Early Twentieth Century African American Professionalism and World Christianity

We welcome this guest post from Kimberly Hill, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, whose forthcoming book on African American Presbyterian missionaries is under contract with the University Press of Kentucky. 

Last month, the Yale Edinburgh Group on World Christianity and the History of Mission honored the life and career of one of its founders, Dr. Lamin Sanneh. Sanneh inspired a rising generation of researchers and ministers to explore evidence of how Christian faith makes believers from the African continent more attuned to their cultural traditions. Such research decenters European and American missions history to identify the current global expansion of African and Asian churches as the definitive Christian movement in the Global South. As Sanneh argued in Whose Religion is Christianity?, “the churches have continued to grow beyond the West on the basis of their strong evangelical emphasis. It turns out that colonial rule as the frame of Christianity’s civilizing mission has been superseded by the onward march of the religion.”[i] The continued growth of non-western Christian movements in the post-colonial era creates opportunities for religion scholars to reevaluate the American Protestant missionary movement in global perspective. The following essay explains some implications of World Christianity scholarship for my study of African American professionals and ministers during the early twentieth century.

   One of the trends in research on African Initiated Churches emphasizes how these congregations rely on professional networks as they expand within the United States. The networks are important for recruitment, evangelism, and pastoral care; establishing contacts with a variety of skills helps members address concerns outside the church walls.[ii] As stated by Emmanuel Agyemfra at the recent conference, Ghanaian congregations develop in the United States with a combination of “visible and invisible altars.” Members rely on both church activities and outside organizations to build social trust.[iii] Universities and academic titles also have religious significance for Christians from Ghana because of the popularity of the prosperity gospel in African Initiated Churches; education is celebrated from the pulpit as a means to success on personal and national levels.[iv]
 In historical perspective, professional networks were also central to African American outreach on the African continent. Black missionaries and their supporters expected that coordination through historically black colleges and universities (H.B.C.U.s) would provide a tangible means to pursue religious and cultural solidarity in the African Diaspora. But the topic of racially defined higher education was also significant to those political and religious leaders who wished to restrict black professionalism in the 1910s through the 1930s. The continuing importance of networking for African Christians in the United States indicates that African American leaders’ resistance to educational restrictions was instrumental to the growth of World Christianity several decades later.
   My forthcoming book analyzes the careers of teaching missionaries affiliated with two of the best known H.B.C.U.s: Tuskegee Institute and Fisk University. Between 1891 and 1941, twelve African Americans worked for the Southern Presbyterian denomination at its American Presbyterian Congo Mission. Alonzo and Althea Brown Edmiston became the longest serving members of that group with the support of students and alumni from their academic institutions. In addition to providing skills that they applied at their mission stations, Tuskegee and Fisk offered the Edmistons affiliation with leaders who remained invested in social justice campaigns that included Africans and African Americans.
    Because Tuskegee Institute started as a black-led campus focused on agriculture and industry, its programs caught the attention of a variety of educational leaders. Christian newspapers in western and southern Africa celebrated Tuskegee and its founder, Booker T. Washington, as models of black independence and technological expertise.[v] The reticence of colonial governments to authorize new African universities in the 1920s increased the interest in study abroad opportunities that could lead to advanced degrees.[vi] Historian Kenneth King describes six students from the Gold Coast, South Africa, and East Africa who defied their sponsors because of the limitations placed on their academic trajectories. The Phelps-Stokes Fund provided scholarships through the 1930s for some African students to pursue industrial education courses at Tuskegee or the Penn School missions training program, but each of these six students left the designated program early to seek a doctorate or other professional training at a different American institution.[vii] Meanwhile, several of the African students who continued studying at Tuskegee in the 1920s embraced Pan-African nationalist ideals through the work of a Rhodesian professor named Simbini Mamba Nkomo.[viii] Nkomo introduced African history courses at Tuskegee and encouraged attendees of his 1923 African Student Union conference to coordinate on “abolishing restrictions on the Coming to America, for study, of African Students.”[ix]
