In another post we covered the amazing story of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church of Iowa City – a congregation that began here in 1868. Without a doubt, the most influential pastor over the church’s 150+ years was Rev. Fred L. Penny – who faithfully served 36 years – from 1958 to 1994. Allow us here to tell you his story…
Fred L. Penny was born on May 10, 1910 in Chester, Illinois, a town where schooling for African-Americans ended in eighth grade. Fred’s grandfather – Henry Penny – grew up in slavery and escaped to Illinois from a Missouri plantation, where he was befriended by a white farmer named Henry Hayes. When Hayes died, he deeded his entire property to Penny – with the farm becoming known as Penny’s Hill. Fred’s father – George Nicholas – stayed on the farm, married Amanda Lucas, and had 14 children – of which Fred was #7. Among Fred’s earliest jobs was driving another farmer’s cow to pasture before attending the one-room segregated school, and at the end of the day, driving the animal back to the barn.
According to Fred’s daughter – Dianna Penny – one day her father (age 14) saw a black man and his family drive through town in a shiny new automobile. As it turned out, this doctor from Chicago, caught Fred’s imagination. “Every other black adult male my father knew wore bib overalls and worked with a pick and shovel,” says Penny. “But when my father saw that model of success, it changed his life. He said, ‘I want more of that.’” So with only 14-cents in his pocket, he hitch-hiked to St. Louis where he found a doctor willing to employ him while he attended high school in nearby Alton.
As a determined young man who knew what he wanted, Fred graduated from Shurtleff College in Alton and then got his Master’s Degree in Law at the University of Illinois before he sensed a call to ministry. From there, Penny went to Payne Theological Seminary in Ohio, married and eventually had six children, with Dianna being the oldest – born in 1940. According to Dianna, her family lived in ramshackle housing in downstate Illinois with no indoor plumbing until her father’s pastoral assignments brought the family to Muscatine in 1957 – where Dianna graduated from high school.
“We were in Muscatine for a year,” Dianna Penny recalled. “Then my father attended the annual AME conference in 1958 and the bishop called out, ‘Who will take Iowa City?’ My dad raised his hand – ignoring the muffled snickers around him – because they apparently knew more about the situation here than he did, but he didn’t mind, because he was accustomed to reviving things.”
Dianna first visited Bethel AME with her father in 1958, when she was 17 and a freshman heading to the University of Iowa to study art. She vividly remembers seeing the church on Governor Street for the first time. “It was a tiny, little, weather-beaten, grey structure that resembled an old one-room schoolhouse from the pioneer days,” Penny said. “Out front, there was a rusted old hitching-post for horses that was left over from the 19th century.”
“The church had a heavy oak door, and I was right behind my father when he pushed it open. There was this tiny, but very dignified, little old lady sitting beside the stove that she had lit to warm the church to welcome her new pastor.” Much to Pastor Fred’s surprise, Margaret Winston wasn’t there to greet the new pastor on behalf of the entire congregation – she was the entire congregation! Sadly, after 90 years, Bethel AME had been reduced to one parishioner, and she was well into her 80’s.
Waiting for Rev. Perry – besides Mrs. Winston – was a pile of unpaid electricity and water bills and a slew of other facility-related issues. Penny says when she started working, one of her first paychecks went to upgrading the electricity at the church because “you couldn’t have Christmas tree lights and a toaster plugged in at the same time without blowing a fuse. “Paint was peeling from the walls and the floorboards were warped,” Penny recalled, ‘”but my dad saw great potential in Iowa City.”
During the early years, Rev. Penny had to divide his time between Iowa City and Washington where he also served as pastor of that city’s AME church. On Sundays, Rev. Penny held morning services in Iowa City, then drove to Washington to conduct an afternoon service. Throughout the week, he was busy reaching out to people across every strata of society around Iowa City.
“People were drawn to him like a magnet,” Penny said about her father, who served as minister for 36 years until his death in 1994. “His outreach extended far beyond the walls of this building and beyond just the black population. Much of rural Iowa still reveres his memory. He knew every back-country road in eastern Iowa, because he had friends just all over. He even managed to convert a few racists!”
“People were coming up to shake his hand after one of his sermons,” Penny says, “and a little white boy came up and said ‘Well, my mom told me not to shake your hand because the black might rub off.’ And my father smiled and said, ‘Oh, she did?’ And the little boy stood there sizing him up for maybe a couple seconds more and then he reached out his hand and touched it. You know, being a child, he had to find out for himself. When you give people a chance they will figure out their shared humanity. Somehow they just figure it out.”
Back home at Bethel AME, the Penny’s added a kitchen at the church – opening the doors for communal meals. The University dorms didn’t serve food on Sundays, so Penny’s mother would cook dinner on Sunday nights for students. When the small sanctuary wasn’t large enough for the congregation, they would open the doors and put chairs on the porch, and for special services or events they would pitch a tent in the yard and hold services outside.
Over time, Penny developed a reputation as that one ‘go-to’ pastor in the community for anyone in need of help. “Money he had not, but he could always get you what you said you needed,” Dianna Penny said. The Penny’s provided food for people who would have gone hungry, places to live for those had none, baby items for families with newborns, as well as many other things. And he did it all by appealing to the generosity of community members with whom he’d built relationships.
In taking care of bodies as well as souls, Rev. Penny was following the well-established tradition of his denomination, which has always stressed providing social support, as well as spiritual support, for the communities it serves. The AME church has often been described, using the words of an old spiritual, as “a rock in a weary land.”
When Rev. Penny died in September of 1994, he left Iowa City’s Bethel AME much more robust than he found it, but one dream still unfulfilled was his desire to see an expansion of the original building. According to Dianna Penny, the planning for a new sanctuary began in earnest about ten years after her father’s death. “It’s the realization of a dream my father had for decades,” Penny says. “He always said, ‘One of these days we’re going to knock out that back wall and keep going.’”
Today the National Registry framed certificate – given to the church in 2000 – is hanging in the new Fred Penny Fellowship Hall which has plenty of room for tables and chairs and a big kitchen with expansive counters where high-volume meals can be prepared and enjoyed. Click here to read more.
Thank you for your 36 years of service to our community – Godspeed, Rev. Penny – Godspeed!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.