For Black Americans, Spaces of Sanctuary have been a Matter of SurvivalRoundup
tags: religion, African American history, Southern Baptist Convention, Black Church
Alicia K. Jackson is a historian of African American and Southern history at Covenant College. Her book The Recovered Life of Isaac Anderson was just published.
On a plot of land near Toomsboro, Ga., three dozen people gathered last December to say “farewell” to 2020 and its uniquely grim events, including the disproportionate toll of the coronavirus pandemic on Black Americans and the violent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. These African American families hoped that the new year would bring protection from injustices. To this end, they secured roughly 100 acres, built a refuge and named it “Freedom.” Theirs was to be a safe space where they and others like them could thrive.
This community was not the only one to contemplate building spaces of refuge for African Americans. In Fort Worth, Black congregants threatened to leave the predominantly White Southern Baptist Convention, the largest mainline denomination in the country. Other Black pastors and congregations had already left the SBC amid frustrations with the denomination’s predominantly White leadership, As the Rev. Joel Bowman Sr., senior pastor of Temple of Faith Baptist Church in Louisville, concluded, “The SBC to me is not currently a safe place for African Americans and other people of color.”
The idea of creating new institutions and communities is deeply rooted in Black American history. In reality, much of African American history is the story of Americans creating their own sense of sanctuary in a land that often seems antithetical to their presence and their needs.
Many formerly enslaved people living at the end of the Civil War left White churches en masse and found sanctuary from slavery and its remnants either by joining or establishing Black denominations. Their departure was a visible form of protest, demonstrating their refusal to exist in White-controlled spaces that they understood to be unsafe for them.
By carving out their own safe spaces, Black Americans could give free rein to expressions of joy, pain and mourning at the trauma of slavery and the growing violence that was beginning to undermine the promise of Reconstruction. In these all-Black spaces, they could also organize politically. For example, in Fort Valley, Ga., Isaac H. Anderson, a formerly enslaved man, co-founded the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, but also organized politically and won a seat in the Georgia Senate in the December 1870 elections. The election of Anderson and two other Black men to the state legislature was a spectacular feat and spoke to the collective power of Black rural Georgians and the Black church, despite the dominance of the Democratic Party and ever-present threat of white supremacist violence in the state.