The History & Evolution Of The Black Church: Reconstruction And Newfound Freedom



February is Black History Month, and to continue learning about the establishing, evolution, and culture of the black church, we spoke with African American Christian leaders and educators to guide us through the history of the black church and the critical purpose it serves as part of the full Kingdom.

This series brings together top pastors, professors, and historians in the African American community to demonstrate the importance of the Black Church in American history and culture.  Our American history is rarely told from the perspective of African Americans because it can be an uncomfortable narrative for the majority population in our nation to hear and understand. I hope it will help listeners understand and appreciate the conception and development of the Black Church and its continuing role in shaping American culture. When we highlight one part of the church, it sheds more light on the whole church.

Dr. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan is the third guest in this series, discussing the Jim Crow-era in the United States and the ways it helps us understand The Black Church today. Dr. Kirk-Duggan is a professor of religion at Shaw University, which is the oldest Historically Black College and University in the south. 

I broke down the primary topics discussed in my conversation with Dr. Kirk-Duggan into three areas, including:

  1. The beliefs and concepts that lead to enslavement and Jim Crow,

  2. The Jim Crow South, and

  3. The identity of The Black Church.

1: The beginnings of Anglo-Saxon superiority

Only a few decades after Jesus’s death, Tacitus wrote a book espousing Anglo-Saxon superiority, which persisted through time and came to the United States with the pilgrims. Three concepts were married that lead to America’s treatment of non Anglo-Saxon Americans:

  1. White supremacy, which was rampant within the pilgrims and Puritans,

  2. Manifest destiny, which justified the murder and plundering of Native Americans, and

  3. American exceptionalism, which claimed that Americans were the best and brightest.

The combination of these three concepts enabled white Americans to justify any and all behavior that oppressed non-white and non-American people. 

After the Civil War and the release of those who were enslaved, the 13th Amendment was ratified, indicating that people could still be enslaved if they were deemed to have broken the law. Following the Reconstruction period, troops were taken out of the South, anti-Black media such as Birth of a Nation were widely broadcast, and newly-freed Black Americans outnumbered white people in many areas; because of this, fear amongst white Southerners grew exponentially.

2:The Jim Crow South

With this growing fear, Black Codes developed, restricting Black people’s voting rights, occupational rights, and compensation for work. Those who had been confederate soldiers became judges and police, and as the enforcers of the law, they placed more and more freedmen into labor camps and convict leasing. In 1865, the Ku Klux Klan began, and there were more and more incidences of the destruction of black property, looting of black businesses, torture and lynching, and voter suppression. Despite having helped win the War, many Black WWI veterans were lynched upon their return from overseas, creating divides in trust. 

With the 1920s came The Great Migration, as many Black southerners moved to cities such as Chicago and New York in the North. In the segregated South, particularly because of redlining, Black Americans were kept from being able to succeed in non-Black communities. Therefore, Black communities became tightly knit and largely self-sustaining. 

Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. These laws were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by white Southern Democrat-dominated state legislatures to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by black people during the Reconstruction period.

Dr Kirk-Duggan stated that white supremacy came with the pilgrims alongside their understanding of Christianity. When people get trapped in fear, they move to seek control. Because of this, people used the Bible to support their fear-induced practices, and Scripture could be warped and used to justify every act of oppression on Black people. 

3:The Black Church’s identity in the North and the South

Black denominations began growing, and Black churches began using existing hymns and worship to support concepts of freedom and justice for Black people. The Black churches became largely independent from white churches, and though not all Black churches were active in the Civil Rights Movement, the churches became places for Black people to advocate for each other. 

The Black churches were founded to help people who had been formerly enslaved to have a chance to worship as full citizens. No matter what work they did during the week, the church was a place where they were somebody, where they could hold offices, and where they could pool their resources. Oftentimes, before there were public schools for Black kids, the churches were the ones educating them and teaching them to read and write.

In the South, many people did not like Black people as a whole; but individuals could be considered parts of white families, since many white children were raised by Black maids. In the North, however, Black people were often publicly accepted, though not personally liked. In both the North and the South, there was racism that expressed itself differently. 

In the North, there were many institutional churches, which offered occupational and educational classes for members of the whole community, as well as housing. Because of this, no matter where in the country a Black person lived, the Church was the primary place where they could be respected, accepted, and loved. 

Recommended Resources:
Dr. Kirk-Duggan recommended a few resources for better understanding the history of The Black Church and what can be done going forward to continue the conversation:

  • The New Jim Crow - Michelle Alexander

  • Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God - Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas

  • 13th - directed by Ava DuVernay

At Vanderbloemen, we value constant improvement and invite you to walk alongside us as we learn more about how to better love and serve the whole church. Be sure to check out the full podcast episode with Dr. Kirk-Duggan and stay tuned for the other episodes in our History And Evolution Of The Black Church series throughout the month of February.