Remnants of Black church uncovered in Colonial Williamsburg

Remnants of Black church uncovered in Colonial Williamsburg

Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology, holds a one-cent coin from 1817 on Wednesday Oct. 6, 2021, in Williamsburg, Va. The coin helped archaeologists confirm that a recently unearthed brick-and-mortar foundation belonged to one of the oldest Black churches in the United States. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (AP) — The brick foundation of one of the nation’s oldest Black churches has been unearthed at Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum in Virginia that continues to reckon with its past storytelling about the country’s origins and the role of Black Americans.

The First Baptist Church was formed in 1776 by free and enslaved Black people. They initially met secretly in fields and under trees in defiance of laws that prevented African Americans from congregating.

By 1818, the church had its first building in the former colonial capital. The 16-foot by 20-foot (5-meter by 6-meter) structure was destroyed by a tornado in 1834.

First Baptist’s second structure, built in 1856, stood there for a century. But an expanding Colonial Williamsburg bought the property in 1956 and turned it into a parking lot.

First Baptist Pastor Reginald F. Davis, whose church now stands elsewhere in Williamsburg, said the uncovering of the church’s first home is “a rediscovery of the humanity of a people.”

“This helps to erase the historical and social amnesia that has afflicted this country for so many years,” he said.

Colonial Williamsburg on Thursday announced that it had located the foundation after analyzing layers of soil and artifacts such as a one-cent coin.

For decades, Colonial Williamsburg had ignored the stories of colonial Black Americans. But in recent years, the museum has placed a growing emphasis on African-American history, while trying to attract more Black visitors.

Reginald F. Davis, from left, pastor of First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Connie Matthews Harshaw, a member of First Baptist, and Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology, stand at the brick-and-mortar foundation of one the oldest Black churches in the U.S. on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Williamsburg, Va. Colonial Williamsburg announced Thursday Oct. 7, that the foundation had been unearthed by archeologists. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)

The museum tells the story of Virginia’s 18th century capital and includes more than 400 restored or reconstructed buildings. More than half of the 2,000 people who lived in Williamsburg in the late 18th century were Black — and many were enslaved.

Sharing stories of residents of color is a relatively new phenomenon at Colonial Williamsburg. It wasn’t until 1979 when the museum began telling Black stories, and not until 2002 that it launched its American Indian Initiative.

First Baptist has been at the center of an initiative to reintroduce African Americans to the museum. For instance, Colonial Williamsburg’s historic conservation experts repaired the church’s long-silenced bell several years ago.

Congregants and museum archeologists are now plotting a way forward together on how best to excavate the site and to tell First Baptist’s story. The relationship is starkly different from the one in the mid-20th Century.

“Imagine being a child going to this church, and riding by and seeing a parking lot … where possibly people you knew and loved are buried,” said Connie Matthews Harshaw, a member of First Baptist. She is also board president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, which is aimed at preserving the church’s history.

Colonial Williamsburg had paid for the property where the church had sat until the mid-1950s, and covered the costs of First Baptist building a new church. But the museum failed to tell its story despite its rich colonial history.

“It’s a healing process … to see it being uncovered,” Harshaw said. “And the community has really come together around this. And I’m talking Black and white.”

The excavation began last year. So far, 25 graves have been located based on the discoloration of the soil in areas where a plot was dug, according to Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology.

Gary said some congregants have already expressed an interest in analyzing bones to get a better idea of the lives of the deceased and to discover familial connections. He said some graves appear to predate the building of the second church.

It’s unclear exactly when First Baptist’s first church was built. Some researchers have said it may already have been standing when it was offered to the congregation by Jesse Cole, a white man who owned the property at the time.

First Baptist is mentioned in tax records from 1818 for an adjacent property.

Gary said the original foundation was confirmed by analyzing layers of soil and artifacts found in them. They included an one-cent coin from 1817 and copper pins that held together clothing in the early 18th century.

Colonial Williamsburg and the congregation want to eventually reconstruct the church.

“We want to make sure that we’re telling the story in a way that’s appropriate and accurate — and that they approve of the way we’re telling that history,” Gary said.

Jody Lynn Allen, a history professor at the nearby College of William & Mary, said the excavation is part of a larger reckoning on race and slavery at historic sites across the world.

“It’s not that all of a sudden, magically, these primary sources are appearing,” Allen said. “They’ve been in the archives or in people’s basements or attics. But they weren’t seen as valuable.”

