On the Spiritual Geography of Black Working-Class Washington

Untitled photo, possibly related to- Washington D.C. slum area, Nov. 1937. John Vachon, photographer. Photo: Library of Congress.
Untitled photo, possibly related to Washington D.C. slum area, Nov. 1937. John Vachon, photographer. Photo: Library of Congress.

In 1946, University of Chicago-trained anthropologist and religionist James Sydney Slotkin conducted a course in the anthropology and sociology department at Howard University. Slotkin, who later authored a number of influential books on the religions of American Indians, including The Peyote Religion, led his students in conducting ethnographic research among Washington’s Black communities. The student scholars who published in the resulting edited collection, Religion and Magic Among the Negroes of Washington, D.C., primarily investigated Black working-class narratives about their spiritual, magical, and religious lives. The contributing authors attributed to the working-class Black people about whom they wrote a kind of potentially detrimental folkness: a lack of spiritual and intellectual sophistication, an adherence to heterodox modes of spiritual life, and an unwavering adherence to practices considered out of time and place in urban modern life.

Self-conscious about their elevated social position in relation to Black “folk” culture, the ethnographers ascribed the differences they perceived in their poorer counterparts to a lack of education, diminished social standing, and a desire to imitate if not replicate certain forms of social power from the world beyond the segregated and poor neighborhoods in which they lived. While the student writers dismissed the working-class forms of religiosity, alternative belief systems, and social life they encountered as a mix of holdovers of unsophisticated rural Black culture and its potentially detrimental nascent urban forms, they also inadvertently described elements of a different kind of outlook on the city and world-making articulated from the bottom of Washington’s social hierarchy.

Within storefront churches, “cults,” and other non-institutional church spaces, Black communities reconfigured old and created new forms of mutually beneficial sociality and community through the unique prism of their distinctive cosmologies. In turn, these religious enclaves helped form a distinctive vernacular landscape. A vernacular landscape is understood as the creation of small-scale edits to matters of place that communities affect without necessarily disrupting dominant social-geographic relations. Parishioners shaped the city from below through distinctive visions of holiness that affected often-impermanent edits on their homes and communities. These novel religious institutions, along with other unsanctioned social spaces like the street and night clubs, constituted a unique Black social geography that challenged the predominant vision of orderly urban life channeled through the normative home, the patriarchal family, and the institutional church. Within alleys, in the streets, in clandestine night clubs, in storefronts, and in “cults,” Black Washingtonians created a kind of shadow Black world.

Mary Elizabeth Mumford analyzed a storefront church, highlighting the appeal of the ecstatic worship and healing ethos of what she considered an insular spiritual space. Poor Black segments of the city were considered obsolete in contemporaneous planning documents and thus as spaces not of life, but only of death. The effervescent vitality of the gathered parishioners, however, indexed the rich and generative social forms Black communities created in the interstices of the city. Mumford described the poor living conditions of one of the church’s members, someone she called “Mrs. H.,” and these in turn indexed her and her co-parishioners’ poverty and marginality. According to Mumford, she visited Mrs. H. in her “dark and dingy looking” living room in her home on 6 ½ Street Northwest in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood. Despite the diminutive appearance of the home and its inhabitants, Mrs. H. adorned her walls with Bible verses and religious images, demonstrating the ways the church’s spiritual infrastructure echoed outward. While wallpaper and other forms of interior fashioning are not the equivalent of comprehensive edits on a cityscape, this kind of adornment is akin to the small-scale edits enacted by sartorial politics. People shape their living spaces and communities in sometimes futile ways to engage in limited forms of self-fashioning that disrupt if not confront their apparent acquiescence to social-geographic marginality.

Negro in Washington slum area, D.C., Oct. 1937. Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Photo: Library of Congress.
“Negro in Washington slum area,” D.C., Oct. 1937. Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Photo: Library of Congress.

In the space of the sanctuary during the service, worship music lubricated spiritual exchanges and was thus an essential part of the world the parishioners configured. According to Mumford, the religious music essentially grafted the distinctive holiness and healing theologies of the church members onto the sounds of jazz. The choir consisted of women and men between fourteen and forty who sang memorized hymns over a band consisting of a bass drum, cymbals, piano, and tambourine. The band and choir provided the primary structure of the service, punctuating and also blending with the other features like the sermon.

