Praying Grounds: African American Faith Communities

About Praying Grounds

WEB Du Bois

The Negro church of today is the social center of Negro life in the United States ... Various organizations meet here, — the church proper, the Sunday-School, two or three insurance societies, women's societies, secret societies, and mass meetings of various kinds. Entertainments, suppers, and lectures are held beside the five or six regular weekly religious services. Considerable sums of money are collected and expended here, employment is found for the idle, strangers are introduced, news is disseminated and charity distributed. At the same time this social, intellectual, and economic center is a religious center of great power. —W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903

Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868 – 1963), a renowned historian and sociologist, was one of several early 20th-cenury African American scholars to recognize the importance of the church in shaping the experiences of Americans of African descent. In his most celebrated collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois devoted two chapters to the exclusive study of African American religion: "Of the Faith of Our Fathers" and "The Sorrow Songs." The former stated that the church was the "social center" of the community and gave a detailed description of the activities a "typical" church, while the latter declared that the "Sorrow Songs," or spirituals, were "the articulate message of the slave to the world," and "the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas."

Du Bois' 20th-century writings combine much-deserved praise for the church and religious cultural expressions with a healthy dose of constructive criticism for what he viewed as the shortcomings of the institutions that were so vital to the life of the African American community. In so doing, he provided a model for latter day 20th -century scholars, including C. Eric Lincoln.

More than a century after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, humanities scholars and others recognize that the church remains at the center of African American social life. However, like other aspects of social history, much of the history of religious institutions is "disappearing beneath our feet," because not enough is being done to collect and preserve the primary evidence of the work of the church and to make this archival information available to established and budding 21st-century scholars. Praying Grounds: African American Faith Communities promises to help address this problem through the collection and preservation of archival material related to the history of these institutions in Greater Cleveland. Initially, the project will focus on Christian communities, and it will later be expanded to include other religions.

Religious institutions are certainly worthy of the time and attention that will be given to this effort, since they have greatly impacted the social history of Northeast Ohio. Throughout Cleveland's history, the church, no less than schools and fraternal and benevolent organizations, has contributed to the development of African American culture in ways too numerous to discuss in a single essay. The challenge, then, before the serious student of social and cultural history in general, and African American studies in particular, is to determine why the stories of these "praying grounds" remain hidden or shrouded in misunderstanding.

Time spent uncovering this hidden past has already proven to be more than rewarding for many scholars. In 1990, historians C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya suggested that "a good way to understand a people is to study their religion, for religion is addressed to that most sacred schedule of values around which the expression and the meaning of life tends to coalesce." These scholars further state that, " . . .a critical observer with an open mind can gain invaluable insight into the structural and motivational cosmos out of which particular behaviors emerge as distinctive earmarks particularizing a given population." In offering these ideas as evidence of the importance of studying the particular population of the Black church within the context of the total African American experience, they added their voices to the chorus of scholars who have in recent decades sung the praises of the Black church or found in it potential cures for the social ills of the African American community.

While Lincoln and Mamiya's research describes national trends in African American religious history and sociology, much of what they say in their 1990 publication holds true for the African American community in Greater Cleveland. If we accept as truth this idea that one can observe "distinctive earmarks" in a given population, then it is reasonable to suggest that there is something unique and noteworthy about the role of the local Black church in shaping the cultural mosaic here on America's north coast.

African American church communities in Cleveland have, for example, served as leadership reservoirs and meeting places for the many groups of individuals who sought to reform education for the benefit of the thousands of African American children in the Cleveland City Schools, especially during the 1920s and 30s. The biography of Mary B. Martin, the first African American to serve on the Cleveland Board of Education, suggests that her experiences in faith communities were key influences on her public career. As an active member and former Sunday School teacher at the Mount Zion Congregational Church, and later Cleveland's B'ahai Community, Martin openly acknowledged her moral obligation to assume leadership positions on the boards of the Phillis Wheatley Association and the Wilson District Committee of The Associated Charities.

The significance of Martin's civic activities and their relationship to educational reform becomes increasingly clear if we consider Bernard Bailyn's popular definition of education. Writing in 1960, Bailyn defined education as "the entire process by which culture is transmitted across the generations." Since this definition stresses the importance of considering the "entire process," scholars know the story cannot begin and end with the public career of one elected official. To obtain a more complete understanding of African American culture in Greater Cleveland, other lives must be examined, and other stories must be told. As this first decade of the 21st century unfolds, the historian's approach to research activities seems most appropriate.

For the Praying Grounds project, conducting oral history interviews and using documentary evidence, promises to facilitate the process of compiling a comprehensive history of Greater Cleveland's African American faith communities. Preliminary studies of the lives of several Clevelanders of African American descent, most of them members of the Baptist church, illustrate the usefulness of this enterprise in fostering an understanding of diverse religious experiences.

Persie Johnson Ford, for example, revealed in a 1994 oral history interview that she was born in Palmira, Alabama in 1905. Her parents were Tommie and Geneva Adkins Johnson. Acquiring a formal education proved to be more than difficult for Ford. While, she was able to complete the segregated elementary school program in a neighboring community, there was no public high school for African American students within commuting distance of her home. She recalled, however, that there was a private school for girls in nearby Calhoun, Alabama, where Northern white teachers, supported primarily by Northern white philanthropists, taught a few African Americans girls to be "ladies."

