In many respects the final decades of the nineteenth century were the golden years of the African American Baptist experience. For a brief time at the close of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth century, the several divisions of the African American Baptist church came together to form a single convention, before once again dividing into several conventions by the late twentieth century.Many African American Baptists during this period also collaborated with white Baptist congregations and conventions to advance educational opportunities for African...
In many respects the final decades of the nineteenth century were the golden years of the African American Baptist experience. For a brief time at the close of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth century, the several divisions of the African American Baptist church came together to form a single convention, before once again dividing into several conventions by the late twentieth century.Many African American Baptists during this period also collaborated with white Baptist congregations and conventions to advance educational opportunities for African Americans. Primarily with the support of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, African American Baptists founded such institutions of higher learning as Morehouse College and Spelman College. During this period the nation experienced the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South into the North and within the South to cities. The southern African Americans had grown up in a rural culture, and most were unacquainted with an urban way of life. The African American Baptist church sought to urbanize these people. Women were most responsible for this effort: in 1900 African American Baptist women established their first convention, which worked to provide various social assistance programs. This experience strengthened African American women's leadership and organizational skills, which in turn fostered the establishment and growth of African American women's clubs.The Institutional Church.The modern African American Baptist movement began at the end of the nineteenth century. Prior to 1895, African American Baptist congregations were organized into three different conventions: the Foreign Mission Baptist Convention (founded in 1880), the American National Baptist Convention (1886), and the National Baptist Education Convention (1893). In September 1895 more than five hundred representatives of the three conventions met in Atlanta and merged into the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. (NBCUSA).Unity among Baptists was fragile. In 1897 the Foreign Mission of the NBCUSA decided to move its headquarters from Richmond, Virginia, to Louisville, Kentucky. The publishing decisions of the NBCUSA's board also jeopardized existing relations with the white Baptist organizations. In 1897 these decisions prompted a number of members loyal to the Richmond headquarters to separate and establish a new convention, the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention. A few years later, in 1905, the NBCUSA and the Lott Carey convention effected a reconciliation on paper; nevertheless the two conventions continued to operate separately, although many members continued to hold dual memberships in the two conventions, even into the twenty-first century.A second schism occurred in 1915 and was also related to publishing. At the end of the nineteenth century, the NBCUSA established its own publishing board, which was initially placed under the direction of the Home Mission Board, headed by R. H. Boyd. Boyd constructed a publishing facility on land that he owned in Tennessee and incorporated the publishing entity. When the NBCUSA attempted to exert more control over the publishing entity, Boyd and his supporters separated and became the core of a new convention, the National Baptist Convention of America (NBCA), which was established in 1915. Since then the new convention, the NBCA, has been headed by a succession of presidents; the publishing arm of the convention, however, has remained the domain of the Boyd family.In the 1960s the NBCUSA splintered again. The Reverend Joseph H. Jackson dominated the convention, which was very conservative and favored a gradualist approach to the challenges of segregation and discrimination. Rejecting Jackson's domination, a number of members, in particular those who were active in the civil rights movement, established their own convention, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, in 1961.Education.This history of disruptions in the African American Baptist experience in the twentieth century belies the importance of African American Baptists. By 1990 African American membership in the African American–dominated Baptist conventions exceeded 12 million, making the Baptist Church the largest African American religion in the United States.In the years after the Civil War many groups, including the African American Baptists, became concerned and involved with providing educational opportunities for the newly freed slaves. The African American Baptists established two of the most prominent historically black institutions of higher learning. Originally founded in 1867 as the Augusta Institute by the Reverend William Jefferson White, an Augusta Baptist minister, and the Reverend Richard C. Coulter, a former slave, the institution moved to Atlanta and in 1913 was renamed Morehouse College. Its purpose was to educate African American men in the areas of education and ministry, but John Hope—the college's first African American president, from 1906—worked very hard to establish the school as a first-class academic institution. As a result of his efforts the college is often called the Harvard of the South, and its alumni include such notable African Americans as Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, and Edwin Moses.The second institution was founded in 1881 and named the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary. Its name was changed in the late 1880s to Spelman College in honor of Laura Spelman, wife of John D. Rockefeller, who had endowed the college with a sizable gift. Like Morehouse College, Spelman College is now recognized as a prominent women's college and includes among its alumnae the actress Keisha Knight Pulliam, the writer Alice Walker, and Alberta Williams King, the mother of Martin Luther King Jr.Social Assistance.Another important aspect of the African American Baptist experience in the twentieth century was the rise of the Women's Convention. The convention originally developed in 1900 as an auxiliary to the NBCUSA, but it quickly exerted its own independence and did not suffer from the schism of 1915. The convention grew quickly, and by 1907 it had more than a million members. The convention firmly and quickly established its own agenda. In its early years the convention provided support for missionary activities, as well as tuition assistance for African students in the United States. The convention also supported secular activities and groups that advocated for African Americans and women, such as the National Association of Colored Women. The Women's Convention campaigned for improved housing conditions and condemned child labor. In 1909 it established the first school for black women owned by black women, the National Training School for Women and Girls, which was much like Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute. The convention's efforts were guided by Nannie Helen Burroughs.After 1910 the focus of both the NBCUSA and the Women's Convention turned upon the many African American migrants who were then pouring into such major urban areas as Birmingham, Atlanta, Richmond, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and New York. Many African American Baptist churches became the center of social services for the new city dwellers, providing such services as kindergartens, sewing and cooking classes for women, penny-savings banks, and settlement houses. The African American Baptist church also sought to blend the rural and urban cultures through the use of music. Southern music and other worship practices such as summer camps and camp meetings were thus integrated into the northern experience.The major issue facing African Americans in the twentieth century was segregation, set in place by Jim Crow laws and validated by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Nearly fifty years later the Reverend Sandy F. Ray, an African American Baptist minister, called upon his fellow Americans, as well as fellow Baptists, to work to realize the dream of equality for all. In 1948 a meeting of African American Baptists in Birmingham, Alabama, echoing Ray's statement, called on all Christians to work to end segregation. These early calls for the end of segregation are evidence of the beginning of the modern civil rights movement and of the African American Baptist church's commitment to ending segregation.The African American Baptist church could not, however, agree upon a strategy to attain the goal. Some, most notably Joseph H. Jackson, the president of the NBCUSA, advocated a gradualist strategy, reminiscent of the earlier efforts of Booker T. Washington. Jackson, who presided over the NBCUSA from 1953 to 1982, refused to support the efforts of King, who advocated a strategy of civil disobedience. In 1963 many African American Baptist ministers, including Jesse Jackson, Benjamin Hooks, and William H. Gray III, joined King in the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which supported the King strategy.Nevertheless many African American Baptists vigorously supported ending segregation. All the African American Baptist conventions supported the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and, eventually, King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded in 1957. After 1983 even the NBCUSA, under the leadership of the Reverend T. J. Jemison, joined in the support of King's strategy, resulting in a unified African American Baptist effort to end segregation.
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