January 7, 2022
Where I Lay My Burden Down
Crisis, Activism, and the Black Church
Left to right: A COVID-19 funeral; Richard Allen, undated; and “A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in the Year 1793” by Absalom Jones
Long before a raging COVID-19 pandemic and all the challenges that we, as a society, are facing, the black church has been a foundation of support for its communities. As noted by Bishop Vashti McKenzie in her telling of the role of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church during a yellow fever epidemic:When the yellow fever hit back in the 1800s [sic. 1700s] in Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]Richard Allen, Absalom Jones were very integral in organizing persons to assist… persons who were ill to take care of them, to make sure they had food… they organized the church to help people bury the dead, take out the sick… from the very beginning, we have participated in social and cultural upheaval.[1] The Honorable Reverend Dr. Floyd Flake noted that “it was [the] African American church through the Free African Society with Richard Allen and Absalom Jones that actually had to tend to the needs of those families… because the white population… would not do it.[2]
Left: The Oblate Sisters of Providence, c. late 19th century
Right: An announcement regarding cholera during the 1832 epidemic
During the cholera epidemic of 1832, the Oblate Sisters of Providence risked their lives to educate children and care for the sick. Oblate Sister Theresa Maxis Duchemin, the first U.S.-born black Catholic woman to join a religious order, died “the victim of charity” after being called upon to care for the Archbishop of Baltimore and contracted cholera in the process.[3] Oblate Sister Mary Chineworth (1917-2017) noted: “We were formed for the education of black children… our foundress [Mary Lange] was prompted to do that because there was no facility for the education of black children. So she opened many a school here [Saint Frances Academy, Baltimore, Maryland] … She also always reached out for the marginalized and the poverty stricken.[4]
Left: Students in Beulah Baptist Church as part of “The First Select Colored School,” Alexandria,
Virginia, undated
Right: Students on the campus of Howard University, 1870
The black church offered succor to those enslaved and afflicted by the Civil War. Professor Russell Adams noted that “the Civil War was an opening up of the potential for community where you could then have the churches and the emergence of public education in the South.”[5] Membership in the black church boomed after the war’s end. In his interview, Reverend Kenneth Smith, Sr. (1931-2008) highlighted the tremendous growth of black educational institutions, many of which were founded as the educational arms of black churches: "They went into the South and established five hundred schools, some of them before the Civil War. And some of those schools still exist, Fisk University [Nashville, Tennessee], Dillard University [New Orleans, Louisiana], Talladega College [Florida], Tugaloo College in Mississippi, Houston Tillotson [University] in Texas and Le Moyne [College] in Memphis [Tennessee]… that story was told over and over in black churches in the early days.[6]
Left: Bethel Missionary Baptist Church congregation, 1963
Right: Reverend C.K. Steele, who was active in protesting segregation, with the remains of a burned cross in front of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, Tallahassee, Florida, January 1957
As professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham noted, the church “was the place where Ida B. Wells had her… press… We had the first insurance company that came out of Florida out of a church [Afro-American Industrial and Benefits Association; Afro-American Insurance Company, Jacksonville, Florida]. They staged boycotts. There's a great boycott of the segregation laws in 1906… Bethel in Florida [Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, Tallahassee, Florida] so… our churches were our public spaces because the traditional spaces that everybody else went to… weren't open to black people… the government wasn't giving any welfare out… [or] entitlement grants out and so we took our pennies and our dimes, and it was just amazing the level of… sacrificial giving that our people did to create these institutions within our churches… they [Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.] had a medical clinic and their medical clinic is written about in The Voice of the Negro in 1904.”[7]
Left: Reverend Ralph Abernathy delivering a sermon to activists and demonstrators taking refuge in his church, 1961
Right: Andrew Young preaching to a crowd outside of Brown Chapel, Selma, Alabama, c. 1960s
Former executive director of the NAACP Reverend Benjamin Hooks (1925-2010) explained the black church's role in cultivating social, cultural, and political leadership: “The black church was a vehicle not only religiously, but organizationally wise they brought us through. No accident that many of our great leaders of the days in the past were preachers, many of our congresspeople and early state senators and state legislators were ministers of the Gospel… [Dr.] Martin [Luther] King [Jr.] was a Baptist preacher, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Wyatt Walker, Ben Hooks, these men were ministers… the pulpit has given black America much of its great leadership.”[8]
Left: U.S. Congressmen (NY) and Baptist Pastor Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. preaching on stage, undated
Right: Reverend Jesse Jackson preaching at Shiloh Baptist Church, Washington D.C., c. 1974
Social activism was not big at all in the Pentecostal church, I think because I grew up preaching and by the time I was a teenager, it no longer fascinated me to preach… But wait a minute… You mean we can change the policies of the country? We can change who holds office? We can decide to help the downtrodden," opined Reverend Al Sharpton, who continued by saying: "By the time I met [Adam Clayton] Powell [Jr.], and then [Reverend] Jesse [Jackson], it opened another area of ministry... everybody was political in that era. Everybody was in something… I was gonna at least be with preachers.”[9] Bishop John Hurst Adams (1927-2018) remarked that “being a pastor in… a black church, gives you the liberty to be an activist, which some of our brothers who don't have that freedom have to be a little bit more careful.[10]