Ford's parents worked as tenant farmers in their Alabama community. The family also attended the Macedonia Baptist Church in Fort Deposit, Alabama, where her father directed the choir, using the shape note method of teaching singing. Following her father's death in 1923, she moved with her mother to Cleveland, Ohio, joining an aunt who had migrated earlier. She lived first in the Scovill area, the heart of Cleveland's "black belt," and joined the Gethsemane Baptist Church, which was then located in the Central community. She later became a member of the world-famous Wings Over Jordan, a choir specializing in the performance of Negro Spirituals. The pastor of Gethsemane Baptist Church, Reverend Glynn Settle, founded the choir. In 1994, Ford was quick to note the changes in the musical program of the Baptist church and the culture of African American faith communities in general, but she remained a faithful member of Gethsemane Baptist Church for more than 70 years. In this matter of "faithfulness," Ford was not alone.

In the personal papers of the late Rev. Dr. Wade Hampton McKinney, one finds further evidence of African American culture and a sense of community in Cleveland that was rooted and grounded in a long history of church activism. McKinney was born in White County, Georgia in 1892 to Wade and Mary B. McKinney. A graduate of Atlanta Baptist College Academy, Morehouse College, and the Colgate Rochester Theological Seminary, McKinney was a veteran of World War I and enjoyed an enviable career as a pastor and civic leader.

Upon graduating from the seminary in 1923, McKinney began pastoring his first church, Mount Olive Baptist in Flint, Michigan. In 1928, he was invited to come to Cleveland to become the pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church, then located at East 24th and Central. Under his leadership, Antioch's membership grew from 700 to more than 3,000, and the church was relocated at its present home on East 89th and Cedar Avenue.

Just as important as his church leadership is his record of service to the Greater Cleveland community. For more than twenty years he was a member of the governing board of the Cedar YMCA, and he was active in the Future Outlook League, a group that helped African Americans secure employment opportunities. He also helped organize the Quincey Savings and Loan Company and was instrumental in the founding of the Forest City Hospital.

McKinney served as pastor of Antioch for 34 years, resigning just before his death in 1963. His many sermons and speeches, now housed at the Western Reserve Historical Society, are a living testament to his leadership. In 1931 he delivered a speech titled "While Cleveland Sleeps!" in which he described the "Negro Problem" as a human problem, and urged the city's "Leaders" to move beyond issues of race to treat it as such. He described the frustration experienced by the city's many social service and religious organizations, as they tried to combat the crime and other social ills that appeared to be engulfing Cleveland's predominantly African American Central community, also known as the "Roaring Third." He spoke out against a system that allowed individuals living outside of the community to carry on criminal activities in Central, and he chastised ministers who led congregations in Central, but lived outside of the area and were distanced from the problems of Central. He also criticized Depression-era social welfare programs that often did more harm than good by implementing relief programs that "kill[ed] one's self-respect." He went on to say that no "program of family relief is worthwhile unless it gives mental as well as physical relief," and urged "Christian leaders [to] seek a new approach to this problem of family relief." The educational, recreational and other programs offered by socially conscious institutions like Antioch suggest that McKinney's call to action did not go unheeded.

Many of the themes in the above discussion also predominate in book-length scholarly studies of the African American experience in other parts of the country. Most noteworthy are those related to the existence of segregation, discrimination and opportunity in the history of American education and social programs, the processes involved in the migration of thousands of African Americans from the rural South to cities in the North and South during the early decades of the twentieth century; and the importance of the Black church in American cultural and social history.

In retrospect, it is obvious that the choices made by the Persie Johnson Fords, the Wade Hampton McKinneys, and thousands of others who lived and worked in Cleveland's African American communities have implications for the way we live our lives today. Earlier scholarly works, including Kenneth Kusmer's A Ghetto Takes Shape, Russell Davis's Black Americans in Cleveland, and Kimberly Phillip's AlabamaNorth are excellent examples of the kinds of community studies that can result from research on the history of a given locality, but the late Dr. C. Eric Lincoln and others were correct in continually stressing the need for more research on the role of the Black church in those communities.

Today, educators can encourage an enlightened approach to writing and telling a more inclusive story of the peoples of Cleveland, while seeking to overcome the various biases that could interfere with the writing of a balanced account of the past. This approach could utilize the resources provided by the young, the old, the formally educated, and those who have graduated from the "College of Hard Knocks."

With these thoughts in mind, individuals associated with religious and educational institutions can work in tandem with those affiliated with historical societies. The African American Church Archives Project of the Western Reserve Historical Society, launched by Samuel Black in the 1990s, was an important step in the right direction. The Oral History Project of the St. James A.M.E. Church was yet another sign of hope, and "Identity, Dignity, Community," an exhibit mounted by the Western Reserve Historical Society and curated by Dr. Kimberley Phillips, was an excellent example of institutional / community cooperation. There appears to be no lack of individual will in any of the aforementioned examples, but problems can sometimes arise in the essential coalition-building phase of research projects. When this happens, an understanding of and appreciation for diversity, especially as it exists in area African American faith communities, can facilitate this process. Praying Grounds was launched in the summer of 2003 to do just that.

The pilot project received support from the Cleveland State University Black Studies Program and the Special Collections Division of the Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Already, the research initiative has received the endorsement of United Pastors in Mission, a coalition of more than 100 predominantly African American Christian congregations in Greater Cleveland. The Executive Director of The Cleveland Baptist Association also helped identify the African American congregations in that organization, and members of both groups have responded positively to my initial requests for information by sharing their oral histories, audio recordings of musical performances, photographs, anniversary programs, and other printed materials from their church files.

Praying Grounds is off to a great start. Many churches have been contacted, but hundreds more have yet to be approached. On-going work with a related video oral history project, public speaking activities, and conference presentations are planned to generate community interest in and support for this project. Student researchers from Cleveland State University's AHANA Program and the Department of History have already provided invaluable assistance with transcribing interviews, locating related articles in the Call and Post newspaper, and identifying photographs and clippings in the Cleveland Press Collection. Coalition-building with existing university programs and departments will also be crucial to the success of the Praying Grounds project and other initiatives designed to enrich the learning experiences of members of this campus community.