December 4, 2020
Cooling the Congregation
The Culture of the Church Fan
Artwork by Ashleigh Corrin
When you think of church service, these images often come to mind: Bibles, beautiful hats, white clothed and white gloved ushers, and fans. Fans are a staple in black churches and that is a fact! According to journalist Angelo Henderson, fans “date… back to Africa where the fan was used by the goddess to pass blessings.”[1] A hand-held fan has been a church essential for generations, serving to keep the congregation cool while providing local businesses like funeral homes and insurance companies a way of advertising.
Fan depicting praying children, c.1960s
Vivica Brooks handing out fans to church goers, 2003
Responding to this consistent need for fans, by the 1920s, African Americans—many trained in printmaking during the First World War—“began producing inexpensive cardboard fans on wood handles for businesses to purchase and distribute with information on the back. Funeral homes and insurance companies—businesses dealing with death—most typically used the fans to get their message out to congregants.”[2] These simple fans were “cut out of heavy paper and stapled onto a wooden handle… [and] provided some measure of relief during services that could last several hours in a hot and humid climate. Following the advent of air-conditioning in the 1950s, the fans all but disappeared from white congregations, but remained in many African-American congregations, having become rooted in church culture.”[3]
Fan advertising Leevy's Funeral Home, Columbia, South Carolina
Fan advertising for Hicks Beauty School, San Antonio, Texas
Former director of Women of the NAACP Thelma Daley explained how her grandfather John H. Thomas was a funeral director, “and his fans were always in the church.”[4] This was an effective practice, because as Angelo Henderson also noted, as time went on, “you'd see auto companies. You'd see Coca Cola. You'd see all kind of different companies now… on the back of these church fans.”[5]
Family at church fan, c.1960s
Mahalia Jackson fan, c.1960s
Blues musician Fruteland Jackson described, in his interview, the fans as his family’s church: “You had the little fan with the… black family and the praying hands, and the church funeral parlor is mentioned on the other side.”[6] Fans in black churches did not always depict African American images, though. Broadcast journalist Roz Abrams spoke of her conflicting feelings as a young person attending Catholic Church in Lansing, Michigan: “I'd get on my knees regularly, but I just didn't buy into [it]… back then it was a white man on a fan.”[7] The change of imagery proved to be very important, as Marianetta Porter, an art and design professor at the University of Michigan, described: “They were the first positive African American images that I saw. Pre-Ebony, pre-Jet… Everything that the [mainstream] culture was telling me — that black families were dissolved — all of that was countered by the images on the fans.”[8] Bishop T.D. Jakes named some of the prominent figures that were printed on them: “Mahalia Jackson fans and Dr. King's [Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] face on the fans… brought over by the funeral home (laughter).”[9]
A woman standing and shouting, Shiloh Baptist Church, Albany, Georgia, August 1962
In the Pentocostal or Baptist church, fans were also used by the “ushers to cool off ‘shouters’ who had caught the Holy Ghost.”[10] Actress Jasmine Guy explained: “I saw people fall out. I didn't know if they were acting or not... There was this whole beautiful theatrics where the ushers come and fan you and take you out.”[11] Mixed media artist Amalia Amaki remembered her and her siblings making a game of it outside of church: “We'd sometimes get in the backyard and imitate people… falling out at church… I was always one of the… sisters [or ushers] in the white who would fan… the people… when they faint.”[12] South Carolina’s cultural historian Lucille Whipper also recalled: “They would always have revivals… you have to through an experience before you are saved… so they started rolling on the floor doing whatever and the mothers were fanning and praying and helping them to come through.”[13]
Ushers wearing the traditional white uniform, Fairfield Baptist Church, Lithonia, Georgia, c.2010s
Veterinarian Debbye Turner Bell also shared her fan memories: “I remember the older people in the congregation being people that carried themselves with pride and dignity… Ms. Watson… was one of the ushers… and she would always come through with her fan and hold it under our mouth so we had to spit out our gum.”[14] Jennie Patrick, the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, told the story: “I was about three years old in the heat of the summer… no air conditioning… we had these little paper fans… to keep yourself cool. And the fans often [were] limited… I had a fan, and I was sitting next to my mom [Elizabeth Patrick] and the baby… And the baby reached out for my fan and insisted on having my fan. And I thought, oh, no, that's not fair… and my mom said, give it to her. And I said, no… she took the fan from me, and I thought, I can't let you do this. And so I decided, I will embarrass you. So I screamed to the top of my voice (laughter) in the church. And the usher, in her white uniform comes and takes me outside… the usher pinched me on my arms. And I got very upset about that… I looked up at her, and I said to her, ‘You can't do that to me.’ And it shocked her… she pinched me again… So I proceeded to tear her pantyhose off (laughter).”[15]
