Wayward Negro Religions in the 20th Century Slum

*This post is part of our joint online roundtable with the Journal of African American History.

Photo: Members of the Pentecostal, Chicago, Illinois, April 1941, Russell Lee, Wikimedia Commons

The beautiful anarchy of the corner refused no one. It was the one place where they could quit searching and rest for a while, and still believe they were moving and on the way to some place better than this […] All were permitted to stay briefly, catch their breath, resist the pull of roaming, hustling, and searching. Every hour someone remarked, I got to go, and then lingered. Newcomers refreshed the crowd; strangers became intimates. The flow of those arriving and departing kept it alive. The same folks were always there and yet it always looked different.”

In 1911, the Baltimore Afro-American reported that a Philadelphia African American man declared Cambridge, Maryland “not a prosperous field for a street preacher.” The man arrived in Cambridge at the end of September and “expound[ed] the Word to the many who frequent[ed] Water street and its environments.” Unfortunately, “he found that his collections [only] amounted to 64 cents the first week.” The unnamed street preacher had struggled to pay his rent in Philadelphia and came to Cambridge for a fresh start but faced similar challenges in his new city, as those who passed him by deemed him a beggar, or worse, a nuisance. Spending additional hours on the street corner in Cambridge, as he had done in the city of Brotherly Love, “he made an extra effort to have the populace increase this magnificent sum, and was rewarded with just enough to make $1.” His earnings were not enough to cover his rent, but it procured him a ticket back home to Philadelphia. 1 

This man, whose name escapes the historical record, exemplified the experiences of African American street preachers—across genders—in many cities throughout the early twentieth century. These individuals were poor, working class, uneducated, overlooked, and migrants from the American South whose rural backgrounds clashed with the ethos of the northern New Negro. Street preachers were such complicated figures that many mainline denominations debated their significance, often describing them as examples of how the Negro church had turned into a den of “low moral and intellectual standards.” Contrary to the opinions of his contemporaries, one northern Presbyterian observed in 1909, “An illiterate street preacher or an humble lay worker in one of God’s poorest churches, upon whom the Holy Spirit has come, may do more for God and the world blessed and lasting service.” 2 Arthur Huff Fauset observed these complexities in his 1944-text focused on Philadelphia, Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North, in which he described Bishop Ida Robinson, the founder of the Mt. Sinai Holy Church of America, Inc., as “tall, sharp of feature and eye, medium brown in color, probably of mixed Indian-Negro blood. Her education has been limited, but she is extremely intelligent, and a competent leader.”

Many famed street preachers, like Robinson, prophesied and evangelized on the corners of Harlem, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, and Philadelphia declaring the word of their God or gods to potential followers. Just as street preachers sold the gospel for change and sex workers sold their bodies to pay rent and feed their families, prophets, faith healers, mystics, conjurers and rootworkers peddled their services from the corner as part of the larger religious, sexual, and economic geography of the Black slum. Thinking about all of these different people as cohabitants of the Black slum allows us to ruminate on the disruptive possibilities that Saidiya Hartman has illumed in her counter history, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. 

For historians of African American religions, Hartman provides a lens through which we can see the survivalisms of historical actors in the tenement, on the street, and beyond the church house, rioting to live. She contends, “These counter-conducts (different ways of conducting the self directed at challenging the hierarchy of life produced the color line and enforced by the state) or errant ways of living were seized by the state in its calculation of social risks and dangers.” Indeed, the state has historically policed Black sexuality, and it has also policed Black religions. It is no coincidence, then, that many of the persons who have animated African American religious history, such as Father Divine of the Peace Mission, Daddy Grace of the House of Prayer, and Marcus Garvey of the Universal Negro Improvement Association were accused by the press of founding “sex cults” and their followers confined to the same jail cells as queers and prostitutes. 

