The Decatur Daily, Dec. 22, 2002
By Deangelo McDaniel
COURTLAND — A little blonde girl waited outside the CME Church at Rocky Hill under a big oak tree.
She wanted to go inside, to see the woman she called Aunt Jane Ashford and to sing with the congregation.
But it was the 1950s and “a white girl couldn’t go in a black church,” Samanthia Cassidy said.
For the 5-year-old girl, the brief moments she spent outside the church were better than the alternative, a trip to Mississippi to listen to a preacher she blames for causing chaos in her family.
“They didn’t call it a cult, but that’s what it was,” Cassidy, 54, of Corinth, Miss., said.
Cassidy, who spent the first 11 years of her life in Courtland, is an international gospel singer and songwriter. In 1997, she was one of five soloists nominated for the Gospel Voice Diamond Award. She has recorded four albums and is working on a fifth.
In 2000, the Lawrence County native wrote a book about the cult she grew up in and how she survived the teachings of the preacher and the struggles with her family.
In the book, “Dancing in the Wilderness,” Cassidy, in part, writes about her redemption, her disagreement with adult family members and the need to be believed about what the preacher was doing.
She gave family members different names because “I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
The author said: “It’s about me, my struggles and how I came to God. What happened in Courtland happened. If anyone has gone through what I went through, maybe this book will help them.”
To understand Cassidy’s life, you have to go back to 1952 when court records show that her grandfather swore under oath that the preacher was living in a state of adultery and fornication.
One day later, two more family members accused the preacher of assault. A Lawrence County judge convicted the preacher of the charges.
Three days after deputies arrested the preacher in April 1952, a group of his followers held a prayer meeting in Moulton “to open the jail doors.”
The doors did not open. The preacher remained in jail until his trial in May 1952.
The preacher told Judge Isaac Johnson that he had “taught only Bible truth that (he) received from the spirit and wouldn’t change one word,” court records show.
Witnesses at the trial testified that the preacher taught that husband and wife were not to have “marital relationships,” but that every man was to have a second woman he called a “spiritual wife.”
Cassidy’s mother testified for the state. Her father was a witness for, and a defender of, the preacher, court records show.
Caused a divorce
“My parents divorced over this,” Cassidy said. “My only brother went with my mother and I was with my father. My mother said what the preacher was teaching was not biblical. My grandparents didn’t agree with him either, but I was with my father and my daddy feared hell, fire and damnation. This is what the preacher told him.”
The trial was big news. The preacher’s arrest, his trial and his appeal were on the front pages of the local papers. One paper carried the story for 27 consecutive days.
Initially, the judge fined the preacher and sentenced him to time in the state penitentiary. But almost one year later, in June 1953, the judge suspended the sentence, placed the preacher on five years probation and required him to leave Lawrence County.
The preacher paid a $2 probation fee and agreed that he would never return to Lawrence County unless the judge gave written permission.
Cassidy said in her book that the preacher moved to Mississippi and that her father was among the followers who drove on Sunday to the Magnolia state to worship with the convict.
On some of those Sundays, the author stayed at home with her grandparents. She lived near the black church and walked down to the big tree to hear Aunt Jane Ashford and the congregation sing.
She made those trips until her father, doing what he called “God’s will,” moved the family to Mississippi.
“I was 12 and had just completed the seventh grade at Courtland,” she said.
The preacher, Cassidy said, had a large following that continued to meet in homes.
Met in homes
“He didn’t have a permanent church building in Courtland, and he didn’t have one in Mississippi,” she said. “The meetings were held in different homes.”
Cassidy said the preacher continued to “anoint me and other women in the congregation.”
According to court testimony, the preacher anointed women in the congregation by rubbing his hands over their bodies.
Cassidy wrote that her father, an aunt and the preacher forced her to quit school when she was 15 because she accepted a boy’s class ring.
She always resisted the preacher and told him what he was doing was wrong. Cassidy quit going to the meetings when she was 16. Almost a year later, her father packed her clothes in five paper sacks and put her out.
One year later, the preacher, then in his late 60s, died. His followers did not notify the coroner or funeral home of his death because the preacher had taught that he would rise in three days. When the odor became bad, they made arrangements.
His death didn’t bring any closure for Cassidy. She had spent most of her life defending her mother. At the same time, she struggled for acceptance from the family members, especially her father, who supported the preacher.
“I was a lost soul,” she said. “I needed God. There were so many things I wanted to reconcile.”
Cassidy said the path to healing started when she married her husband, Bill Cassidy, in 1977.
“When I told him about what had happened, he was not critical,” she said. “For the first time, someone would listen and believe me.”
Bill Cassidy said he recognized that the followers of the preacher had used fear and intimidation to control people.
Cassidy could not remember the year, but she said sometime in the early 1980s she woke fearing that her husband was going to make her leave.
“He told me to get over the fear,” she recalled.
She visited the grave of the preacher’s wife, her father’s sister. “I told her I forgave her for what she had done to me,” Cassidy said.
Then she started thinking about the notes she wrote when she was living with her grandparents in Courtland. They were about the cult. She would hide them under the mattress.
“I kept writing them when I moved to Mississippi,” she said. “I couldn’t express myself to my father. So I wrote my feelings down on whatever I could find. It was a way of coping, of dealing with what I knew was wrong.”
After her father died in 1996, Cassidy started writing about the hurt and disappointment in her life. She kept going back to the days of the cult. She said it wasn’t difficult to relive what had happened because the Lord had healed her.
Before completing the book in 2000, Cassidy made two trips to Africa. She wrote the song “Nigeria, Oh, Nigeria,” which sold 115,000 copies the first week of its release.
Cassidy visited Courtland and Moulton last week. Several people already had copies of the book and were waiting for the author’s autograph.
“I’m amazed at all of this,” she said.