Women holding fans at a church service, undated
While air conditioning units have replaced the fan’s practical purpose of keeping cool, their use continues: “the fans said words when… [they] were too overcome to speak, waving them furiously at the pastor when the sermon really got good… They were silent metronomes, keeping the pace of the long services. They were something that everybody in the church used and had access to, but in the hands of black women — the ones who kept the church’s books and arranged for communion and fried chicken for later — they seemed to be something else entirely. A quintessential accessory for the prayer warriors who line the front pewsartifacts of the black South...”[16]
For the newsletter from November 20, 2020, titled "Black-Owned Banks," research credit is also owed to Geoff Clarke of Rutgers University and his collaborator Amy Nguyen. As 2019 HistoryMakers Fellows, they used the Digital Archive to inform research on "Two Eras Of Black Banking," which also helped inform our newsletter article.
[1] Angelo Henderson (The HistoryMakers A2002.152), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 20, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 1, Angelo Henderson talks about the historical significance of the African American funeral home and church fan industries.
[2] Charles Reagan Wilson. “Church Fans: Tradition, Modernity, and Mortality,” Southern Quarterly, Questia, accessed September 14, 2020.
[3] “Highlights from the Gates Collection of African American History and Culture: Go To Church,” Portland State University Library Digital Collections, accessed September 14, 2020.
[4] Thelma Daley (The HistoryMakers A2003.164), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 22, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10, Thelma Daley talks about her paternal grandfather, John H. Thomas, a funeral director.
[5] Angelo Henderson (The HistoryMakers A2002.152), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 20, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 13, Angelo Henderson talks about some of the stories he wrote for Page 1 of "The Wall Street Journal."
[6] Fruteland Jackson (The HistoryMakers A2007.064), interviewed by Sasha Dalton, February 13, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Fruteland Jackson talks about his early childhood memories, including his religious upbringing.
[7] Roz Abrams (The HistoryMakers A2014.044), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 17, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10, Roz Abrams describes her religious upbringing.
[8] Jada F. Smith. “A Quintessential Accessory: Church Fans,” Lenny Letter, March 20, 2018, accessed September 14, 2020.
[9] Bishop T.D. Jakes (The HistoryMakers A2010.106), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, August 25, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 14, Bishop T.D. Jakes talks about the coalmining industry in West Virginia.
[10] Jada F. Smith, “A Quintessential Accessory: Church Fans.”
[11] Jasmine Guy (The HistoryMakers A2012.244), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 10, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Jasmine Guy recalls her introduction to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
[12] Amalia Amaki (The HistoryMakers A2006.017), interviewed by Evelyn Pounds, February 15, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 3, Amalia Amaki describes the games she played with her siblings.
[13] The Honorable Lucille Whipper (The HistoryMakers A2007.039), interviewed by Denise Gines, February 1, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 6, The Honorable Lucille Whipper recalls her mother's involvement in the church.
[14] Debbye Turner Bell (The HistoryMakers A2014.229), interviewed by Harriette Cole, August 12, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 6, Debbye Turner Bell describes her experiences in both St. Paul A.M.E. Church and Carter Temple CME Church in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
[15] Jennie Patrick (The HistoryMakers A2012.210), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 14, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Jennie Patrick talks about her church and its influence.
[16] Jada F. Smith, “A Quintessential Accessory: Church Fans.”
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