   Affiliation with Tuskegee Institute brought both promotion and hardship for black professionals looking for transnational collaborations. Political stances like those of Professor Nkomo contrasted sharply with the reputation that founder Booker T. Washington gained with his 1895 Atlanta Compromise speech.[x]  Until his death in 1915, Washington relied on partnerships with white donors through organizations like the Phelps Stokes Fund. The Fund amplified Washington’s international influence by withholding support from schools that did not follow the models of Tuskegee or Hampton Institute and by recruiting from those two colleges for overseas positions.[xi] As explained in Andrew Zimmerman’s Alabama in Africa, Booker T. Washington argued that Tuskegee students and faculty were the best choices for translating cash crop production techniques to an African workforce.[xii] He joined the Phelps Stokes Commission specialist, Thomas Jesse Jones, in opposing African American leaders who espoused publicly a broader vision for black education in the U.S. or abroad.[xiii]
    Studying a former Tuskegee student who served abroad during and after Washington’s rise to fame showed me how the Tuskegee model shaped black teachers’ career trajectories. Between 1913 and 1940, the Southern Presbyterian foreign mission board appointed Alonzo Edmiston to help start a cotton plantation, manage a farm, and create an Agricultural College at the Congo Mission. The fact that he studied nursing at Tuskegee instead of the agricultural program did not outweigh the symbolism of his work for the formerly Confederate denomination. A Congo Mission administrator assumed that “soil producers” were meant to be “the real ‘back-bone’ of” the Belgian Congo economy, and he believed that Edmiston would help reduce interest in other professions by teaching children to work on the mission station land.[xiv] I argue that his H.B.C.U. experience made Alonzo Edmiston more inclined to adapt Congo Mission policy to the interests of local Africans, starting with his repeated decisions to heed villagers’ requests for a reprieve from the kind of cash crop labor that had also been mandated by colonial officials. However, increased racial tension within the mission station after 1919 made it advantageous for Edmiston to affiliate with Thomas Jesse Jones’s Agricultural Missions program from 1936 until his retirement.
   Based on the historic combination of Phelps Stokes Fund objections to African American activists and colonial government restrictions on black travel, historian Sylvia Jacobs cited 1920 as the end of the most productive period in the African American missionary movement. [xv] Studies of Black internationalism offer the perspectives of other types of professional travelers who were active through the late twentieth century. In the case of their new anthology, editors Keisha Blain and Tiffany M. Gill compared the “global visions” analyzed in each chapter to educator Mary McLeod Bethune’s plan “to turn the whole world over” despite being rejected by a white mission board in the 1890s.[xvi] Literary scholar Ira Dworkin found that concerns about Althea Brown Edmiston’s intellectualism and her links to a campus that championed classical studies may have also made the Southern Presbyterian mission board reluctant to accept staff members from Fisk University.[xvii] Nevertheless, the missions enthusiasm of the Fisk community helped create forums for long-term interactions between Christian activists throughout the African Diaspora. These forums involved leaders who would later contribute to the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Council on African Affairs, and other social justice organizations.
   As a missionary, Althea Brown Edmiston followed campus traditions that began in the late 1870s. She had the specific examples of seven other students who had served as missionaries to Africa since 1878.[xviii] She also spoke at a national Student Volunteer Movement conference because of connections she made within a Fisk Y.M.C.A. chapter that began organizing around 1877.[xix] Like her predecessors, Brown took aspects of her H.B.C.U. experience to the mission field by specializing in translation, folklore, teaching, public speaking, and choral performance. With donations from the Fisk community, Brown published the first dictionary and grammar of the Kuba language in 1932. Ira Dworkin argues that the comparative analysis of African music and Negro spirituals in books by Fisk alumnus W.E.B. Du Bois helped to “make visible additional migrations from Afro-America to the Congo by way of Fisk University and figures such as Althea Brown Edmiston.”[xx] One of those migrations emphasized the influence of H.B.C.U.s in making the Y.M.C.A. movement more conducive to Pan-African and civil rights agendas.
