Sacred Space Bridging South to North
An Interview with Wallace Best
By Wendy McDowell
Wallace Best is Assistant Professor of African American Religious Studies at Harvard Divinity School. His book Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915–1952 was published earlier this year by Princeton University Press. Wendy McDowell spoke with Best about his motivations in writing it and his discoveries along the way.
Why did you decide to write about this particular topic and time period?
I was doing a PhD at Northwestern University and was, in a sense, discovering Chicago for the first time. All the socio-logical literature talked about Chicago being a great laboratory for the study of societies, and I discovered that to be true. I was studying the Great Migration, and it dawned on me that my family was a part of this wonderful mass movement from the rural South to the North. So when I began looking for a dissertation project, it occurred to me to explore the Great Migration from the angle of religion, because I’d started work at Wheaton College on the historicizing of the African American church. I began to look at some of the primary sources, and I discovered there wasn’t a book-length discussion on the African American religious culture of Chicago. I thought, “That cannot be.” But it was true enough. Yet as I looked into the Illinois Writers’ Project files there was plenty of discussion about religion. In fact, I was absolutely overwhelmed about a year into the project as to how much information there was. It was almost as if I was guided along by some good fortune, some forces unseen, and the generosity of people at the university and throughout the Chicago community who supported me.
Your book is a revision and an expansion of scholarship because you feel that past scholarly accounts of the Great Migration haven’t focused on religion, and have relied too heavily on social theories as opposed to cultural history. How does your perspective differ?
I can put that quite simply. What I really wanted to do was to write a book that let the migrants speak about their own religious practices and sensibilities. I critique the Chicago School but I also celebrate them for the contributions they made to the study of African American religion. However, one of the things they did which prevented a clear vision of what was happening on the ground was to use their sociological theories to wrongly determine certain religious actions. For instance, they had a notion that one’s class position determined one’s religious affiliation. If you happened to be a woman of means, you would be more likely to attend the Episcopal or Congregational church. I found that to be absolutely not true. That same woman of means might attend a storefront church because she identified herself not merely as a middle-class person but as someone from the rural South, or someone whose religious sensibilities were more vivacious.
The researchers also pathologized black life in a certain way, and they wouldn’t allow certain migrants to speak for themselves. Field workers would interview middle-class people (always identified by their jobs—stenographer, clerk, doctor, etc.) about “lower-class” people, but they wouldn’t actually ask the “lower-class” people about themselves. I wanted to reverse that.
It surprised me to find that people didn’t see themselves in terms of strict categories, but the religious culture at the time was so wide open that people would often go to a Congregational church in the daytime and to a Pentecostal church at night. How do you categorize that? There is one quote in the book where a mainline minister was being interviewed by one of the WPA workers and he said, “Well if you want to see my congregation on a Sunday night, you need to go to Elder Lucy’s church!” People went over to these storefront churches because that’s where the lively worship was happening. That’s why I like to talk about the pervasiveness of a Southern religious ethos, because the way that some of the migrants were “doing church” became the way to do church. Even mainline churches had to adapt their services. Those that didn’t lost membership and prestige, which I show in my chapter on the AME church.
The storefront church was a merging of past and present, rural and urban, and sacred and commercial space.
You also challenge the notion that storefront churches are only focused on otherworldly concerns, by showing how they provided material needs for the community.
I like to quote Elder Lucy Smith, who said that during one period in 1932, “We fed as high as 90 folks per day.” She was so savvy. She used the radio program she started, “The Glorious Church of the Air”—don’t you love that title?—which broadcast from 11 pm to midnight on Wednesdays, and she would make appeals for charitable contributions. People responded generously with clothes and other items. On Thursdays, she would distribute these goods out of her church basement. I interviewed her granddaughter, who said: “My grandmother always made sure that people didn’t bring no junk. Make sure the stuff is clean and good—if you won’t wear it, then nobody else wants to wear it!” She also ran what was effectively a soup kitchen throughout the Depression. Hers was one of just two churches doing this kind of charitable outreach. I found no evidence that any of the mainline black churches were involved in this work, so you had these two churches on the margins of church orthodoxy doing the very essence of gospel work.
Elder Lucy Smith was aware that she was having a great impact on the community. This woman had incredible vision. She built two churches from the ground up and went on to establish her own Pentecostal Conference, with three other churches in Alabama, Nebraska, and Florida. Nothing held her back. She wasn’t constrained by gender, race, or anything.
Tell how she handled it when her ministry was challenged.
She said, “Some people care for a woman preacher, and some don’t,” and that was how she left it. Isn’t that just a beautiful way to close off the debate?