Allen, who is on the board of First Baptist’s Let Freedom Ring Foundation, said physical evidence like a church foundation can help people connect more strongly to the past.

“The fact that the church still exists — that it’s still thriving — that story needs to be told,” Allen said. “People need to understand that there was a great resilience in the African American community.”

 

Fisk Jubilee Singers continue to sing spirituals 150 years later

Fisk Jubilee Singers continue to sing spirituals 150 years later

The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 2016. Photo by Bill Steber and Pat Casey Daley

(RNS) — A century and a half ago, nine young men and women embarked on a trip from Fisk University, establishing a tradition of singing spirituals that both funded their Nashville, Tennessee, school and introduced the musical genre to the world.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, based at the historically Black university founded by the abolitionist American Missionary Association and later tied to the United Church of Christ, started traveling 150 years ago on Oct. 6, 1871. They since have continued to sing so-called slave songs such as “Down by the Riverside” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead” and stood on stages from New York’s Carnegie Hall to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

Musical director Paul Kwami has led the group since 1994 and sang with it when he was a Fisk student in the 1980s. Then and now he views the songs as not only expressions of the religious beliefs of enslaved people, but also of the original singers and the ones who continue to sing today.

“There are songs like ‘Ain’t-a That Good News,’ which is a song that talks about having a crown in heaven, having a robe in heaven,” said Kwami, a member of a nondenominational Full Gospel church in Nashville. “Well, they’ve never been to heaven, but then they’re singing about heaven — that’s an expression of faith.”

Kwami, a native of Ghana, in West Africa, talked with Religion News Service about how the ensemble began, who should sing spirituals and which of the songs are his favorites.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers in Jubilee Hall at Fisk University on Oct. 29, 2020. Photo by Bill Steber and Pat Casey Daley

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers won their first Grammy in 2020 for an album that celebrates almost a century and a half of music. What does that say about the endurance of the group and the music that they have sung for so long?

The album was actually produced on the (university’s) 150th anniversary. But then, of course, it is the Fisk Jubilee Singers who won the Grammy, which actually makes me realize that people still recognize who the Fisk Jubilee Singers are. And people still appreciate the music. Additionally, people realize Fisk Jubilee Singers are artists and do not limit themselves to just Negro spirituals. There’s versatility in our choice of music when we have celebrations.

How do you define spirituals, and differentiate them from other forms of African American music sung in Black churches and beyond?

The Negro spirituals are songs that were created by the slaves during their time of slavery. But when we talk about music like jazz or blues or gospel, those genres of music came long after the Negro spirituals were established. And some people even say these other forms of music were birthed out of the Negro spirituals.

When we talk about the Negro spiritual and, say, gospel music, the performance styles are completely different. Gospel music simply deals with church music with a lot of instrumental accompaniment, clapping, a lot of improvisation. But with the Negro spiritual, even though there may be some improvisation, it doesn’t involve a lot of improvisation. Traditionally, Negro spirituals don’t call for instrumental accompaniment.

When the Fisk Jubilee Singers sing, the music is a cappella. The original Fisk Jubilee Singers transformed the Negro spiritual into an art form or concert spiritual. And because of that, clapping, for example, is not recognized as part of a performance of Negro spirituals.

Spirituals are known for their layers of meaning, some of which were hidden to slave masters. Can you give an example of one that is often sung by Fisk Jubilee Singers that reflects that?

One we often sing is “Steal Away to Jesus.” (One) meaning is that we will run away to the North — because we’re stealing away to Jesus — and Jesus was referring to a place of freedom.

When George White, a music professor and Fisk’s treasurer, decided to have singers from the school perform the spirituals for white audiences as fundraisers, was his idea supported by many or was it controversial or both?

To leave Fisk with a group of students to go on a tour, singing to raise money — that was opposed. The administration at Fisk at that time did not believe he would succeed. They thought this was more of an experimental adventure because no one had ever done that. He was not sure of how audiences would receive Black young people singing so he taught them to sing Western (and European) classical music with a hope that would be more attractive to the various audiences. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were also not willing to sing the Negro spirituals because those songs were very sacred to them. But eventually, they started singing the Negro spirituals to the delight of their audiences.

The spirituals were “concertized” for performance for these fundraisers. Do you think anything was lost as the songs moved from the field where slaves had labored to concert halls where people paid to hear them sung?

