Vanguards of Democracy: Black Protestants and the Fight for Freedom in the Atlantic World

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Religion


Memorialized in works such as Du Bois’s The Negro Church (1903) and Carter G. Woodson’s The History of the Negro Church (1927), African American religion has served as inspiration for pathbreaking works in black historiography. More recent scholarship has made visible the role women played in black religious history as well as the role of non-Protestant religions. Such literature has demonstrated the fundamental significance of black religiosity to African American conceptualizations of human equality, democracy, and national inclusion. Yet, despite these interventions, outside the subfield of black church history, recent scholarship in African American history has tended to characterize the so-called “black church” as a component part of black activism rather than the central impetus for the same. This panel calls scholars’ attention once again to the study of black Protestantism as a primary site where African descendants in the Americas fought white supremacy from both intellectual and social activism standpoints in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Focusing on the transnational connections that African descendants forged through Protestant institutions, the panel also builds upon the recent emphasis on black internationalism in African American history while remaining mindful that such perspectives are not new; Du Bois, Woodson, and many others have documented the Afro-diasporic nature of the “black church.” Unique in its presentation of understudied Afro-diasporic links, however, this panel presents new directions for the study of black Protestantism and argues for the fundamental significance of the diasporic “black church” for studies of American democracy. Together, the papers demonstrate that for black Protestants in the Americas, the pathway to democracy depended upon radical black Christian thought and transnational activism. From a comparative perspective, Harper focuses on the history of Joseph Jackson Fuller, a black Jamaican Baptist who left the Caribbean in 1840 to establish a Baptist mission in Cameroon. In doing so, Fuller championed abolition, even while he saw Protestant missions and “civilizing education” as the basis for the making of equal black subjects under the British crown. Davidson’s paper reveals that, despite such Protestant chauvinism inherent in black missionary work, black Protestant networks sustained racial solidarity and stretched beyond the Anglophone Atlantic to Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). In the 1820s, African American immigrants in Haiti established Protestant societies that would later link the island’s principle port towns to black communities in the United States, Jamaica, British Guiana, and elsewhere. Focusing on black Protestants in British and Dutch Guiana, Royster’s paper demonstrates that African Americans’ ideas about black freedom, masculinity, and the environment transformed in the late nineteenth century as African American missionaries advocated for a Guiana and portrayed it as “black Christian nation.” Returning to the United States, Kimberly Hill’s paper further explores African American religious activism by arguing that black YMCA leaders’ Christian outreach in Africa was both ideological and interpersonal. Advocating for missions in Africa enabled black YMCA leaders to fight for democracy at home and ultimately convinced the YMCA that American segregation countered the United States’ democratic ideals.

Papers Presented

Exporting Freedom, Seeking Equality: Joseph Jackson Fuller and the Jamaican Baptist Mission to West Africa, 1840s–1880s

In 1840, just two years after their own emancipation from slavery, Joseph Jackson Fuller, his father, and dozens of other Jamaicans surprised onlookers by organizing a Baptist mission to West Africa. During slavery, Baptists on the island had drawn the ire of planters for ordaining enslaved men, inspiring black women street preachers, practicing interracial fellowship, and in one case, sparking the Caribbean’s second largest uprising against slavery. Now, working with the British Baptist Missionary Society, Jamaican Baptists took these practices to coastal Cameroon. This paper analyzes Fuller’s writings among others to argue that Jamaican Baptists viewed Cameroon through the lens of their recent anti-slavery efforts in Jamaica, despite how different the new context was. They arrived believing that abolitionism, evangelical Protestantism, and “civilizing education” went hand in hand, and assuming that the British empire—the metropole, not local officials—was on the side of all three. The interracial team of missionaries affirmed complete racial equality in principle, even if it was undermined in practice. Their commitment to separation of church and state made them willing to suffer persecution from local and imperial authorities, and ambivalent about opposing them. In newspapers back in Jamaica, the mission became a talking point in political debates over freed people’s access to land, fair labor, and political rights. The mission work caught black Protestants’ attention in the United States as well, and for good reason. It gave its own lessons about black freedom, racial equality, and empire in the broader Atlantic World.

