Preparing for Emancipation
In the years before and during the Civil War, slaves used religion as a means of preparing for freedom. Often allowed to attend segregated sections of white Protestant churches, they heard from white ministers the New Testament’s promise of salvation. It was a lesson intended to pacify them with an “otherworldly” salvation rather than instill hope in earthly freedom. Slave preachers had a different vision, however. Speaking in darkened plantation quarters, more openly in religious meeting places known as “praise houses” (usually hidden away in secluded rural areas), and even in formal settings such as Petersburg’s First Baptist Church and Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, they taught black people how to use genuine professions of faith in Christian salvation to camouflage simultaneous expressions of belief in imminent political freedom.
African American conceptions of Christianity provided a language for resisting slavery. In addition to seeing themselves in the Israelites who escaped Egypt, they read the Book of Revelation as narrating the apocalyptic end of one world and the inauguration of a new, more just one. African Americans often blended political and spiritual symbols, combining, for instance, the characters of Abraham Lincoln, Moses, and Jesus into one messianic persona, and celebrating the abolition of slavery as a day of Jubilee—a Hebrew concept that coupled freedom with the acquisition of land. In fact, African American communities frequently created Jubilee celebrations on the Fourth of July to commemorate the Declaration of Independence as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
Convention of the Colored People of Virginia
Alienated from nearly all other institutions while enslaved, newly freed African Americans quickly formed Christian churches or joined long-established ones. Making full use of educated clergymen, they found churches to be ideal locations to advance civil rights and create alliances with like-minded secular groups. As many as 80 percent of African Americans belonged to a church in postwar Virginia, most of them identifying as. A scant few African Americans in the state were Roman Catholic, with a Richmond parish placed under the direction of the Josephite Fathers of London, a society of Catholic priests and brothers devoted to caring for the spiritual and material needs of freedpeople in the United States. Nor were a significant number of African Americans non-Christian in the sense of identifying with or regularly attending Jewish synagogues or Muslim mosques.
These Christian churches became sites of protest against racist Virginia policies including white reluctance to extend the franchise to blacks after the state rejoined the Union. For example, several Christian ministers organized the Convention of the Colored People of Virginia in Alexandria in August 1865, drawing delegates from twenty-two mostly urban districts throughout the state. In speech after speech, leaders demanded equal rights with white citizens, including the right of suffrage.
The convention’s rationale for equality cited blacks’ devotion to the nation’s most fundamental republican principles—freedom and equality. Leaders argued that since the American Revolution (1775–1783), blacks had taken up arms over and over again to defend or extend these ideals. And they believedmade them—and not white secessionists—the most loyal citizens of the South. Speakers called for the full measure of freedom both as a just reward and because it was the only protection against the return of white tyranny. But their argument, above all, was spiritual, suggesting that freedom, as clearly revealed in Scripture, was God’s will.
The Reverend John M. Brown, of Norfolk, expressed the delegates’ conviction that justice required further and continued intervention by federal authority. Many white people in the state,, “despise us simply because we are black, and, especially, because we have been made free by the power of the United States government, and … they will not be willing to accord to us, as freemen, that protection which all freemen must contend for, if they would be worthy of freedom.” Brown added that “freedom was not of our making, yet we believe it was the intention, and is the will of God.” In language taken directly from the Bible, another delegate noted how black Virginians had “prayed [for] … this day when we can breathe the free air of an American citizen and worship the God of our fathers under our own vine and fig tree.” The final declaration of rights issued by the convention called for the “immediate repeal of all laws operating against us as a separate class of people.”
Such speeches were heard, at least by Republican politicians. In the 1866 midterm elections, they gained veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress, authorized the Union Republican Congressional Committee to court freedpeople’s vote, and enacted a series of Reconstruction Acts that replaced civilian with military governments in Virginia and every other former Confederate state except Tennessee. Starting in March 1867, Radical Republicans in Congress directed military commanders to enroll adult black male voters for elections reconstituting state governments throughout the South. Most whites, meanwhile, were disfranchised. Radicals also drafted theto the , defining citizenship to include American Americans.
