An Unexpected Revelation: Stained Glass Window of Jesus Christ with Dark Skin Raises Questions about Race in New England

by Joshua Brown
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In Warren, Rhode Island, there is a church window that is almost 150 years old. It has an image of Jesus Christ with dark skin, and it shows him talking to some women from the New Testament. This has caused people to think about the issues of race, how Rhode Island was involved in slavery and how 19th century New England treated women.

A window at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Warren from 1878 has a unique feature – it depicts Jesus as a person of color! An expert on stained-glass art, Virginia Raguin from College of the Holy Cross, said that she had never seen this kind of iconography before for such a time period.

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This window is really huge! It’s 12 feet tall and 5 feet wide, which is about 3.7 meters by 1.5 meters. Both paintings show Jesus speaking to women who have dark skin, just like him. In the first painting, Jesus is chatting with two sisters called Martha and Mary from the Luke Gospel. The second one shows Jesus talking with a woman at a well from John’s Gospel.

A few years ago, the Arnold family bought a building called “Greek Revival church” which was 4,000 sq ft and opened in 1830. It stayed open until 2010 but before that, Henry E. Sharp studio in New York had already made a window there. This window had been forgotten until their purchase!

In 2020, Arnold saw something special when four old stained-glass windows were removed and replaced with clear glass. On a cold winter’s day, the sunlight shone in just the right way allowing her to see that one of the windows had human figures with dark skin tones. Arnold remarked that this was unusual for religious windows as usually Christ is portrayed with white skin. Arnold is an art history graduate from Harvard University and teaches architectural design in California.

A lot of people have been studying this window to figure out why it was made. They’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of the artist, the church, and the woman who wanted to remember her two aunts. Both of these aunts had married into families who used to be involved in slave trading. Arnold is really wondering if this window is meant as an apology or even celebration for those aunts, or something else that people can’t understand.

Raguin and other experts said the colours of black and brown which were painted on a glass that was heated in an oven, were added intentionally. The object looks old but is still in good condition.

Arnold doesn’t want to call it as a Black Jesus, but she does think Jesus is depicted as a person of color – probably from the Middle East region which makes sense since that’s where he was from. Some people think it’s up for interpretation.

Linda A’Vant-Deishinni, who has African American and Native American heritage, used to run the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. Now she manages the St. Martin de Porres Center in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence which helps older people with their needs.

The first time she saw it, Linda was very impressed.

Victoria Johnson, a retired teacher and the first Black female principal of a high school in Rhode Island, believes that the figures in the glass are definitely Black. She said, “When I look at it, it looks like Black people to me. This was made during a time when only Black people were known to white churches in the North.”

Warren had a strong economy as they built ships, some of these even shipped slaves. Even though there were people who were enslaved living in the town before the Civil War, most of the people living in St. Mark’s were white.

The window was made for Mary P. Carr to remember her two aunts– their names can be seen on the glass. Mrs. H. Gibbs and Mrs. R. B. DeWolf were sisters, so they had connections with a family that made lots of money from buying and selling slaves – the DeWolfs. Additionally, Mrs. Gibbs married a sea captain who worked for them too.

Both women had given money to the American Colonization Society so that freed slaves from America could move over to Africa. But a lot of Black people in America disagreed with this idea and ended up becoming abolitionists instead. DeWolf wanted to make a church where everyone was equal, and she left some money in her will to do just that.

Arnold pointed out that the window was created around the same time when a deal called the Compromise of 1877 was made. This agreement settled a disagreement in the United States between people who supported someone named Rutherford B. Hayes, and people from the south who disagreed – and it also meant that efforts to give legal rights to former Black slaves were finished. So, what was Carr trying to say when he mentioned how Gibbs and DeWolf had connections to slavery?

Arnold believes that the window was created to honor people who tried to make a difference, even if they were not successful every time. Raguin adds that it is special because it shows Jesus treating women with equal respect. Both stories were chosen to show how everyone should be treated equally.

Currently, the window is held up in a wooden frame where pews once were. College classes have gone to see it and recently, on a spring afternoon, there was a group of eighth graders from The Nativity School in Worcester (a Jesuit boys’ school) that stopped by.

The boys learned about the window’s past and meaning from Raguin.

In my religion class, the kids were really interested to know more about something they had never heard of before. That’s why I thought it would be a great opportunity for them to come so close and experience the diversity and acceptance that happened during that time.

Arnold wants to find a museum, university or some other place where the window can be kept in order for people to view it and study it.

She stated, “I don’t think this was meant to be owned by only one person; it should be open for everyone which is why I think it needs to be put into a safe public area.”

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