While Hartman’s focus is rightly attuned to “young Black women already targeted and vulnerable to myriad forms of state violence,” her work read through the corpus of African American religious history reemphasizes looming questions about how Black religious institutions have either failed young Black women or have ultimately been spaces of sanctuary and refuge. James Baldwin raised these concerns in his Great Depression-era novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain, through the character Florence who resents her brother-preacher Gabriel for his patriarchal, self-aggrandizing ways and for his sexually repressive holiness theology. Florence’s story aligns with the stories of many of the women in Hartman’s study, such that we are encouraged to ponder: how many of those early twentieth century Black women had actually left churches or temples to find sexual liberation? Moreover, how many of them continued to go to church on Sunday after having strolled the back alleys of New York and Philadelphia in scantily-clad dresses with cigarette alight on Saturday evening? Baldwin, when read alongside Hartman, invites scholars to ponder these sorts of questions, which as Black feminist scholar of religion Tamura Lomax notes, may cause “meanings that feel black-and-white [to] shift into gray space.” Bearing these literary, theoretical, and archival interventions in mind, historians of African American religions should probe more deeply into the “revolution of black intimate life that was taking place in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago in the first decades of the twentieth century.” I argue that attention to Black religions and Black sexuality together will elicit more capacious understandings of Black religions as a facet of Black social life. 

To understand Hartman’s notion of “the wayward,” one must also consider how African American religions, too, are wayward, given the inability for Black religious actors to embody Victorian respectability following the “ungendering” of the enslaved and her descendants. Hartman contends, “The wayward were guilty of a manner of living and existing deemed dangerous, and were a risk to the public good.” She asserts, “[Waywardness] is the practice of the social otherwise, the insurgent ground that enables new possibilities and new vocabularies; it is the lived experience of enclosure and segregation, assembling and huddling together […] It traffics in the occult visions of other worlds and dreams of a different kind of life.” When the saints gathered in their storefront churches, when conjurers gave tinctures to their clients, or when sex workers sang hymns between shifts, they dreamed new worlds and communed with themselves, their gods, and their ancestors. 3 Orthodox religions, the occult, the sexual, the sacred, and the profane have historically been in constant communion. Failure To remember this forecloses the various knowledges and wisdoms that are inherently embedded in the multilayered stories of Hartman’s minor characters.

Indeed, Hartman’s privileging of certain notions of secularism in the Black slum eclipses the ways African American religions have also been sites of alleged Black criminality. The policing of “negro cults” and the extensive arrests of Black preachers, church mothers, and faith healers across the 20th century United States stand as evidence. But equally, if not more importantly, the women of Hartman’s study would have undoubtedly joined many of the Black new religious movements which gained prominence in the 1930s and provided women, often with troubled pasts, opportunities to “exercise clerical leadership.” Moreover, as scholars of the blues era have long argued, queer people as well as sex workers, women excommunicated from their churches because of abortions, and gender nonconforming African Americans often articulated unorthodox religions in a myriad of ways that have been overlooked by scholars of African American history. Consider Mother Catherine Seals, who founded The Temple of the Innocent Blood in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1920 as a safe haven for battered women, sex workers, and children. Her ministry is but one example of how African American religious actors in the Black slum negotiated their raced and gendered subjectivities in the early twentieth century using African American religions.

Wayward is a thematic principle, a way of being, a methodological entry for Black scholars. At its best, it provides scholars of religion with tools for telling the stories of Black women, sex workers, queer, gender nonconforming, and transgender historical actors, and in turn, demands of non-religious studies scholars a greater reckoning with African American religions in theoretical and historical commentaries on Black poverty, enclosure, and captivity. Hartman has resurrected the people of the Black slum, and future scholarship is indebted to her undoing of genres which privilege orthodoxy, cisheteropatriarchy, Christocentrism, and sanitized Black social histories.

  1. “No Place for a Street Preacher,” The Baltimore Afro-American, October 7, 1911
  2. “Ministerial Alliance,” The Baltimore Afro-American, January 23, 1909.
  3. Zora Neale Hurston documented these happenings in “Hoodoo in America,” The Sanctified Church, and Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica.
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Ahmad Greene-Hayes

Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Religion at Princeton University. His research interests include 19th and 20th-century Africana and African American religious histories, Black South Studies, and Black Queer Studies. His dissertation is a religious history of Black transnationalism, African American religions, and migrations between the Circum-Caribbean and New Orleans from 1915-1954. Follow him on Twitter @_BrothaG.