Established Churches and Missionaries
Many black churches had a long history. Petersburg’s First Baptist Church, founded in 1774 in Lunenburg County and relocated to Petersburg after a fire in 1820, was one of the oldest and largest black churches in the United States. First African Baptist Church of Richmond was founded in 1841, but Virginia law required the black church to retain white leadership; Dr. James H. Holmes became the first black minister of the congregation in 1867. During and after the Civil War, northern missionaries poured into the South expecting to proselytize African Americans but found instead former slave congregations ready to be officially enrolled into their denominations.
African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) missionaries competed for new black adherents with each other and with northern white missionaries from the American Baptist Home Mission Society and the Methodist Episcopal Church. They all enjoyed some measure of success in mission work. The AME and AMEZ missionaries marketed their denominations as independent and black. Methodist Episcopal and Baptist missionaries presented their churches as biracial and, conscious of their recent historical connections with abolitionists, committed to racial equality. Regardless of denomination, most missionaries also offered vast resources to impoverished black congregations, including money to acquire or improve church property, hymnals and Sunday school literature, and high-quality newspapers such as the AME Christian Recorder and the AMEZ Star of Zion.
Most white Southern Methodists and Southern Baptists resented northern missionaries’ influence over the freedpeople in the same way they scorned Republican Carpetbaggers’ uniting with free blacks to take control of state government. As a result, black churches’with northern connections made members targets for violence. Beaten and murdered missionaries and freedpeople, along with burned churches, testified to the intensity of white Virginians’ anger. But the vast majority of white Southern Baptists and Southern Methodists relied on persuasion in their attempts to halt the exodus of black Christians from their former masters’ churches into northern and African denominations, declaring their love of freedpeople and sometimes conceding small measures of autonomy for blacks who remained. White Southern Baptists and Southern Methodists even helped buy or build church buildings for new black congregations. But, with the exception of the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church spun off from the Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1870, the departure of blacks from southern white denominations was absolute.
Political Action, Education, and Acquisition
These growing black churches led the charge for the right of suffrage, organizing the vast majority of voter registration drives and urging the men in their congregations to vote. Church leaders’ tactics in the struggle to achieve political freedom included helping to establish partisan organizations called Union Leagues dedicated to mobilizing black voters. Opposition to Union Leagues led, in part, to the galvanization of thein 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, to terrorize freedpeople throughout the South. The Reverend John Givens, for instance, wrote to the Union Republican Congressional Committee on July 15, 1867, reporting that even though a “colored speaker was killed three weeks ago” in nearby Lunenburg County, he would travel there to register black voters and “by the help of God … give them a dose of my radical Republican pills and neutralize the corrosive acidity of their negro hate.”
Union Leagues developed close relationships with local black churches and were concrete symbols of blacks’ new freedom. As a result, Union Leagues became infused with traditional church ritual and liturgy, including declarations of faith in the. League meetings often replicated the rhythmical form of a black church service, including the call-and-response form of communication, “ring-shouts,” sermons, and hymn-singing.
Members of black churches understood that, like suffrage, education and land acquisition were also vital to securing freedom and racial equality. With literacy levels no higher than 10 percent among former slaves, educated white people controlled the wealth and power. Freedpeople needed education to obtain good jobs, acquire property, and fully enter American society. The Reverend Henry Highland Garnet vividly presented this argument in 1865, stating that white respect would follow only after black financial achievement: “The more money you make, the lighter your skin will be. The more land and houses you get, the straighter your hair will be.”