    George Edmund Haynes, a former Fisk classmate of Brown, visited her and Alonzo Edmiston at the American Presbyterian Congo Mission in August of 1930. This social scientist and National Urban League co-founder was en route to South Africa to study the growth of the Y.M.C.A. there.[xxi] His preparation for working on the African continent came through his alumni network and through the Y.M.C.A. national black student conferences that Haynes attended as a presenter since at least 1922.[xxii] The annual conferences at Kings Mountain, North Carolina recruited students from several historically black colleges and universities for ten days of lectures, Bible studies, missions training, and public health education. The 1912 inaugural conference featured missionary recruitment speeches by William Henry Sheppard, co-founder of the Congo Mission, and an unnamed African student.[xxiii] Tuskegee professor Simbini Mamba Nkomo presented the mission study lecture at the 1922 conference with support from Max Yergan, who wanted to recruit additional black staff for the Y.M.C.A. chapters in South Africa.[xxiv] Additional black Christian student conferences were organized in that country by 1927, and speakers and students from other parts of the African continent continued to attend the Kings Mountain meetings in the early 1930s.[xxv] The 1936 conference featured presentations of Indian and “African music, culture, and religion” led by Howard Thurman and other leaders who had visited these parts of the world.[xxvi] Thurman’s theology would later inspire Martin Luther King, Jr.
   By 1936, the common conference topics of race relations and “Christian internationalism” had been specified into a call for “achievement of life’s deepest spiritual values without prejudice – without poverty.”[xxvii] Historian David Hollinger credited George Haynes and his contemporary African American activists for setting the Y.M.C.A. and the Federal Council of Churches on track to condemn racial segregation in the 1940s.[xxviii] A transnational focus reveals that African contributors to the Kings Mountain conferences were also instrumental in making civil rights discourse an increasingly prominent part of ecumenical Christian activism. Both Fisk and Tuskegee Institute were among the H.B.C.U.s that started enrolling students from western and southern Africa decades before these conferences began. Through the work of William A. Hunton, Channing Tobias, and other Y.M.C.A. secretaries who organized black student chapters, African study abroad students could be incorporated seamlessly into the student conferences and influence their content.
     For example, African members of the Tuskegee Y.M.C.A. chapter sent a letter of protest to the organization’s national leader after Thomas Jesse Jones prevented Max Yergan from receiving a staff position in East Africa.[xxix] Yergan’s appointment to represent the Y.M.C.A. in South Africa helped him remain a featured conference speaker through 1933. In turn, Max Yergan’s later critiques of capitalism and imperialism through the National Negro Congress (N.N.C.) and the Council on African Affairs may explain the increasing emphasis on economic justice and workers’ rights at the conference meetings.[xxx] His N.N.C. colleague, union leader A. Philip Randolph, also became a featured speaker at Kings Mountain events before he planned the first March on Washington.
     The history of African and African American activism within the Y.M.C.A. reminds me that the administrative and political obstacles faced by black missionaries did not define the boundaries of black internationalism in the early twentieth century. Though white donors and administrators wielded significant influence over the types of education and occupations considered appropriate for people of African descent, black professionals continued to shape their Christian activism in terms of upward mobility, academic community formation, and cultural awareness. When explaining the impacts of World Christianity, Lamin Sanneh argued that “Christianity helped Africans to become renewed Africans, not remade Europeans.”[xxxi] Collaboration with African students, parishioners, and leaders during the early twentieth century also helped some African American Christians pursue their spiritual practice beyond the parameters set by the Phelps Stokes Fund and Protestant mission boards.

[i] Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 63.
[ii] Jacob K Olupona, “Communities of Believers: Exploring African Immigrant Religion in the United States,” African Immigrant Religions in America, ed. by Jacob K. Olupona and Regina Gemignani (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 29; Elias K. Bongmba, “Portable Faith: The Global Mission of African Initiated Churches (AICs), African Immigrant Religions in America, ed. by Jacob K. Olupona and Regina Gemignani (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 115-117.
[iii] Emmanuel Agyemfra, “Diverse Altars Where We Worship: Religious Practices and Worship among Ghanaian Christian Communities in New Jersey, USA,” conference presentation, Yale Edinburgh Group on the History of the Missionary Movement and World Christianity, New Haven, CT, 29 June 2019.
[iv] Paul Gifford, “A View of Ghana’s New Christianity,” The Changing Face of Christianity: Africa, the West, and the World, ed. By Lamin Sanneh and Joel A. Carpenter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 92-93.
[v][v] Andrew Barnes, Global Christianity and the Black Atlantic (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017), 3.
[vi] Kenneth J. King, Pan-Africanism and Education (New York: Diasporic Africa Press, 2016), 124.
