African American Religious History at the Library Company: An Interview with Krystal Appiah

Sonia Hazard

SH: Krystal Appiah is the Curator of African American History and a Reference Librarian here at the Library Company of Philadelphia, a major research library in the heart of Center City Philadelphia that focuses on American history in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. She has been generous enough to sit down with me today and share her knowledge of the African American history collections and programs at LCP that may interest scholars of religion. Krystal, welcome. Can you tell me a little bit about the African American history collections that you curate?

KA: First of all thank you for letting me talk about things in the collection, which is always a lot of fun. The African American history collections at the library consist of 13,000 text-based materials—books, pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, and that type of thing. We have another 1,200 or so materials that are graphic, including prints, photographs, engravings, which are kept in a separate department. We were founded in 1731. Over the course of our history, we accumulated many materials related to people of African descent, with strong holdings documenting anti-slavery efforts in the United States, the Caribbean, and England. We have literature on slave narratives as well as autobiographies of people of African descent.

Within the African American history collection, there is quite a bit of material that documents religious life, and especially the intersections between religion and black political life in the United States.

SH: You’ve brought some of these interesting materials with you today. This first thing is wonderful—I’ve never seen anything like it.

KA: Exactly, we’re excited about this. This is a ribbon that we date to the 1830s. It’s an image of the Reverend Edward Johnson who was a minister in the First Wesley Methodist Church in Philadelphia. That church broke off in 1820 from Bethel A.M.E. (The African Methodist Episcopal church was the first independent black domination in the United States.) There were administrative and doctrinal differences. While we have a lot of material about the A.M.E. church, I decided to show some things from parts of African American religious history that might not be on the radar as much.

SH: The ribbon mentions the Union Sons of Johnson. Who were the Union Sons?

KA: I have not been able to find out too much about them. We do have a census of the African American community that was conducted by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1838. They conducted surveys of schools and churches and benevolent societies, and the Union Sons of Johnson is one of the organizations they listed. It must be a society named in honor of Edward Johnson. From the census information we do know that they dispensed $550 of funds to people in need the previous year. 

SH: What do you make of the medium? The image looks like it is a metal plate engraving, but it’s unusual that it’s printed on a satin ribbon. It’s also quite small. Could people have used it as a bookmark, or displayed it on a family altar? Do you know how this might have been used?

KA: At that time, the types of portraits that American Americans usually purchased were of black male religious leaders. Those portraits might have been hung in the home or placed on a table or mantle. But yes, this is exactly the size of a bookmark.

SH: Have you found other textiles like this?

KA: No and we just got this about four years ago. It is one of the recent acquisitions and we would love to find more.

SH: The second item you brought us is a copy of the Proceedings of the National Convention of Colored Men in America from 1869.

KA: Yes and I brought this artifact from a political convention because I’d like people to keep in mind that sometime the religious aspects of things are not always so obvious.

SH: I couldn’t agree more. Religious history is larger than church history. What was the National Convention of Colored Men in America?

KA: In the nineteenth century there was a movement that’s now colloquially called the Colored Convention Movement. 1830 was the first year that African Americans met nationally in the U.S. to chart out their course towards citizenship status. Previously they had met within a church or a city, only very locally. That was the first time they started thinking of themselves collectively at the national level as a race and as citizens within the United States. They made concerted efforts to improve their status through civil rights and combating the anti-black violence that was taking place at the time.

These Proceedings are from the 1869 convention after slavery had ended. The Civil War was over and the Fourteenth Amendment had passed, which established citizenship rights for African Americans. At this point they were still hoping to get the right to vote; the Fifteenth Amendment was not passed by congress until February 1869. So they met a month before and strategized about how to get suffrage enshrined as a constitutional right. A lot of the people who were influential in these conventions were ministers in different black churches.

SH: Religious authority and political authority were overlapping.

KA: Exactly. What you see in the Proceedings is that the conventions often opened with a prayer. We can read here, for instance, that on the second day of the convention, Reverend Henry Highland Garnet of Pennsylvania opened the exercises with prayer. Throughout the proceedings, there were different ministers leading on different days—the common cause for black civil rights brought these different denominations together.

SH: It seems like your point is that researchers of African American religion should research broadly in different areas of the collections, not just the things that appear to be religious in a self-announcing way.

KA: Precisely. And you might have to seek out materials in the catalog which don’t have the subject heading of “black church,” “African American churches,” or “religious life.”

SH: All the more reason to talk to the curator!

KA: Talking to somebody who’s knowledgeable about the collection is the best way to find resources like this.

SH: Let’s make sure we have time to discuss the third item you brought, a pamphlet called The Prologue and Constitution of The Sisterhood of the Good Angels. It comes in a wrapper on which someone has written the short title in manuscript. What was the Sisterhood of the Good Angels?

KA: They were an auxiliary committee within the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in New Haven, Connecticut. The church was founded in 1844 within the Episcopal Church, so it’s not an independent black denomination. That particular church in New Haven was one of the oldest black Episcopal congregations in the United States. About a dozen years after the church was founded, these women came together to form the society that was to support the functions of the church. They raised money to build and maintain the church building, they helped pay the wages of clergymen, and they also did charitable work to help support the poor and the sick. They also worked to help circulate church doctrines through publications. I brought out this pamphlet because so often women are hidden from nineteenth-century history, especially religious history because the leaders of the church tend to be the most visible. The ones who are leaving the most documents were often male. This pamphlet is one way to see how women were inserting themselves in the church. They had their constitution printed and circulated.

SH: Do you know anything about these names printed in the pamphlet—Miss Fanny Hancock or Mrs. Katherine Smith?

KA: I don’t, and now I want to go and do some more research! We have amazing things here. I can just say I hope someone will walk in the door who has the time to delve into these and tell me more.

SH: If a researcher in African American religious history wanted to visit the Library Company to do some work, how would she or he start?

KA: We are free and open to the public. It helps to contact us in advance, especially if you have a specific area of research that you want to do. You can connect with the curator who has that specialization to help point you to some resources. Someone could either email me or give me a phone call. I’ll be happy to help with that.

SH: Can you describe the Mellon Scholars Program in African American History?

KA: We were really fortunate to get a grant from the Mellon Foundation a few years ago to help fund certain aspects of our Program in African American History. One part of that is to fund fellowships for researchers studying people of African descent in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries using our collections. I’d love to to see researchers with a religious history background delving into the collections and uncovering their more religious aspects. Thinking of an example—Henry Highland Garnet was a prominent African American leader. You don’t often hear about the religious parts of his life, or about how religion influenced his very radical thinking. I would love for people to do that type of research.

SH: Is there anything we’ve missed?

KA: The Library Company is currently in the midst of digitizing our African Americana graphics. They are available on our website on our digital collections catalog ImPAC.

SH: I'll look for that! Krystal, this was so much fun. Thank you so much for taking the time to show these remarkable materials.

KA: Thank you for giving me the opportunity.

All images of the materials are courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.


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