Initially, the main source of basic education was the Radical Republican Congress, which created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in 1865 with $5 million in appropriations for schools and books. But churches provided the organizational support for the developing education system. Many Freedmen’s Bureau teachers were northerners recruited by the American Missionary Association, while southern black churches, such as Third Baptist Church in Petersburg, offered the facilities for Sunday school classes where adults and children could learn to read.When Congress accepted Virginia’s new constitution in 1870, which restored the state to the Union, a main achievement of the Reconstruction state government was a revised . Churches, however, continued to provide vital support for freedpeople’s education. Mary Jane Wilson’s experience illustrates this blending of secular and spiritual education in the postwar South. Graduating in 1874 from Hampton Institute, which was founded by the American Missionary Society in 1868, Wilson opened her own school for black children in her Portsmouth backyard. “I had as many as seventy-five pupils at one time,” , “Many of them became teachers. I had my graduation exercise in the Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Those were the happiest days.”
At a most basic level, these churches were also financial investments if the congregations owned their buildings and land. Institutional property ownership provided a practical source of progress and power for the African American community. The Census of Religious Bodies, published in 1926, reports that by the turn of the twentieth century, black Virginia Baptists owned $10.5 million in buildings and land, with the AME, AME Zion, and CME churches owning $1.9 million. Although not-for-profit businesses, African American churches created opportunities for institutional power and economic progress after the abolition of slavery.
The New Negro and the End of ReconstructionEven though black Virginians were sometimes successful in their ongoing pursuit of education, land, and jobs, their gains were limited and generated controversy. By 1900, the first generation of American blacks that had never known slavery reached adulthood. Called the “New Negro,” a black individual from this generation was more likely to be literate and even college-educated, many having matriculated at institutions funded by northern churches. For instance, Richmond Theological School for Freedmen (later Virginia Union University) was founded in 1865 and managed by the American Baptist Home Mission Society to train blacks for the clergy. Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was an industrial training school founded in 1868 by the American Missionary Society to teach basic skills and middle-class values that were considered prerequisites for black advancement.
Meanwhile, among whites, nostalgia about the Old South bred resentment of the New Negro. The Virginia historian Philip Alexander Bruce argued in The Plantation Negro as a Freeman (1889) that in contrast to the docile and devoted plantation slave, the New Negro was leading African Americans dangerously out of their natural, subordinate place in society. Bruce advocated deportation as the best way to head off the impending destruction of civilized society. But many whites instead championed what became Jim Crow laws, legalizing rigid segregation, discrimination, and evenas a way to control the black population.
Confident, sometimes to the point of brashness, the New Negro pushed back. Many blacks saw little future for African Americans while dependent on whites and turned to Pan-Africanism. Virginia’s black Baptists and African Methodists supported African mission work. Indeed, Virginia Baptists took pride in the fact that their state had been the home of Lott Carey who, early in the nineteenth century, had led enterprises of black immigration to Liberia. Some AME congregations endorsed AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner’s promotion of voluntary immigration to Africa. Assertive Baptists challenged the Home Mission Society for favoring white-led Virginia Union over Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg and its black president.
Not all organizations agreed, however, and opposing strategies emerged for dealing with intensifying white racism. One was to appropriate segregation and voluntarily separate as much as possible from white society. The 1890s saw a movement to end all cooperative church arrangements with white organizations, for instance. Similarly, a publishing scandal in 1889 had led the majority of black Virginia Baptists exclusively to patronize the black-controlled National Baptist Convention’s publication department. The rift resulted from the American Baptist Publication Society’s renouncing plans to publish articles by three black ministers in a collection of theological writings by black and white authors after white Southern Baptists objected. A majority of black Virginians took a different approach to such conflict, however, declaring total separation from white society to be impractical and instead choosing a strategy of ongoing cooperation. “Now, let us not show too much independency, but talk business,” a committee of black Baptist cooperationists advised Norfolk, representatives of the Union Baptist Association in 1896, highlighting the need for financial assistance. “Remember we are neither Astors nor Rothschilds.”
The issue of separation from whites versus cooperation remained a dilemma for African Americans in Virginia and throughout the South into the twentieth century. The first half-century of freedom left African Americans without the legal rights they had dreamed of but with mostly reconstructed families and many valuable community institutions, few more important than African American churches.