I don’t think anything was lost. I read a quote by one of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, and in this book he transcribes some of the songs they sang. I look at the melodies and they’re the same melodies we sing except the arrangements may be different.

How were the singers received at a time when slavery had just ended and African Americans were not welcome in many venues that were segregated?

Originally, they were not well received. There are accounts where people would go into the concerts, listen to the Fisk Jubilee Singers sing and not even give donations. There are accounts of Fisk Jubilee Singers going into hotels and hotel owners, realizing they were Black people, turned them away, wouldn’t give them a place to sleep or food to eat. There was a time when George White was able to purchase first-class coach (train) tickets for them but they were refused admittance into the first-class coaches because of the color of their skin. There is a painting somewhere that someone depicted them looking more like animals on stage singing. So they did go through those types of experiences as they went on their first tour. But I always say the young Fisk students who went out to raise funds for the university kept their focus on their mission and also were able to sing their songs and win the hearts of many people.

There have been debates over whether white people singing spirituals is a form of cultural appropriation. And I wonder where you stand on that issue.

As a musician I don’t agree with that because growing up in Ghana, we were taught songs like the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” The performance of music, I don’t believe should be limited to one specific culture. Because music, rather, brings people together. I would rather encourage people of every culture to learn music of other cultures.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers sang with The Erwins, a Southern gospel group, in February, including the song ” Watch and See.” How often do the Fisk singers sing music other than spirituals and is that generally well received, or are they criticized for not sticking with the music tradition for which they’re known?

I think one of the reasons we won the Grammy is because we sang with other people and the album consists of a variety of music that actually would not be classified as Negro spirituals. The album consisted of country music. We had some blues. We had gospel. We do want to be remembered as an ensemble that sings Negro spirituals but when there are occasions that call for us to sing other types of music and if it fits into our schedule, we are going to do so.

Do you have a favorite spiritual sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and, if so, which one and why?

I have a lot of favorite spirituals. One of them is ” Lord, I’m Out Here on Your Word.” I like that spiritual because it’s a song that helps me to be committed to my work. A line in the song says “If I die on the battlefield, Lord, I’m out here on your Word.” That is telling me that no matter what goes on, I am out to serve God. And I know he is a faithful God. And I have to be faithful to him as well. If I’m serving him, then no matter what’s going on, I trust him to provide whatever I need to succeed in my work.

Another is “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I love that song, again, because it gives me the idea that God takes care of us.

 

Faith, endurance of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer revealed in new biography

Faith, endurance of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer revealed in new biography

(RNS) — Fannie Lou Hamer was an advocate for African Americans, women and poor people — and for many who were all three.

She lost her sharecropping job and her home when she registered to vote. She suffered physical and sexual assaults when she was taken to jail for her activism. And stories of her struggles reached the floor of the 1964 Democratic Convention — and the nation — when her emotional speech aired on television.

Historian Kate Clifford Larson has written a new book, “Walk With Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer,” that reveals details of the faith and life of Hamer, who was born 104 years ago Wednesday (Oct. 6) and died in 1977.

“Walk with Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer” by Kate Clifford Larson. Courtesy image

Inspired by young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers who preached Bible passages about liberation at her church in Ruleville, Mississippi, in 1962, Hamer became a singer and speaker for equal rights and human rights.

“She crawled her way through extraordinarily difficult circumstances to bring her voice to the nation to be heard,” Larson told Religion News Service. “And she knew that she was representing so many people that were not heard.”

Larson spoke to RNS about Hamer’s faith, her favorite spirituals and how music helped the activist and advocate survive.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to write a biography of Fannie Lou Hamer and how would you describe her as a woman of faith?

I published a book about (Harriet) Tubman and Hamer is so similar to Harriet Tubman, only 100 years later. I decided to start looking into her life and thinking I should do a biography of Hamer. I just became hooked. There were so many similarities, and things I could see in Hamer that I just thought, we need to have a refresher about Fannie Lou Hamer and the strength of her character and how she survived such incredible adversity and found the same kind of solace that Harriet Tubman did — in her faith, in her family and the community — to keep going and fighting and to try to make the world a better place.

It seems she is relatively unknown in many circles despite the credit she’s given by civil rights veterans for her work.