The parishioners, most of whom moved together from Covington, Georgia, spiritualized their social plight and ascribed suffering in the world beyond to sin. According to their worldview, sin had the capacity to strike any person down in physical death. In distinction from the death of sin and the outside world, adherents of the storefront’s messages theorized a kind of spiritual architecture for the holy community that they created and maintained. According to Mumford, the churchgoers considered the “Holy Ghost” a “wall which protects them from the sin of the outside world” and which became accessible in the procession through the sonic elements of the service.

The spiritualized architecture of the wall provided by the Holy Spirit protected the parishioners from sin and death and also yielded tangible results in relation to the question of death and susceptibility for community members. The infrastructure of the “wall of the Holy Spirit” built on a critical facet of the church’s cosmology where the high (God) came low and the low (those at the bottom of Washington’s racialized social hierarchy) aimed high through the practices of sanctification and holiness. The parishioners viewed God and the Holy Spirit as intervening to save their lives as well as those of loved ones. In one example, the congregation’s regular preacher, who had been in D.C. for two years at the time of the interview, described how he was “called” to holiness and preaching around 1936 from his deathbed when he had a vision of an angel with his mother’s face. Critically, the spiritual architecture of vitality in the face of premature death included the figure of a mother turned ancestor and angel, illustrating the ways the community integrated spiritual and earthly relations into an alternative cosmology that also read back onto the relations of the living.

In another example, “Mrs. A.” described an experience in which prayer at the storefront had saved her daughter from her deathbed after they arrived in Washington from South Carolina. Again, these narratives about the capacity to miraculously heal and make well were as much about the protection of vulnerable people from early death as they were about a displaced reward for suffering in heaven. As “Mrs. A.” relayed to Mumford, “all hope had been given up when my friend who is a member of this church told me to pray at her church.”

The church’s unique cosmologies mapped onto and remapped interpersonal relations and thus provided not only a spiritual architecture, but also a physically manifest, social one. This point is reinforced in the ways the storefront also constituted an agency of benign mutuality in the event of death. As Mumford described, the congregation conducted three collections, one of which went to the service of a proper burial for any poor adherent who might perish without the requisite savings for a funeral. Death served as a site in which residents of the crumbling communities practiced fugitive life as they faced social isolation and premature death in the segregated city.

Mumford’s description of the home of Mrs. H. paralleled the description another student, Lloyd Parker, gave of the adherents of another spiritually ecstatic dancing “cult.” He gave it the pseudonym “The Followers of the Prophet John and His House of Salvation.” Parker diagramed the social choreography of the ecstatic dancing, locating the origin of the “contagion” in a young woman among the parishioners in a front pew. According to Parker, the woman was “hysterically constituted,” leaving her “hyperemotional and hypersuggestible.” In turn, the social contagion of exorbitant religiosity spread by mimicry to those who were also susceptible.

Parker’s description is highly gendered and suggestive of the kind of non-normativity understood to animate Black migrant and working-class institutions in Washington and similar impoverished Black urban communities in postwar social science. In his description, social contagiousness signaled an alternative affective connection among practitioners within the group that culminated in the unruly behavior of spiritual dancing. Even for the congregants who did not participate in dance, the music and choreography it inspired were still vitally important sources of a sense of wellbeing in the face of a depressing environment created by social isolation and poverty. A middle-aged male congregant told Parker that “I comes to church when I feels down and out; now I don’t shout, but I likes to watch the others, and I feel just as good as if I’d done shouted myself.”

Diagram from Lloyd Parker, Religion and Magic Among the Negroes of Washington, D.C. Howard University, 1946), pg. 27.
Diagram from Lloyd Parker, “Religion and Magic Among the Negroes of Washington, D.C.” (Howard University, 1946), describing the dancing “cult,” pg. 27.

The adherents’ distinctive cosmological mapping grafted onto existent material and social relations. It also helped to recreate these relations in the face of the dominant naming of these communities as “obsolete” and the understanding of their social practices as associated with folk — as that which must be relinquished to properly inhabit the city. Like Mumford, Parker described the congregants’ exuberant and “excessive” religiosity as a product of the “environmental conditions under which they live,” relegating these practices to the realm of that which must die so the modern might flourish. The parishioners relayed, however, that the exorbitant religiosity made them, as the president of the “cult’s” youth group described, “home mongst [sic] each other.”

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J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Africana Studies in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.