Left: Reverend Edward Henry "E.H." Dorsey and his wife, Gladys Alderman Dorsey, at a church event,
c. 1960s
Right: Women boycotting a store, c. 1960s
Community activist Hattie B. Dorsey noted how her father Reverend Edward Henry "E.H." Dorsey used the pulpit to activate change in Atlanta, Georgia: “What my father was doing during Civil Rights… [was] saying to your congregation, ‘You're gonna wear last Easter's hats 'cause we're gonna boycott Richard's Department Store. We can't eat at their counters, we can't shop. We can't try on clothes in their dressing rooms, we can't buy.’ So he basically stopped a whole lot… with reference to his congregation.[11]
Left: Opportunities Industrialization Centers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Right: Reverend Dr. Leon Sullivan in front of the nation’s first African American-owned and operated shopping center he cofounded, Progress Plaza, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, c. 1968
Reverend Calvin O. Pressley (1937-2007) spoke of the role that Reverend Dr. Leon Sullivan and his Opportunities Industrialization Centers (OIC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania played: “African Americans were losing their jobs in Philadelphia, and Dr. Sullivan and the preachers in… the Philadelphia movement, said that, ‘Look, we are consumers and we spend a lot of money… If you are not going to give our people jobs, we're going to boycott you.’ And so they started the boycotts… And then the people who manufactured them said, ‘Look, what can we do to be helpful?’ And he says, ‘You can help me train my people. I don't want a handout; I want a hand-up.’[12]
Left to right: Reverend Dr. Joseph L. Roberts; Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, c. 1960s; and Reverend William A. Jones, Sr. of Pleasant Green Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky
For Reverend Dr. Joseph L. Roberts (1935-2015) and others, there was the activism of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia: “We were very much involved in the voters right act of 1965 [Voting Rights Act of 1965] and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And I would explain it to the congregation and tell them, ‘you've got to take advantage of this…’ There was a lot of police brutality going on, and we fought that. And, when I say we, I mean other clergy persons, this wasn't a solo thing.”[13] While the black church has often led its communities, sometimes it tried to stymie the progress needed. For social activist and teacher Audrey Grevious (1930-2017), sometimes the church's stance was too conservative: “The thing that always concerned me about the Civil Rights Movement here in Lexington [Kentucky] was the fact that the churches were not involved like they were every place else. With the exception of Pleasant Green [Baptist Church], and that was Reverend [William A.] Jones [Sr.] ... he would let us meet… at his church.[14]
Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” at Riverside Church in New York City, April 4, 1967
Reverend Dr. Joseph L. Roberts provided additional commentary: “The church responded pretty well to us, but when we got into certain civic and social issues like apartheid… condemning the [Vietnam] war… it meant that certain people reduced their giving which had an effect on us… at the top.[15] Reverend Albert Richard Sampson remembered that “on the Vietnam War, all of the black leaders in America… and a lot of white folks told him [Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.], that he should stay in Alabama and just deal with domestic issues and never deal with the international. And his response was, ‘If I tell a young man in Birmingham, Alabama… to turn the other cheek… I shouldn't endorse him having a rifle to go against Ho Chi Minh, a brown man in Vietnam… that ain't never hurt us and don't know nothing about us.’"[16]
Left: The New Hope Baptist Church makes headlines for posting a sign outside its building that reads: “AIDS is God’s curse on a homosexual life,” Birmingham, Alabama, 2004
Right: Minister Aaron Davis (right) and his wife, Minister Deborah Ivory (center right) prepare for an HIV test during a "Day of Unity,” Douglas Memorial Community Church, Baltimore, Maryland
Reverend Joseph Darby remembered the church’s response to other health issues:Burning the clothing of people who have cancer is in my memory and I remember when someone had cancer in church, they would not say that… it had to be something other than that because that was a taboo disease of its time. HIV/AIDS has become the taboo disease of our time… the black church that I know that has best addressed AIDS/HIV, is a church in Columbia [South Carolina], Brookland Baptist [Brookland Baptist Church], and that church was able to address it because on a Sunday morning one of their assistant clergy got up and said, ‘I'm gay and I think I'm HIV positive,’ and that put it so that the church had no option but to confront it. At that point in time, they started to put together care teams… [and] support groups and they've got a viable ministry.”[17]
Left: Porshe Loyd uses bottled water to wash her three-week-old son, LeAndrew, at their home in Flint, Michigan, January 28, 2016
Right: Cases of water being handed out in Flint, Michigan, 2016
While not perfect, black church leadership has often been on the frontlines as noted by Bishop Vashti McKenzie: “We can… pinpoint justice movements or inequality movements… in Flint, Michigan when the water went bad, the A.M.E. church helped to raise money and bring in fresh water and to keep… the attention of the nation on Flint, Michigan. Here in Texas, Corpus Christi twice this year, twice last year, citizens were told not to drink the water… so our A.M.E. church in Corpus Christi became a center place where residents can go and pick up bottle water.[18] Gospel singer and minister Donnie McClurkin and his church community also stepped forward to help in Flint: “We took six thousand cases… of water to Flint, Michigan.”[19]
Left: Depiction of the interior of the First African Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, published by Harper’s Weekly, June 27, 1874
Right: A black church in Los Angeles, California recording a virtual service 
While it has struggled during the COVID pandemic because its congregants could not safely gather, the black church is and will continue to be a life force in the black community.