It is curious that she is not well known broadly. And I hope that changes, because I think we need to look back sometimes to see how far we’ve come. And with Hamer, the things that happened to her — she faced the world by confronting that trauma, and that violence, without hate. And the only way she could do that was through her faith, and talking to God and saying: Where are you, what is happening here, give me the strength to carry this weight and to move forward. And she did. She knew hate could really destroy her — that feeling of hating the people that were trying to kill her and subjugate her. She managed to rise above it because she had a greater mission in front of her.

Why did you title the book “Walk With Me”?

The title is from the song “Walk With Me, Lord.” She was brutally beaten, nearly killed, in the Winona, Mississippi, jail in June of 1963. As she lay in her jail cell, bleeding and bruised and coming in and out of consciousness, she struggled to hang on and her cellmate, Euvester Simpson, a teenage civil rights worker, was there with her. She asked Euvester to please sing with her because she needed to find strength and she needed God to be with her. So she sang that song “Walk With Me, Lord.” She needed to feel there was something bigger that would help her survive those moments where it wasn’t so clear she would survive. And I found it so powerful that she would do that. She survived that night and was able to get up and walk the next morning.

What other spirituals and gospel songs were particularly important to Hamer as she fought for voting rights and other social justice causes?

One of her favorites is “This Little Light of Mine.” She sang that everywhere, all the time. It’s kind of her anthem. There were some other spirituals, but really, most of the ones she sang a lot during the movement were those crossover folk songs, rooted in Christian spirituals, like “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” She grew up not only in a very strong church environment, the Baptist church, but she grew up in the fields of Mississippi where there were work songs in the fields, call and response songs. Where she grew up was actually the birthplace of the Delta blues music.

She also quoted the Bible to the people she differed with. Were there particular biblical lessons Hamer applied to her fight to help her fellow Black Mississippians?

She used the Bible in many different ways. She used it to shame her white oppressors who claimed also to be Christians, following the path of Christ. She would use the Bible and say: Are you following this path by what you’re doing to me, to my fellow community members and family members? And she used the Bible passages to remind Christian ministers: This is your job, and what are you doing up on that pulpit? You’re telling people to be patient. Well, in the Bible it says stand up and lead people out of Egypt.

You wrote about William Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, Hamer’s congregation, throughout the book. What happened there, over the years as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other groups used it as a place for meetings, classes and rallies?

The church, the ministers participated in the movement and had meetings in that church at great risk to themselves and to the church, and in fact, the church was bombed a couple of times even though the fires were put out, fortunately, very quickly. There were residents in the community that took their lives and put them on the line. They were at great risk, to go to those meetings, to conduct those meetings, to go out and do voter registration drives. It was all centered on the church community because that was really the only community buildings in many of these places where people could meet together to have these discussions.

You said Hamer was at a crossroads as she first listened to those SNCC (pronounced “snick”) activists seeking more people to join their cause.

She experienced trauma, and she had been sterilized against her will — she didn’t give permission — and she had gone through this very deep depression, and it tested her faith. It tested her understanding of the world, and she came out of that and went to this meeting in Ruleville in 1962 and when she heard those young people and their passion and their willingness to put their lives on the line for her, she viewed them as the “New Kingdom.” So it was more than a crossroads for her. It was a moment where she could see the future in these young people, and she called them the “New Kingdom (right here) on earth.” If they were willing to stand up and risk their lives then she could, at 45, 46 years old, stand up herself. That was a crossroads. She made that choice to stand up, publicly, and move forward.

Albert Raboteau, expert on African American religious history, dead at 78

Albert Raboteau, expert on African American religious history, dead at 78

(RNS) — Albert J. Raboteau, an American religion historian who helped students and journalists enhance their understanding of African American religion, has died.

The scholar died on Saturday (Sept. 18) in Princeton, New Jersey, years after being diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, Princeton University announced. He was 78.

A Princeton faculty member since the 1980s, Raboteau reached emeritus status in 2013. He chaired the university’s religion department from 1987 to 1992 and was dean of its graduate school from 1992-93.

“Professor Raboteau taught me so much: how to move about the archive, how to trust and be comfortable with my questions, and how to write clearly and with sophistication,” Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of Princeton’s African American studies department, said in a Princeton statement. “His brilliance knew no boundaries. His work helped create an entire field, and he could move just as easily in the fields of literature and film.”

When a book editor came to campus seeking to learn about Raboteau’s next book, a Princeton appreciation noted, the author instead arranged a meeting with the editor and Glaude, leading to the publication of the then-graduate student’s first book.