Presented By
Matt Harper, Mercer University

The Other Black Republic: African American Migrants and Missionaries in the Dominican Republic

In 1872, five decades after the mass emigration of over 6,000 African Americans from the United States to Haiti, a petition from black colonists in Santo Domingo appeared in the AME Church’s Christian Recorder. “We the members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of this city, emigrated to this country from the United States in the years 1824, 1825, and 1826,” they wrote, “On arriving here we immediately established our church, under the name BETHEL, and we have kept our language and religion to the present.” While historians have documented the 1824—1826 emigration of African Americans to Haiti, which then governed the whole island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic), they have yet to account for African Americans’ historical ties to the Dominican Republic. After eastern Hispaniola separated from Haiti in 1844 and Dominicans secured their independence from Spain in 1865 in a war against Spanish annexation, African Americans sent missionaries to Santo Domingo to reconnect with their “brethren” there. This paper combines scattered records regarding black emigrants and African American Protestant missionary endeavors on Hispaniola. In doing so, it demonstrates that a black Protestant network connected the islands’ Haitian and Dominican port towns to each other and to African Americans in the United States. By the century’s end, this network also included other places in the greater Caribbean and formed the basis for expressions of black Protestant solidarity in the Dominican Republic even while such transnational networks simultaneously exposed the fault lines between national and Afro-diasporic identity politics.

Presented By
Christina Cecelia Davidson, Washington University in St. Louis

Manfully and Faithfully Performing the Duties of Citizens: British and Dutch Guiana and Transforming the Negro Christian Nation

African American churches established foreign mission locations across the world, but the foreign mission sites in British Guiana (present day Guyana) and Dutch Guiana (present day Suriname) were much smaller in scale than other sites like those in Africa and some parts of the Caribbean. Still, British and Dutch Guiana held an important place in the minds of African Americans during the nineteenth century. Both locations inspired hope at one point in the minds of African Americans, which led to emigration calls, prior to the founding of official African American foreign missions there. Partially due to these explorations, African American Christian institutions, such as the National Baptist Convention, Inc., and the African Methodist Episcopal Church had long established ties with British and Dutch Guiana before formal African American missions began in those locations. This paper traces the change in attitudes and rhetoric of Black Christians and missionaries towards British and Dutch Guiana from the late nineteenth through early twentieth century, when formal mission sites became well established. Mostly through an examination of personal correspondence and church publications, this paper pays particular attention to how ideas about freedom, masculinity, and the environment changed over time within the Black Christian imaginary. This change in ideology positioned British and Dutch Guiana, and its residents, as both teacher and pupil within the Black Christian nation.

Presented By
Briana Adline Royster, New York University

African American Y.M.C.A. Leaders in Pursuit of Democracy through the Missions Movement

Starting in 1891, African American men became active as leaders and participants in the Young Men’s Christian Association through appointment by the International Committee instead of the segregated U.S. National Board. This origin made foreign missions important to the development of the “colored” Y.M.C.A. branches even though most members did not travel abroad. Black Y.M.C.A. leaders shared the group’s message of promoting “Christian citizenship” worldwide but added expectations that social reform within the United States would accompany the process. This presentation focuses on the period from 1900 to 1945 to explain how the black Y.M.C.A. branches made African American missionaries central to discussions of American democracy and morality. The commitment of black Y.M.C.A. secretaries like W.A. Hunton to Christian outreach in Africa was both interpersonal and ideological. At a time when suspicion of pan-African solidarity motivated colonial governments to restrict African Americans’ travel options, individual missionaries like William H. Sheppard and Althea Brown Edmiston worked with these leaders to help keep African outreach opportunities available and supported by philanthropic organizations. Likewise, the Y.M.C.A. “colored work” flourished while its leaders criticized racist violence within the U.S.A. Using the John R. Mott Papers and Y.M.C.A. Student Division files, I explain how these secretaries and missionaries convinced the Y Movement that American segregation hurt the nation’s ideals. This merger of patriotism with activism anticipated the World War II “Double V” campaign.

