There is an excellent yet heretofore undocumented chance that my family history and the history of the American Missionary Association (AMA) in North Carolina first intersect in Dudley, North Carolina. My maternal great grandfather raised sixteen children in the Dudley North Carolina area in the time following the Civil War. He was born into slavery but was very young when the Emancipation Proclamation freed all African Americans from their bondage. Into this historic moment stepped the American Missionary Association with the specific mission to educate and provide assistance to freedmen. By 1862 the AMA had identified four very specific needs. 1. The freed slaves needed basic things like clothes, bedding and shelter. 2. The freed slaves needed education and every family should have a bible. 3. The freed slaves needed the preaching of the Gospel and 4. The freed slaves needed assistance to organize themselves into schools, congregations, and churches.
In the wake of the devastation of the Civil War the AMA school in Dudley was founded in 1866. Pastor John Scott was able to purchase seven hundred acres of land upon which a school house and chapel was erected. In February 1871 the school house was burned to the ground and it was rebuilt with the support of the surrounding community by October of the same year.
According to the stories of my family, Thomas Grady put a lot of value in education and made sure that all of his children attended school. Many of my great aunts and uncles not only attended the little school but went on to receive professional degrees. My maternal grandfather would have started his schooling in or around 1915-1916 maybe even as late as 1917. He would have attended church services at the chapel on the school grounds as regularly as the child of a farmer could have. Before he left North Carolina he attended Fayetteville College, but he did not finish his degree. When he arrived in New York City, he first attended Allen AME church in Jamaica with his older sister, with whom he lived for a few years. He then began attending worship service at Christ Community Church. A small group within this congregation wanted to become a congregational church and in 1938 Lemuel Haynes Congregational Church was born. The cornerstone for Christ Community Church has been preserved in the new building of Lemuel Haynes dating the origin of the church in 1933. The name was changed in 1937. My mother recalls Reverend Paul Johns as one of the first ministers to that small flock.
Lemuel Haynes was with out a doubt only one of many African American Congregations founded in the north by people from the south who had been influenced, educated by and supported by the efforts of AMA preachers shortly after the war. The influence of the school in Wayne County North Carolina, a county populated by poor African American farmers, is evident in my own family history.
In addition to supporting the education of my grandfather, my cousin graduated from Hampton University, a school started in Hampton Virginia, by Ms. Mary Peake as the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. What started at Fort Monroe as a missionary school for colored people in 1861 has now become one of the countries finest institutions of higher learning and still a leading producer of African American scholars. However in 1861, there were 1800 ‘contrabands’ as newly freed and runaway African American were then called at Fort Monroe, all hungry for a taste of freedom. The first day of school began with a mere twenty pupils. Ms. Peake was the first teacher. Her dedication and faithful service to this school was ended in 1862 as she was already in poor health when she began. In 1862 the school moved from Fort Monroe to a burned out courthouse in Hampton. The enrollment at the time was three hundred. Like many schools at the time Hampton offered classes for all ages. Adults and children were encouraged to attend and the classes were never empty in those first days.
I am also personally connected to the AMA through my education. I attended Tuskegee University. Tuskegee Institute was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington who was educated at Hampton Institute. He arrived there like so many others with little more than the clothes on his back and fire in his heart to learn. He graduated in 1875 and began teaching. In 1881 he was named the principle of the then Tuskegee Normal School in Tuskegee Alabama. He along with the instructors and students built Tuskegee Institute, a school renowned for its dedication to industrial education for the daughters and sons of slavery.
Most of the African American congregational churches in the south were initially connected to schools or some type of educational institution. The four needs that had been identified in those early years remained as major concerns for the African American population in the south well into the twentieth century. The hope of reconciliation between ex-slave and ex-master was one born of the highest ideas of Christian faith. Those congregational ministers who risked their lives to bring education and salvation to the most rural areas of the devastated south did so without consideration to the level of personal risk. They often worked in the worst conditions and were often ostracized by the communities they were in. They founded schools in burned out buildings and shacks. They lived for months at time without financial support of the community, a church congregation, or the AMA itself.
The AMA quickly found itself overwhelmed by the needs of the newly freed population. The schools were overcrowded and the needs of the students were greater than the ability of the AMA to provide for them. Yet this was the calling, and the AMA struggled to keep up. The organization found itself deeply in debt by the early 1900’s. The rate of volunteers had fallen off as those qualified were less inclined to risk their very lives in the endeavor to educate poor rural African Americans. One of the reasons for the risk of life and limb was the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. This ‘fraternity’ was founded in Augusta, Georgia in 1868 in order to stop the education of African Americans. The male teachers were often targets for beatings and mob violence. Schools were subject to arson, windows were shot out and teachers were lynched. Practices of this and other less organized groups caused the insurance policy that protected the teachers to bed cancelled, because the work was deemed hazardous.
Part of what the AMA faced in the south was the fact that the African American population was only half of the devastated population. Entire towns had been burned to the ground during the union armies march through and occupation of the south in the latter days of the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation instantly reduced the agricultural workforce. The economy of the southern states had been destroyed. Roads and infrastructure were nearly none existent. Banks in the north were reluctant to lend to southern borrowers because of the lack of collateral. Northern investors, who often did not have the agricultural expertise of their southern counterparts, invested in large tracks of land, without the necessary labor force in place to make the investment turn a profit. The effect was that the country went into a small depression until the small farmers of the south began to recover. A number of the farmers in this recovery were African American and many of them were being educated in schools started by AMA volunteers.