In addition to his years of mentoring students, Raboteau also gave journalists his perspective on the history of the Black church and contemporary religious attempts to address racism.

At a 2015 Faith Angle Forum discussion, he addressed reporters on the topic ” Forgiveness and the African American Church Experience.” Raboteau said small, face-to-face cross-racial gatherings, such as Bible studies and sharing meals, could be more important than statements of apology about racism by predominantly white denominations.

“What we are as a nation is a collection of disparate stories, an ever exfoliating set of separate stories and what we need to bind us together is to be able to hear the stories of others in face-to-face encounter,” he said. “And that can be sponsored by churches; churches would be a natural place to sponsor that kind of face-to-face contact.”

Raboteau was known for his writings about African American faith, most especially the book “Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South” as well as “Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African American Religious History” and “Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans.”

An “In Memoriam” Princeton tribute described his 2002 book “A Sorrowful Joy” as a volume that reflected “the stakes of the study of African American religious history as a Black man from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi whose father was murdered by a white man before he was born and as a Christian believer whose religious formation took place first in the Roman Catholic Church and in later years in Eastern Orthodoxy.”

Across social media this week, scholars of religion described Raboteau’s personal influence on them.

“For me, Al wasn’t the usual kind of mentor,” tweeted Anthea Butler, professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania. “He was an ideal to me about both scholarship and spirituality.”

She added, in the last tweet of a thread that seemed to give a nod to his conversion to Orthodox Christianity: “Finally (and not sure if he would a. like this or b. chastise me) but I would pay a lot of money if someone painted Al Raboteau as an icon. For me, he is the patron saint of the study of African American Religion. May he rest in eternal peace and bliss.”

Cornel West, a Princeton emeritus professor who now teaches at Union Theological Seminary, tweeted after the death of his colleague of more than four decades that Raboteau “was the Godfather of Afro-American Religious Studies & the North Star of deep Christian political sensibilities! I shall never forget him!”

Raboteau also was the author of “African American Religion,” a 1999 volume in the “Religion in American Life” series published by Oxford University Press.

He wrote in its first chapter of the historical role of slave preachers and other Black pioneers whose sermons reached free Black people as well as the enslaved.

“The growth of Baptist and Methodist churches between 1770 and 1820 changed the religious complexion of the South by bringing large numbers of slaves into membership in the church and by introducing even more to the basics of Christian belief and practice,” he wrote. “The black church had been born.”

In 2016, when the U.S. Postal Service honored African Methodist Episcopal Church founder Richard Allen with a postage stamp, Raboteau told Religion News Service: “The unwillingness of the Methodists to accept the independent leadership of Black preachers like Allen and the institution of segregated seating led Allen and (clergyman Absalom) Jones to found independent Black churches.”

Late in life, Raboteau continued to interpret lessons of religious and racial history in his 2016 book “American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice.” He said the book, which included chapters on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer, was based on his “Religious Radicals” seminar that he taught undergraduate students at Princeton for several years.

Raboteau wrote the book’s introduction as the U.S. marked the 50th anniversary of Alabama’s Selma to Montgomery voting march.

“Memory and mourning combine in prophetic insistence on inner change and outer action to reform systemic structures of racism,” he said.

Raboteau added an anecdote about his own visit to Selma several years before with Princeton alumni and students who visited a museum close to the town’s famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, where activists had once been beaten back by state troopers. On the trip, a Black museum guide who was beaten on the bridge as a young girl encountered a retired white Presbyterian minister who had joined the demonstrations after King requested support from the nation’s clergy.

“It was a moment of shared pathos that transcended time,” he recalled. “For me it was the high point of the trip. I no longer needed to cross the bridge.

 

Removal of Robert E. Lee leaves Arthur Ashe as Richmond’s remaining witness

Removal of Robert E. Lee leaves Arthur Ashe as Richmond’s remaining witness

The monument to Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, after 2020 racial justice protests. Photo by Robert P. Jones

(RNS) — The last Confederate monument still standing on Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue, the massive tribute to General Robert E. Lee, was removed on Wednesday (Sept. 8).

A 21-foot bronze sculpture mounted on a massive 40-foot pedestal, it was primarily funded and conceived by the Ladies’ Lee Monument Committee, a predecessor to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which has its headquarters in Richmond to this day. The statue’s dedication on May 29, 1890, was accompanied by three days of events (including a choral performance by the Young Men’s Christian Association) that drew an estimated 100,000 people.