[vii] King, Pan-Africanism and Education, 226-232.
[viii] King, Pan-Africanism and Education, 215.
[ix] King, Pan-Africanism and Education, 220.
[x] Clif Stratton, Education for Empire: American Schools, Race, and the Paths of Good Citizenship (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), 143.
[xi] William H. Watkins, The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954 (New York: Teachers College Press, 2001), 110-111; King, Pan-Africanism and Education, 134-135, 142-143.
[xii] Andrew Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 48.
[xiii] King, Pan-Africanism and Education, 82-86; David H. Jackson, Jr., Booker T. Washington and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 9.
[xiv] Arch C. McKinnon to Egbert W. Smith, 30 August 1918, American Presbyterian Congo Mission Records, RG 432, box 78, folder 15, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA.
[xv] Sylvia M. Jacobs, “African Missions and the African-American Christian Churches,” African-American Experience in World Mission: A Call Beyond Community, vol. 1, ed. by Vaughn J. Walston and Robert J. Stevens (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2002), 44.
[xvi] Keisha Blain and Tiffany M. Gill, To Turn the Whole World Over: Black Women and Internationalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019), Kindle Edition, location 259-268; Michael Johnson, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper? The Search for African American Presence in Missions,” African-American Experience in World Mission: A Call Beyond Community, vol. 1, ed. by Vaughn J. Walston and Robert J. Stevens (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2002), 12.
[xvii] Ira Dworkin, Congo Love Song: African American Culture and the Crisis of the Colonial State (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 135.
[xviii] James A. Quirin, “‘Her Sons and Daughters are Ever on the Altar:’ Fisk University and Missionaries to Africa, 1866-1937,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 1 (Spring 2001), 21-24; Dworkin, Congo Love Song, 130.
[xix] W.A. Hunton, “The Providential Preparation of the American Negro for Mission Work in Africa,” World-wide Evangelization the Urgent Business of the Church (New York: Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, 1902), 294-298; Kings Mountain Student Conference flyer: June 3-13, 1927, YMCA Student Division Papers, RG 58, box 54, folder 768, Yale Divinity Library Archives and Manuscripts, New Haven, CT, page 2.
[xx] Dworkin, Congo Love Song, 142.
[xxi] Salo, J., “George Edmund Haynes (1880-1960),” BlackPast, 30 June 2008, Online, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/haynes-george-edmund-1880-1960/ Accessed 19 July 2019.
[xxii] Kings Mountain Student Conference flyer: May 26-June 5, 1922, YMCA Student Division Papers, RG 58, box 54, folder 768, Yale Divinity Library Archives and Manuscripts, New Haven, CT, page 6.
[xxiii] Kings Mountain Student Conference flyer: May 26-June 5, 1922, page 2.
[xxiv] Kings Mountain Student Conference flyer: May 26-June 5, 1922, page 5.
[xxv] Kings Mountain Student Conference flyer: June 3-13, 1927, YMCA Student Division Papers, RG 58, box 54, folder 768, Yale Divinity Library Archives and Manuscripts, New Haven, CT, page 2-3; Report of Kings Mountain Student Conference: May 30-June 6, 1931, YMCA Student Division Papers, RG 58, box 54, folder 768, Yale Divinity Library Archives and Manuscripts, New Haven, CT, page 11.
[xxvi] Kings Mountain Student Conference flyer: June 12-18, 1936, YMCA Student Division Papers, RG 58, box 54, folder 768, Yale Divinity Library Archives and Manuscripts, New Haven, CT, page 2-3.
[xxvii] Kings Mountain Student Conference flyer: May 30-June 9, 1924, YMCA Student Division Papers, RG 58, box 54, folder 768, Yale Divinity Library Archives and Manuscripts, New Haven, CT, page 2; Kings Mountain Student Conference flyer: June 12-18, 1936, YMCA Student Division Papers, RG 58, box 54, folder 768, Yale Divinity Library Archives and Manuscripts, New Haven, CT, page 1-2.
[xxviii] David A. Hollinger, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 104.
[xxix] King, Pan-Africanism and Education, 82-83.
[xxx] David Henry Anthony III, Max Yergan: Race Man, Internationalist, Cold Warrior (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 167-170.
[xxxi] Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity?, 43.


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