave-trading families; Gibbs married a sea captain who worked for the DeWolfs.
Both women had been listed as donors to the American Colonisation Society, founded to support the migration of freed slaves to Liberia in Africa. The controversial effort was overwhelmingly rejected by Black people in America, leading many former supporters to become abolitionists instead. DeWolf also left money in her will to found another church in accord with egalitarian principles, according to the research.
Another clue is the timing, Arnold said. The window was commissioned at a critical juncture of U.S. history when supporters of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and their Southern Democrat opponents agreed to settle the 1876 presidential election with what is known as the Compromise of 1877, which essentially ended Reconstruction-era efforts to grant and protect the legal rights of formerly enslaved Black people.
What was Carr trying to say about Gibbs’ and DeWolf’s links to slavery?
“We don’t know, but it would appear that she is honouring people of conscience however imperfect their actions or their effectiveness may have been,” Arnold said. “I don’t think it would be there otherwise.”
The window also is remarkable because it shows Christ interacting with a woman as equals, Raguin said: “Both stories were selected to profile equality”.
For now, the window remains propped upright in a wooden frame where pews once stood. College classes have come to see it, and on one recent spring afternoon there was a visit from a diverse group of eighth graders from The Nativity School in Worcester, a Jesuit boys’ school.
The boys learned about the window’s history and significance from Raguin.
“When I first brought this up to them in religion class, it was the first time the kids had ever heard of something like this and they were genuinely curious as to what that was all about, why it mattered, why it existed,” religion teacher Bryan Montenegro said. “I thought that it would be very valuable to come and see it, and be so close to it, and really feel the diversity and inclusion that was so different for that time.”
Arnold hopes to find a museum, college or other institution that can preserve and display the window for academic study and public appreciation.
“I think this belongs in the public trust,” she said. “I don’t believe that it was ever intended to be a privately owned object.”