Beside the statue, special stands were constructed to contain hundreds of white children wearing red, white and blue who were arranged to create a living Confederate battle flag.

The title of the Richmond Times editorial that week captured how the city’s white residents understood the meaning of this new landmark: “Conquered Though Not Vanquished.” As historian Karen Cox summarized it, “This was not just a monument to the region’s most cherished hero; it was about the restoration of Confederate men’s honor.”

It was also a declaration of a war on the terrain of culture and politics as Virginia, like many Southern states, threw off the reforms of Reconstruction and set up legal and cultural systems of segregation and the suppression of voting by African Americans.

The Lee monument was the down payment by the city’s white elite on a multidecade effort to create the broad leafy outdoor corridor that would eventually be punctuated by five traffic circles, each containing a massive monument to the Confederacy.

Between 1890 and 1930, the wealthier white residents not only moved their homes but also rebuilt at least seven of their churches out along Monument Avenue in the shadow of these monuments. The architectural interplay between monuments dedicated to the Confederacy and sanctuaries dedicated to God performatively expressed the motto emblazoned on the five-story column behind the statue of Jefferson Davis: “God will vindicate.”

Over the past few years, I’ve spent several weeks in Richmond, conducting research in the archives of the UDC for my book “White Too Long” and tracking the unfolding drama as the city and its churches are attempting to extricate themselves from the Lost Cause narrative and create a new story that looks to the future, rather than the past. The juxtapositions, and contradictions, can be jarring.

When I first visited in July 2019, the city had just renamed one of its central streets — one that historically fronted the national headquarters of the UDC along with “Battle Abbey,” originally built to hold Confederate reliquary and now the Virginia Museum of History & Culture — after native son and international tennis star Arthur Ashe Jr.

As a youth, Ashe had been banned from playing tennis on Richmond’s public courts because of his race. As an adult, he dedicated his life off the court to international civil rights work, philanthropy and scholarship.

Monument to tennis star Arthur Ashe Jr. along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Robert P. Jones

That summer, the VMHC had hung large banners of Ashe outside the building, and there were images of him on large placards along the sidewalk. Just 30 feet or so down the sidewalk in front of the UDC building, half a dozen pro-Confederate protesters had hoisted large Confederate battle flags on makeshift poles over placards that read, “Save our monuments.”

When the UDC archivist handed me her business card, it had already been updated to show their location on “Arthur Ashe Boulevard.”

Interestingly, this is not the first time that Richmond’s residents have called on Ashe to oppose Confederate forces in Richmond. In 1996, three years after his untimely death, the city placed a memorial to Ashe on Monument Avenue. The 12-foot-tall statue, resting on a 21-foot pedestal, sits on a traffic circle just beyond the last of five Confederate monuments along the venue. About 500 people attended the unveiling of the monument, with some holding up Confederate flags in protest.

Monument to tennis star Arthur Ashe Jr. along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Robert P. Jones

When I visited in 2019, I was struck by how diminutive Ashe seemed in the context of Monument Avenue. His likeness, anchoring one end of the avenue, was roughly half the size of the Lee, Davis and Jackson monuments nearer the city center. But when I revisited this past summer, the statue of Ashe, with a book held high in his right hand and a tennis racket slightly lower in his left (a pose explicitly requested by Ashe himself to emphasize the importance of education) loomed larger.

Four of the five Confederate statues were removed by the city in response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. The statue of Lee had been covered with graffiti that transformed it into an internationally recognized site of performance art for racial justice.

For the first time in 130 years, a trip down Richmond’s Monument Avenue will not entail an involuntary Lost Cause pilgrimage. Rather — and this is the surprisingly moving experience I had biking down that street this past July — the empty pedestals will stand as silent indicting witnesses to the past valorization of white supremacy by a city’s white leaders and churches.

The monument to Arthur Ashe Jr. prominently incorporates a biblical inscription from the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews on the front of its pedestal: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

I don’t know everything Ashe and his family had in mind with that selection, but today it seems fitting for the last man standing on Monument Avenue.