Presented By
Kimberly D. Hill, University of Texas at Dallas

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Elisabeth Engel, German Historical Institute Washington DC
Elisabeth Engel is a historian of North America in the modern era, specializing in colonial and racial entanglements and the history of risk and uncertainty in the Atlantic world. After receiving her PhD in modern history from the Freie Universität Berlin in January 2014, she joined the GHI as a research fellow. She has worked as an assistant professor at the departments of North American history of the Universität zu Köln, Universität Kassel and Freie Universität Berlin and was a visiting scholar at Columbia University (NYC), Université de Montréal, and The John Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD). Her first monograph, Encountering Empire: African American Missionaries in Colonial Africa, 1900-1939 (Stuttgart, 2015), was awarded the Franz Steiner Prize for outstanding manuscripts in the history of transatlantic relations. In her current research she explores African American missionary photography and discourses on race and the 'American Negro' in the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century. In addition, she is working on her second book project, in which she traces how notions of risk were constructed and inscribed into the everyday routines of the American population in the American revolutionary era.

Presenter: Christina Cecelia Davidson, Washington University in St. Louis
Christina C. Davidson is an interdisciplinary historian with specializations in Latin American & Caribbean history, African American Studies, and religious history. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. She received her Ph.D. in History from Duke University. Her book manuscript, Converting Hispaniola: Religious Race-Making in the Dominican Americas explores diplomatic and cultural relations between the Dominican Republic and the United States in the late nineteenth century. Davidson argues that religious ideology was central to the delineation of racial and national boundaries between the two nations and Haiti. She additionally examines the religious ideas that African descendants employed in order to challenge global white supremacy and forge alternative narratives of anti-colonial, anti-racist national unity. Her articles have appeared in the New West Indian Guide and the Journal of Africana Religions. She has received funding from the Fulbright-Hayes DDRA fellowship, the New York Public Library, the Social Science Research Center, and African American Intellectual Historical Society in support of her research.

Presenter: Matt Harper, Mercer University
Matt Harper is Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at Mercer University. He holds an MA and PhD from UNC-Chapel Hill. His book The End of Days (UNC Press, 2016), analyzes the relationship between African American religion and politics in U.S. South in the decades after emancipation. He has contributed to essay collections on African American religion and politics, established an ongoing university research partnership with a state historic site about black life and labor in middle Georgia. His current research project centers on radical black religion and antislavery in the early 19th century Atlantic world. At Mercer, he teaches courses on African American history, Latin America and the Caribbean, the international slave trade, research methodology, and civil rights.

Presenter: Kimberly D. Hill, University of Texas at Dallas
Kimberly Hill specializes in African American transnational history with a focus on Presbyterian missions and the black branches of the Young Women’s and Young Men’s Christian Associations. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2008 and studied at the University of Cape Town for two semesters. She has taught within the University of Texas at Dallas School of Arts and Humanities since 2014 with a previous appointment at Del Mar College. Her book on African American missionaries in the Belgian Congo will be published by the University Press of Kentucky in the fall of 2020.

Presenter: Briana Adline Royster, New York University
Briana Royster is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at New York University with a primary field of African Diaspora and a secondary field of Modern Latin America. Her dissertation, “Of Our Stock and Blood: Empire, Religion, and Afro-Diasporic Identity, 1898-1945 relies on Black missionaries in British and Dutch Guiana, and Brazil to ask questions about identity formation, nationalism, and diasporic connections.

She has given invited talks at the University of Alabama, New York University, and the Southern Association of Women Historians, along with numerous conference presentations, and an exhibit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. She currently serves as a Graduate Student Representative on both the New York University Department of History Diversity Committee and the Organization of American Historians’ Committee on the Status of Women in the Historical Profession. She also co-authored the book chapter, “O Ensino Do Movimento Pelos Direitos Civis Dos Negros No Alabama” in Educação e Diversidade em Diferentes Contextos (Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 2015).