In The Steps of Esteban: Tucson's African American Heritage

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Special Projects & Publications
African American History Internship Project

African American Churches in Tucson
Edited by Harry Lawson, Ph.D.

This is the fourth year for the African American History Internship Project (AAHIP) program. Summaries from previous projects were reported in Lawson (1988 and 1989). Those documents can be reviewed at the Arizona Historical Society Library. This year's theme was "African American Churches in Tucson." Though Black church listings (name, denomination, address, and phone number) have recently been included in Black Business Directories, and a few churches have written their own histories, no research effort has been made to study the African American churches collectively and make the information available to the public. That was the goal of this project.

[Note: a photograpic exhibit complementing this report is also available]

Five interns were trained in oral history research methods. This is the first year we went beyond four students. Our criteria for selection of churches to study were denomination, age and size. We attempted to include all denominations that have predominantly African American worshipers and ministers. Within each denomination we then selected the oldest and the largest churches. We met the criteria in all categories except denomination. Blacks are represented mainly in five categories: Baptist, Methodist, Church of God in Christ, Church of Christ, and Apostolic. We were unable to schedule interviews with persons from the Church of Christ. We therefore chose a second Baptist church since there are more Black churches in this category than any of the others. The five churches are: Emmanuel Grace Apostolic, Gideon Missionary Baptist, Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist, Mt. Olive Church of God in Christ, and Prince Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.). A listing of Black churches in Tucson is provided from Parker's (1989) Directory of African Americans in Business, Professions, Services and Trades.

The interns first interviewed the current pastor of each church. He was asked to recommend a member of the church who had been there for some time and had a knowledge of the church's history. The interview with the member was tape-recorded and is housed at the Historical Society. Photographs were also collected to be used in an exhibit. The exhibit is maintained at the Historical Society and is available for use at various sites within the community as are exhibits from previous projects. Churches are especially encouraged to make use of the exhibit from this project by placing it in their vestibules.

Many Black churches grew out of schisms; just as Martin Luther withdrew from the Catholic faith and started the Lutheran Church in the 16th century, Bishop Richard Allen and others were forced out of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church (a White church) in Philadelphia in 1787 and went on to build the first A.M.E. Church (Bethel). In the latter part of the 20th century Black Catholics following Father George Stallings, withdrew from the Roman Catholic hierarchy and started their own church, Imani Temple in Washington, D.C. The Black church came into existence because African Americans were not allowed to participate fully in American institutions. Blacks saw that the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended our Revolutionary War in 1783, did not free them from the tyranny of the slave master, especially in the South. They therefore set out to build their own organizations, and the church became the bedrock of all the institutions.

Many people are aware of the A.M.E. Church's history; probably fewer realize that the first African American churches were Baptist. According to Bennett (1987), in the 1770s independent African Baptist churches were founded in South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia by pioneer Black ministers like Andrew Bryan and George Liele.

Though the church has historically served many purposes for African Americans and continues to do so, I will just point to a few in this brief survey. First of all, it allowed Black people to maintain some of their African culture through a style of worship that incorporated ideas and expressions that Africans brought with them from the mother continent. This can be seen in the songs, drums, dances, and various emotional expressions used during worship service. The late writer James Baldwin said some time ago on public radio that "The church is the only place where a Black man can be free." Secondly, the church has been a training ground for several professions: orators and leaders developed their skills in the church. Some of the greatest Black leaders the nation or the world has known came out of the Black church. The preacher Nat Turner; Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest of all the Black American leaders; Rev. Jesse Jackson; Minister Malcom (X); and Minister Louis Farrakhan are but a few of the giants that the Black church influenced. Professional singers such as Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, and the Rev. Al Green, are just a few of those who fine-tuned their talents in the Black church. The church provided training in other area such as business. The first insurance companies and banks grew out of savings from the church. African Americans are proud to own the buildings they worship in. Some of the earliest Black schools were founded through the church. For example, Bishop Richard Allen started a day school for children and an evening school for adults at the first A.M.E. church in the world, Bethel, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Bible was often the book that Blacks first learned to read from; It was their primer. Finally, according to Bennett (1987, p. 287), the Black churches "... provided the myths [religion] that made it possible for [B]lacks to survive in a situation that could not be changed ... but which could not be borne without either myth or philosophy or strong drink."

Though African Americans in Tucson seem somewhat removed from the ideas of Father Stallings of Washington, D.C., they face other issues. As a result of our survey, we found that many people see the church as being in a transitional phase trying to balance the needs of older people while attracting and maintaining youth. As they give up traditional values they offend older people (and perhaps some younger people too), but some churches have not gone far enough in finding ways to attract and keep younger people. All of the interviewees express the need for the church to be involved with the community. The motto for many of these churches is "ministering to the total man."

One issue that the subjects did not address, is the identity issue which is being discussed nationally as it relates to images such as paintings in the church. The issue concerns the color of God and His Son. If it is true that God created man (and woman) in His own image (Genesis 1: 27), then the curious person asks the question: "What color is God?" As African Americans become more in tune with their Africanity and their blackness, many are demanding that the places where they worship adorn themselves with images that are reflective of their natural being.

The five interns have written summaries of their interviews which appear on the following pages in alphabetical sequence by church. They will receive scholarships from the Arizona Historical Society to attend either Pima Community College or the University of Arizona.

Again, many persons have contributed to the success of this project. I would like to acknowledge all of them: the members of the AAHIP committee, the staff at the Arizona Historical Society, Michael Engs, liaison for Pima Community College, the ministers and members of the churches who shared their time, memories, experiences, and feelings and the interns who collected the data and wrote the summaries.

References

Bennett, Lerone, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 1987.

Harris, Richard. The First 100 Years, Apache Junction. Arizona: Relmo Publishers, 1983.

Jolivet, Anna. Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, 1900-1978: An Abbreviated History. Tucson: Mt. Calvary Church, 1978.

Lawson, Harry, ed. Dunbar School: Shared Memories of a Special Past. Tucson: Arizona Historical Society, 1989.

Lawson, Harry, ed. African Americans in Aviation in Arizona. Tucson: Arizona Historical Society, 1989.

Mount Calvary Baptist Church 81st Anniversary Bulletin: 1900-1981. Tucson: Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, 1981.

Parker, Ophelia. Directory of African Americans in Business, Professions, Services, and Trades. Tucson: Ophelia S. Parker Enterprises Fublication, 1989.

Randolph, Laura. "What's Behind the Black Rebellion in the Catholic Church?" Ebony. November 1989.

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