[1] Bishop Vashti McKenzie (The HistoryMakers A2007.088), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 17, 2017, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 11, story 1, Bishop Vashti McKenzie describes the tradition of community service in the African Methodist Episcopal church; Bishop Vashti McKenzie (The HistoryMakers A2007.088), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 17, 2017, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 11, story 1, Bishop Vashti McKenzie describes the tradition of community service in the African Methodist Episcopal church.
[2] The Honorable Reverend Dr. Floyd Flake (The HistoryMakers A2001.032), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, September 15, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 2, Floyd Flake reflects on the A.M.E. Church tradition and his legacy.
[3] https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/04/23/what-forgotten-black-nun-can-teach-us-about-racism-and-covid-19
[4] Sister Mary Alice Chineworth (The HistoryMakers A2010.072), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 12, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 10, Sister Mary Alice Chineworth describes the mission of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
[5] Russell Adams (The HistoryMakers A2003.157), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 28, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 6, story 7, Russell Adams talks about his essay collection examining the evolution of black community institutions after the Civil War, pt. 1.
[6] The Honorable Kenneth Smith, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2000.036), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, November 9, 2000, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, Kenneth Smith describes the history of the Congregational Church.
[7] Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (The HistoryMakers A2013.007), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 25, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham describes the importance of churches in the black community.
[8] Reverend Benjamin Hooks (The HistoryMakers A2003.168), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 24, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Benjamin Hooks discusses the role of Elks groups and the black church in the Civil Rights Movement.
[9] Reverend Al Sharpton (The HistoryMakers A2002.002), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 4, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, Al Sharpton discusses social activism and the black church.
[10] Bishop John Hurst Adams (The HistoryMakers A2005.249), interviewed by Ed Anderson, November 29, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 11, Bishop John Hurst Adams describes his role in the Civil Rights Movement.
[11] Hattie B. Dorsey (The HistoryMakers A2007.259), interviewed by Denise Gines, September 13, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3, Hattie B. Dorsey explains her father, the Reverend Edward Henry "E.H." Dorsey's role in the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta, Georgia.
[12] Reverend Calvin O. Pressley (The HistoryMakers A2003.192), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, August 15, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, Reverend Calvin O. Pressley talks about Reverend Dr. Leon Sullivan, who began Opportunities Industrialization Centers [OIC] in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
[13] Reverend Dr. Joseph L. Roberts (The HistoryMakers A2007.263), interviewed by Denise Gines, September 14, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 10, Reverend Dr. Joseph L. Roberts recalls the Civil Rights Movement.
[14] Audrey Grevious (The HistoryMakers A2002.226), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 11, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 8, Audrey Grevious talks about the lack of participation African American religious leaders in the Civil Rights Movement in Lexington, Kentucky.
[15] Reverend Dr. Joseph L. Roberts (The HistoryMakers A2007.263), interviewed by Denise Gines, September 14, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3, Reverend Dr. Joseph L. Roberts recalls becoming the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, pt.1.
[16] Reverend Albert Richard Sampson (The HistoryMakers A2002.159), interviewed by Adele Hodge, August 19, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Al Sampson expresses his admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
[17] Reverend Joseph Darby (The HistoryMakers A2007.043), interviewed by Denise Gines, February 3, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 6, Reverend Joseph Darby describes the perception of AIDS in the church; Reverend Joseph Darby (The HistoryMakers A2007.043), interviewed by Denise Gines, February 3, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 7, Reverend Joseph Darby describes the church's response to AIDS.
[18] Bishop Vashti McKenzie (The HistoryMakers A2007.088), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 17, 2017, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 11, story 2, Bishop Vashti McKenzie talks about the social justice efforts of the African Methodist Episcopal church.
[19] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/where-does-the-black-church-fit-in-todays-black-lives-matter-movement