I contrast her with Mary Evans, pastor of Cosmopolitan Community Church, who was very different in terms of her physical stature and temperament. The few sources on the two always remarked about them in contrast. Yet I also try to point out the ways these two women were operating very similarly, in that they were reading the culture and adapting their churches to meet the needs of the people in their congregations and surrounding communities.
I suggest that Mary Evans, in terms of her Thursday broadcast and of the music of her church, actually took cues from Elder Lucy Smith. Of course, a lot of people were taking cues from Elder Lucy because she was so successful. Her church, All Nations Pentecostal, at one point had 5,000 members, all across the class spectrum. In fact, her granddaughter tells this wonderful story about the first time Elder Lucy Smith ever performed a healing. A limousine pulled up in front of the church one night and this white man got out. He had turned to Elder Lucy because he had exhausted the doctors. I wish I had said this in the book, but a lot of people came to her as a last resort. This man was so full of sickness that he emitted an odor and they had to open up the windows in the church, but Elder Lucy Smith prayed for him, and according to her report, she healed him. He got back in his limousine and drove away.
The fact that he was a rich white man was very important, because one of the reasons she called the church All Nations was because she didn’t want it to be considered only a black church. Though it was overwhelmingly black and female, it was not uncommon to have people of all classes worshiping together in her church. Again, chipping away at that strict class typology, you had the rich and the poor worshiping in the same sacred space. That was very typical of the culture in Chicago at the time.
You start your conclusion with the photograph from Elder Lucy Smith’s funeral.
There are about 10 or 12 surviving photos of the funeral. I chose that photo because it shows the crowds. It was the largest funeral of any African American in black Chicago to that date. All told, about 100,000 people attended. There were 400 police officers on duty at the wake and the funeral. The cortege was about 75-cars long, with 11 buses and several other cars that just held the flowers. People lined up and down the street and her granddaughter tells this wonderful story about how people were screaming “Thank you, Mother Lucy,” as the horse-drawn hearse of glass and wood was going down South Parkway.
Here was a woman who came up from rural Georgia in 1910 and built an empire in the 40 years she was in Chicago. When she died, she was acknowledged not only by people from her church, but by state and city government dignitaries, the elites, the upper class, and every African American minister from every kind of church. What that means to me is that this woman literally embodied the dynamic development of African American religion in Chicago during the first part of the twentieth century. I ended with her funeral, because I believe that when she died, it was the apex and yet the end of something.
The church building literally collapsed a few years after she died. Instead of rebuilding, the congregation just bulldozed it, and to this day that lot is vacant. The only thing you can see are the steps that led up to what was once the entrance, but it’s still a sacred site. This is really remarkable since the memory of what was there has long passed.
Do you find there are still links to that time?
Yes and no. There are some tremendous churches in Chicago now that make up a new generation. Someone from Chicago could read my book and be unfamiliar with the earlier time period because, for them, black church in Chicago begins in the 1950s with the establishment of churches like Johnnie Coleman’s and Clay Evans’s and others who have been doing great work in Chicago since the 1950s. I end my book with a charge of remembrance to them to realize that they are built on the foundation that was set by the generation before them. And so I say there is continuity, but the degree to which people understand that there is continuity between what they’re doing now and what came before them, I don’t know.
In fact, one of the things I hope this book does is to generate some conversation among this second generation, particularly with regard to the things I have to say about social class and sexuality.
It is an interesting window to the past in terms of how southern migrants dealt with sexuality. The term “outing” didn’t even exist then.
I talk a lot about sexuality in this book, and I do that deliberately because I think African Americans have been skittish about religion and sexuality. Mary Evans might have been a lesbian, and I outright call Father Clarence Cobbs, pastor of the First Church of Deliverance, a Spiritualist congregation, gay: this was clear from the literature and from the people I interviewed about him. What I found remarkable about that was the bargain he struck. He lived openly, yet silently. He did not espouse a gay identity; he would never have claimed to be gay. The code was silence. He abided by that code, but the payoff was he could live openly as a gay person in his church as its leader. Everybody knew. Timuel Black, whom I interviewed a couple of years ago, told me: “Yeah, everybody knew he was gay. He made no apologies for it. He just didn’t stand up and say, ‘I’m gay.’”
In that way, he was able to do tremendous work within the community. This is why I suggest that this current era among African American Christians is a new era in terms of discussions about sexuality and religion. In the 1930s and 1940s, the atmosphere was much more open and much more tolerant. I think I did right by Cobbs by calling him gay in my book.