Two notable examples of this are Talladega College, Alabama and Fisk University, Tennessee. Talladega College opened in 1867 with three teachers and 140 students. It was the first school in Alabama with an interracial charter. Many of the students walked up to thirty miles to attend and spent nights on the floors of homes that could take them in. The first priority of the school was the teach teachers. Talladega also housed a seminary for many years. It was an important source of seminary trained preachers and educators for the AMA in Alabama and surrounding areas. The seminary opened its doors in 1891 and only Howard Institute could boast more theological graduates. By the mid-twentieth century Talladega College had the highest percentage of graduates going on the PhD’s in science and medicine. Two future leaders of the SCLC (founded in 1957), Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Young met Talladega. From the very beginning the students and faculty of Talladega College have challenged racism, poverty and inequality. They have been active in challenging local and state governments to demand equal treatment of all people since the very beginning.
Fisk University was founded in 1866 in old union barracks. The school was named after General Clinton Fisk, who was the commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau for Tennessee and Kentucky. The school was initially named Fisk Free Colored School. From its earliest days the school suffered from lack of funding, and poor facilities. In addition to this Nashville was ripe with a variety of easily transmitted diseases, which the instructors caught. Deeply in debt, Treasurer George White consoled himself by inviting students to participate in evening sings at his home. He heard some of the students singing what would become known and the Negro spiritual. He considered them a gift. He gathered a group of the students to practice these songs as he put the melodies and words together. Twelve singers were selected from the students and drilled in preparation for a fall tour. He spent a lot of time persuading the parents of the students and the administration of the school to support the group. They sang to a small crowd in Memphis in 1871. During the ride home they were stranded between stations. In dangerous territory the group gathered and began to pray. Mr. White encouraged them to sing. The men who had gathered to abuse them, walked away one by one. The leader remained behind, removed his had and stood riveted by the music. They began to realize the power of their music.
All the singers wanted was for Fisk University to stand. In October 1871 they sang in Chillicothe, Ohio. They collected almost fifty dollars in donations but donated all of the proceeds to the Chicago fire relief fund, because on the same night the great Chicago fire killed 250 people. They were refused decent lodging where ever they went and often had to plead for train fare to the next concert location. At the National Congregational Council meeting at Oberlin College, the group waited for their turn as the grey sky provided scant light to the stuffy hall. When the singers began the sun came through the clouds and shone on the singers faces. When they finished their offering they were greeted with thunderous applause. When they performed the next day the reaction was equally enthusiastic. However the group had no name. When they were invited to Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, Mr. White prayed for a name. The group was named for the year of Jubilee, the year on ancient Israel when debts were forgiven and slaves were set free. Henry Ward Beecher, the controversial preacher of Plymouth Church welcomed the singers when they arrived in New York. When the concert was over Reverend Beecher emptied his pockets and encouraged those gathered to do the same.
Based on the success of the Singers the AMA raised twenty thousand dollars to save Fisk. The Fisk Jubilee Singers have performed in front of the crowned heads of Europe and before great audiences in all of the major cities of the United States. The repertoire of the group has remained nearly unchanged since the beginning. Today part of the pride of Fisk University and the Jubilee singers is the presentation of the history of the Jubilee Singers in historic costume. Selection to the Singers is considered to be a great honor. Fisk University has survived through years of hardship and its rocky beginnings. The dedication of the students to this school is fettered in the legacy of a small group of singers, singing the songs of their enslaved parents.
Tuskegee University and Fisk University have great musical traditions in common. The Golden Voices Concert Choir of Tuskegee University also has a repertoire of spirituals. Dr. William Dawson composed and arranged many of the older spiritual songs that Mr. White used with the original Jubilee Singers. Now those arrangements are frequently used by the Jubilee Singers.
First Congregational Church in Atlanta Georgia is one of the churches founded by the AMA. I am currently a member and beneficiary of the great tradition passed on through this institution. First Congregational Church is the second church founded in the south by the AMA. It was initially integrated in May 1867 in the chapel of the Storrs School. The Storrs School the precursor to Atlanta University, was founded in an abandoned boxcar. In 1894 Henry Hugh Proctor, a graduate of Fisk University and Yale Divinity School, became the church’s first African American pastor. He served the church for twenty five years. During that time Reverend Proctor opened a kindergarten and offered classes in business and domestic science. It also contained the only library for African Americans in Atlanta. The Wayward Pulpit, a bulletin board upon which bible verses were posted, served as a witness on the corner of Courtland Street and what is now John Wesley Dobbs Avenue. The church provided a water trough and shade tree for horses. When other fountains in downtown Atlanta were closed to African American, the fountain in front of the church was open to all. First Congregational is proud to be an intergenerational church that has an historical record of community outreach that extends beyond the borders of Atlanta Georgia. One of the commitments of this great church is its commitment to historical preservation and its continuing embrace of African American music. I serve the church as a part of the media ministry and as a part of the Youth ministry.
When I joined First Congregational Church, I had no idea that it was founded by the AMA or that our histories would be so interconnected. However I find it comforting to know that my spiritual roots have come full circle from my baptism in a church my grandfather helped found to serving in an historic church in Atlanta Georgia as an adult. The AMA has served my family for two generations. I hope to add my young nieces and nephew to the roster of African Americans helped by this great organization.