(Robert P. Jones is the CEO and founder of PRRI and the author of ” White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.” This article was originally published on Jones’ Substack #WhiteTooLong. Read more at robertpjones.substack.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

 

The Faith of Our Fathers: Reclaiming the (North African) Church Fathers

The Faith of Our Fathers: Reclaiming the (North African) Church Fathers

Growing up in a black Baptist community, I didn’t hear much (if at all) about the Church Fathers. However, during seminary I realized that their influence was felt implicitly in the confessions we affirmed, hymns that we sang, the sermons preached, and the doctrines taught during Sunday school or new members’ class. Despite our general ignorance of their lives, the Church Fathers’ influence impacted our faith. These bishops, priests, deacons, and pious lay members of the ancient Christian Church contributed intellectually and pastorally to the development of both the East and Western Christian traditions (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant).  They debated with both Christians and non-Christians over the meaning of Christianity’s central doctrines including the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the identity of the Church among others.

Many African-Americans, Christian and non-Christian, do not realize that some of the most influential of these theologians and pastors originated from northern Africa. Perhaps confusion about their origins begins within the Christian tradition itself. Despite being of North African descent, Clement, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril spoke and wrote in Greek while Cyprian, Tertullian, and Augustine wrote in Latin.  Hence, both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches refer to them as the Greek and Latin Fathers. Moreover, in the history of medieval Catholicism, European painters depicted some of these Fathers as white European men.  Many of these paintings like Botticelli’s painting of Augustine are featured in Western museums and their replicas in textbooks of church history and theology.  Despite these shortcomings, African-American Christians must know that the theological and philosophical contributions that these Fathers bequeathed on the formation of Christian doctrine continue to impact our faith and lives.

Tertullian (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)

Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225) was born in Carthage, Tunisia. The son of a Roman centurion, Tertullian was the first prolific writer of Latin Christian literature, producing extensive works on a range of theological topics. Although not ordained into the priesthood, Tertullian contributed much to the Western Christian tradition. Tertullian was an apologist, defending the Christian faith against both pagans and heretics. Tertullian staunchly distrusted the use of pagan philosophy in understanding Christian faith. His famous rhetorical question, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” captured Tertullian’s conviction that Christian faith is understood through the teachings of the Judeo-Christian scriptures alone.   However, Tertullian made some use of philosophical categories, especially in his teachings on Jesus Christ and the triune God.  During his debate with modalists, those who affirm that God exists as a single monad that manifests itself in three “modes” or operations without having eternal distinction between them, Tertullian coined the term trinitas to describe the Godhead and adapted other Latin terms to explain that God eternally exists as one “substance” (substantia) in three distinct “persons” (personae).  Although later in life Tertullian defected to the heretical Montanist movement, his works left an indelible impression on future Church Fathers, including the brilliant theologian and biblical commentator Origen (c. 185 – c. 254).

Origen (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Origen was the first theologian to expound Christian doctrine in a systematic way.  Raised in a Christian home, Origen was educated by his father, Leonidas, who was martyred in the year 202 CE.  A student of the Scriptures, Origen became a prominent Christian teacher in Alexandria and was a rigorous ascetic. He castrated himself and lived a frugal lifestyle. Moreover, Origen contributed to the Alexandrian school of allegorical interpretation of the Bible by writing extensive biblical commentaries.  Origen also contributed to the development of the Trinitarian doctrine teaching that the Son and the Spirit were distinguished from the Father and yet existed eternally with the first person. He claimed that the Son is “eternally begotten” of the Father, the “source” or arche of the other two divine persons. Consequently, controversy arose through this claim that the Son and Spirit were subordinated to the Father, and the orthodox Christian Church later rejected it. Despite his major contributions to theology and biblical interpretation, Origen espoused views, such as the ultimate restoration of all things (Satan included!) and the pre-existence of the human soul that resulted in him being denounced as a heretic.

Athanasius of Alexandria (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)

Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296 – 373), an archdeacon and secretary to the bishop Alexander (d. 328) rose to acclaim by rigorously defending the full divinity of Jesus Christ and his co-equality with God the Father. Described as a very dark-skinned man of short stature, a hooked nose, and a reddish beard, Athanasius was known for his unrelenting convictions, especially his conviction that the eternal Son of God became human, famously penned in his most influential work On the Incarnation. Later Athanasius defended his position against the teachings of Arius. An Alexandrian priest, Arius (d. 336) taught that the Son, though divine, was a creature, thus sparking the so-called Trinitarian controversy of the fourth century. Arius coined the slogan which spread rapidly throughout Alexandria: “There was a time when [the Son] was not.” To counteract the spread of Arius’ doctrine, Athanasius argued that if Christ was not fully divine, he would have been unable to redeem humankind. Athanasius appropriated Origen’s doctrine of eternal generation and argued that the Son eternally exists and is equal with the Father while maintaining the Son’s distinction. The debate between Arius and Athanasius became so large that Emperor Constantine I convened a church council at his palatial estate at the Anatolian city of Nicaea in 325 CE.  The first of seven ecumenical councils, the bishops ruled in favor of Athanasius’ position and rejected Arius’ teaching. The council affirmed that the Son was homoousias – “of the same substance” – with God the Father.  This reinforced the orthodox position that only God could save humankind. The controversy continued on in the churches for several centuries; Athanasius endured five exiles by four different Roman emperors over a period of seventeen years. Eventually Athanasius returned to Alexandria where he died and was buried.