Silence about sexual identity has be-come a problem for black churches. I would argue that inasmuch as homophobia exists in black churches, there’s a historical development to it that happens, ironically, with the advent of the civil rights movement and the greater visibility of black churches on the national scene in the 1950s. During this time, African Americans developed political projects that were incongruent with the kind of tolerance to homosexuality they exhibited previously. And I found all kinds of evidence of such tolerance. Mary Evans lived with the woman who was perhaps her partner for much of her life.
What I find interesting is the way the congregants themselves responded favorably to these ministers who stuck to the bargain. It was a hard bargain, I’m sure. I say in the conclusion that the cost Cobbs paid was to keep silent about somebody he perhaps truly loved. It’s sad in that regard, but at the same time, what he was able to do was amazing. All the politicians knew him because he could bring in the votes, and they all spoke favorably of him because he was doing wonderful work.
You point out that his church was a stop in the gay nightlife!
I interviewed a man named Sukie de la Croix, who was the editor of an alternative magazine in Chicago called Outlines. Sukie told me that he interviewed a lot of aging gay men who said that they’d go to Cobbs’s church from 11 to 12 to hear the night broadcast.
After that, they’d continue on to the Kitty Kat Club or the 430. What I say in the book, which I’m sure I’m going to get in trouble for, is that some of those guys drew no distinction between the two spaces (church and club). They were both sacred spaces. Cobbs made sure that they were welcome at his church. It was a religious space that had similar goals of transcendence, ecstasy, praise, and worship in an accepting community, which was precisely what they were seeking at the gay clubs.
What remains so remarkable to me about this study is how everything in some ways was up for grabs prior to the 1950s. It was a culture in formation.
You give numbers indicating the massive change, and how the entire community was being reconstituted. What was this like for the migrants?
You had people coming from places in the South not really knowing what to expect. They came up and were suddenly shopping in a “downtown.” They worked in places that were unfamiliar. Someone who the previous month had been following a plow in rural Georgia was now in Chicago working in a steel mill.
This was amazingly disruptive, psychologically and emotionally. So people were creating new ideas about how to even live in the city.
In the churches, too, everything was in formation. There was a tremendous openness about religious culture, because there was no need to be judgmental about what people were doing. There was an understanding of the openness of the city itself, releasing people to do the incredible. I think that’s one of my favorite things about the storefront churches: they were amazingly innovative. Sometimes they represented whole new church expressions. People simply made it up!
No one embodies the personal dislocation in the Great Migration better than the Arthur family, who are pictured in your book. Can you tell the story of that family?
We’ve all seen that photograph of those eight people looking forlornly into the camera. That picture was actually taken at the train station when they arrived in Chicago in 1920. It has been used so many times in documentaries, in books, in exhibits, but it has never been identified. My book is the first book I know to identify who that family was. Even when the photograph was first published in the report on the commission of race relations in 1920, the authors failed to identify them. When I was doing research in the Chicago Defender, I came across this photograph and this family’s story, and I thought, “Wait a second, this is incredible.” This family had been, quite literally, through hell. Once you know what they’d been through, you understand how they could look so forlornly into the camera.
The family lived on the farm of J. Hodges in Paris, Texas, and one day there was a dispute about money between the two eldest Arthur sons, Irving and Henry, and Mr. Hodges and his son, William. In the dispute, the Hodges went back to their home to get weapons. They were going to threaten the Arthurs, who presumably owed them money. Well, when Hodges and his son got to the Arthurs’ house, the two sons shot the men dead. They then fled to Valiant, Oklahoma, to escape capture and certain death, but the town sent out a posse to get them. The posse found them in Valiant and brought them back to Texas, where they were to “try” them. The night before the trial, men from the town broke into the jail and retrieved the prisoners and took them to the town square and lynched them.
You have to imagine that in July 1920 there was complicity on the part of the municipal forces. The sheriff and the deputies, they’re in on this. These guys were dragged out and paraded past their home so their family could see them being taken to the center of town to be burned. The three oldest daughters screamed when they saw this, at which point some men went into the house and took the girls to the jail, where over three days they were raped repeatedly by more than 20 men. And the two sons were taken to the town square, lynched, and their bodies were burned and left there.
In the meantime, the parents—Scott and Violet—had escaped to the woods with the remainder of the family. After three days, the girls were let go, and they somehow reconnected with their family in the woods. It was actually through the efforts of the African American community in the town that the family escaped. They alerted Chicago and the NAACP, asking for help to get the family to safety. The community shepherded the family to Chicago, where they tried to put their lives back together. The Arthur family ended up in a small apartment on the South Side, where they lived the remainder of their lives.
It is a horrible, horrible story. My point in the book was to suggest that if we actually knew the story of that photograph, it would be even more meaningful as an icon of the Great Migration. I’m hoping that no one will be able to look at that photograph in quite the same way again.
It is interesting that such a forlorn image is the icon for the Great Migration, and you point to Richard Wright and other writers who look at the Great Migration in terms of loss. Yet your book is about how it is just as much about construction.
Both things go on at the same time. The Arthurs came to Chicago under the most horrendous circumstances, but the migration was their salvation. Who knows what would have happened to them had they remained in Paris, Texas: theirs still was a journey of faith and of community, and it included that classic event of being met at the station.
- W. Lucas met them and helped them get settled into their new life. I can just imagine that family in a train station in Chicago, when just a few weeks back, they had their own home and were living in a place that they were born and raised. Now they’re in unfamiliar surroundings, living on Federal Street, which was teeming with people but also beginning to experience signs of physical dilapidation. You do have these forces of agency, triumph, and chaos at the same time. It’s all part of the dynamism of the era.
In your introduction, you also set up how much accounts of the Great Migration involve biblical themes of exodus and salvation.
Milton Sernett’s 1991 book Bound for the Promised Land initiated discussion of the migration being a salvific event, and I pick up on that theme. I open up the book saying that the history of African Americans is in large part a religious history. The Great Migration was, in a sense, the second exodus. I found in my research that a lot of people, and not just Christians, saw this as a journey of faith, and they made direct connections between their faith and the Great Migration. The migrants’ accounts are rife with themes of deliverance and exodus and salvation, with tribulation and triumph. The fact that it was a leaderless movement added to the providential ethos. There was no Moses. It was a movement of the people. People did not wait for the sanction of their ministers, and in fact, some people left without the sanction of their ministers. In some cases, ministers would actually follow their congregations north.
That leads well into asking you about the section on music, because you show how songs from the era are full of religious themes. What was unique about gospel music and why did you include a discussion of it?
In doing this book I most enjoyed writing about the music and the preaching, because I saw in this development of gospel music real evidence that this was indeed modern culture being formed in an interesting way.
This musical form, gospel music, rose out of the chaos and the opportunity of the city itself, and reflected secular culture as well as sacred culture. It was a reflection of working-class people—the Pentecostals, for God’s sake! It was their kind of music. It was also a reflection of blues culture because some of the first gospel artists came out of the blues, Thomas Dorsey being the best example of that. So what I saw in this music was this merging of the sacred and the secular, the rural and the urban, the past and the present, all embodied in the music itself. It was evidence of the way modernity itself was about continuity and discontinuity, about the merging of things.
Thematically, there were all of these transformations in gospel music. The music was so intensely personal in contrast to the Negro spirituals and classical music, which was the music of the church prior to gospel music. The personal pronoun “I” becomes prominent in gospel music. The relationship with God becomes intensely personal, not communal, necessarily. God’s gonna deliver us becomes God’s gonna deliver me.
Can you give some examples?
“Jesus is my only friend,” “Jesus is my light”—these kinds of lyrics talk in the most intense, personal way about a commitment and relationship to Jesus. It’s “take my hand, precious lord,” not take our hand or their hand. And so, that song, written in 1932 under very tragic circumstances, is the very epitome of the modern gospel song, and includes this familial way of addressing God. It’s not “take my hand, mighty lord,” or “take my hand, high lord,” or “ultimate lord.” It’s “take my hand, precious lord.” Gospel music, in a sense, personalizes faith. What happens is that the chaos of living in the city forces a reevaluation of personal faith, and so people are thrown into their own walk with God, which shapes the way that they sing about their faith: “Jesus is my friend”; “I’m going to heaven with my Lord, he’s coming back for me one day.”
Another thing that happens in gospel music is that it becomes much more vernacular. You have people singing songs about God’s helping them pay their rent and getting them through the most mundane of circumstances. You have references to modern life. I talk about the Mother McCollum song, “Jesus Is My Aeroplane.” The aeroplane, of course, is the ultimate trans-port to heaven, but what she and Sister Calley Fancy did so brilliantly was to talk about the stuff of modern life: airplanes, trains, automobiles. They even talk about current events like world war. They are keen observers and readers of modern life. So gospel music becomes, in much the way blues is doing at this same time, a way of talking about everyday life and experience; it is reading and articulating the culture on the local, national, and international levels. That aspect of African American sacred music hasn’t been celebrated as it has with blues and jazz. That was one of my favorite discoveries in researching the book. I had some fun with that, I have to say.