Augustine of Hippo (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)

Arguably the most influential of the North African Church Fathers is Augustine of Hippo (c. 354 – c. 430) who single-handedly shaped the entire Western Christian tradition throughout the Middle Ages. A preeminent philosopher, bishop, and theologian, Augustine was born in Thagaste, an ancient city which is now Souk Ahras, Algeria. Augustine grew up in a household of a devout Christian mother, Monica, and a pagan noble father, Patricius, who later converted to Christianity.  Augustine penned his journey of his life and his conversion to Christianity in the book Confessions, which is, arguably, the first biography written in Western literature. In this book, Augustine, in the form of prayer, describes his childhood and his education in Latin literature and philosophy, his self-described unruly personality, and his insatiable passion for women during his teenage years. As a young man, Augustine lived with a young woman who became his lover, and they had a son named Adeodatus.  Despite being raised a Christian, albeit not baptized, Augustine joined a gnostic group called the Manicheans. After nine years, Augustine left the Manicheans and moved to Milan to teach rhetoric. It was there that he discovered Neo-Platonism and then the teaching of bishop Ambrose of Milan. In 387 CE Augustine converted to Christianity.  In 391 CE Augustine was ordained to the priesthood and a year later became bishop of Hippo, now Annaba, Algeria. Augustine served as bishop until he died on August 28th in the year 430 CE shortly after the Vandals sieged Hippo.

Among Augustine’s other influential works include On Christian Doctrine, Enchiridion, and On the Trinity, a book which took Augustine twenty years to complete. Augustine’s fight with the Donatists over the meaning of the Church and his quarrel with the priest Pelagius over the doctrine of original sin and grace shaped the entire Western Christian tradition.  Augustine’s other major work, The City of God, shaped the Western political philosophy. Furthermore, Augustine’s understanding of human nature has influenced, not without controversy, Western Christian teachings on human sexual relationships.

African-American Christians should understand the history of the Church Fathers for the purpose of understanding how Africans played a pivotal role in shaping Christian tradition long before the tragic event of the Atlantic slave trade. To be clear, the North African Church Fathers were not “black” in the modern sense. Indeed, these men were indigenous people of the African continent.  Because of their own indebtedness to Greek and Latin philosophy, we do not have to agree with everything that the Church Fathers taught.   However, we can celebrate their witness as fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith and as spiritual ancestors who “earnestly contended for the faith that was once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

Now, when I open the red “New” National Baptist Hymnal during worship, or when I study the Baptist confessions of faith for ordination, I sing and study with a new understanding and appreciation for what these men struggled to articulate. I also sing with amazement knowing that Africans significantly played a part in cultivating the entire Christian intellectual tradition.  Despite my adolescent ignorance, I now reclaim these African Church Fathers as spiritual and intellectual ancestors who taught me not only to reverence the mystery of God through word, thought, and deed, but also to celebrate the African heritage of Christianity through the witness of a few faithful men of color.

For further reading, see: 

Drobner, H. R., and S. S. Schatzmann, The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007.

Oden, T. C., How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

Placher, W. C. A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983.

Plantinga, R. J., T. R. Thompson, and M. D. Lundberg, An Introduction to Christian TheologyNew York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Jason Oliver Evans is a licensed Baptist minister. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Speech Communication from Millersville University of Pennsylvania. He also earned a Master of Divinity at Duke University and a Master of Theology from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. His research interests cross the intersection of theology, ethics, and critical cultural studies. Evans is especially interested in the meaning of the Christian life and its relationship with sexuality, race, and gender in Afro-Christianity. He plans to pursue doctoral studies. Follow Evans’ blog, I Am a Son of God. Follow him also on Twitter at @joliverevans and Facebook