Any history — including Black history — of what now is the United States must begin with the church and the faith it represents.
When Juan Ponce de Leon planted a cross in Florida soil on Easter Sunday, 1513, and took formal possession of the land around what now is St. Augustine in the name of Ferdinand of Spain, religion lay claim to the history of the region.
Possessing the land for the Spanish sovereign was the same as taking title for the Roman Catholic Church, for the king was the secular head of the church by direct commission of the Pope.
It was a century later when English Pilgrims established in 1620 what many consider the first continuously occupied city of the colonial period at Plymouth, (now Massachusetts). They declared in the Mayflower Compact that they were doing it “for the glory of God and the churches [sic] good (referring to those seeking to reform or separate from the Anglican Church).”
Now when every February brings Black History Month, we need not go any farther than to such latter day black heroes as Rosa McCauley Parks, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama to see the influence of the church.
You will remember that it was Mrs. Parks who in 1963 refused to sit in the back of the bus in Montgomery, AL., a key event in the modern civil rights movement that broke the so-called “Jim Crow laws” of the last century that discriminated against blacks.
In her autobiography she said her action grew out of the teachings of Jesus Christ, learned in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (one of the three oldest and second largest black denomination), which convinced her that “a heart filled with love could conquer anything, even bigotry.”
The bus boycott that followed was organized by Dr. King, son and grandson of Baptist pastors and a pastor himself whose post secondary education all was at church-related schools. With the cooperation of both black and white churches he continued to organize protests that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to his assassination four years later.
A member of the National Baptist Convention, the largest black denomination, Dr. King’s motivation for the non-violent actions that earned him the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, as he explained in a sermon the night before his death: “I just want to do God’s will.”
Many political analysts and historians would say that it was the inter-racial admiration of Dr. King and his accomplishments that made possible the election of Barack Obama as the first black American president of the United States in 2008.
In a 2004 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, then state Sen. Obama said that during his years as a community organizer “I became much more familiar with the ongoing tradition of the historic black church and its importance in the community and the power of that culture to give people courage against great odds.”
Obama said that experience led him to join Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ (a predominantly white descendent denomination of the colonial Pilgrims) where “I committed myself to Christ.”
But black history in this country goes back to 1619 when Dutch slave traders brought 19 (some sources say 20) blacks from western Africa to Hampton, VA, an outpost of the Jamestown settlement started a dozen years earlier.
The influence of the church on the issue of slavery was a mixed bag and racial prejudices continued within and outside the institution for many decades.
The colony of Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims had sought freedom for themselves, was the first to legalize slavery in 1641. And even though the early slaves, most of whose religious background was spiritism, were welcome in the white churches of their masters, they were segregated into the balconies and were served the bread and wine of the communion sacrament — if any were left — only after white worshipers.
On the other hand, some slave owners were prompted to give indentured servant status and eventual freedom to those slaves who became Christians. It was the church that educated slaves and it was from within the church that the abolition movement began and was promoted till its fruition in President Abraham Lincoln’s prayerfully conceived Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
African Americans had begun to establish their own churches by the 1780s and 90s. They were sanctuaries where blacks could safely be themselves and form mutual-help societies of various kinds.
More importantly, the churches, both black and white, were places where worshipers heard hopeful and inspiring Bible accounts of the freeing of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and New Testament assertions that the truth of the Gospel sets men free, that in Christ there is neither bond nor free, and if the Son (Jesus Christ) sets you free, you are “free indeed.”
Frederick Douglass is perhaps the best known product of that influence. Born a slave in 1818 near Baltimore, MD he was taught to read and write by the wife of his owner and a white Methodist pastor. As an avid reader of the Bible and newspapers, he learned that he was a child of God and set a goal of having “everybody converted (to a faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord).”
Douglass, who later became a founding member of the NAACP, became a fiery speaker for the abolition movement, editor of four newspapers, an important spokesman for the temperance movement and for women’s rights.
About that same time, Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave raised on those stories of the escape of God’s children from Egyptian slavery, became known as the ”the black Moses” for her role as “conductor” on the “Underground Railroad.”
With the help of brave Quaker farmers along the dangerous way, Mrs. Tubman led at least 300 slave men and women to safety in Philadelphia during 19 forays back into her birth state of Maryland.
She was proud to say that “I never lost a single passenger” along the treacherous way. “I always told God, ‘I’m going to hold steady on you and you’ve got to see me through!’”
He did as He always has.
U.S. Black History Facts
1619 - first slaves brought to colonies
1641 - slavery legalized in Massachusetts
1700 - total of 25,000 slaves in colonies
made up 10 percent of population
5.000 blacks served in Continental Army
25,000 slaves served with British
1808 - slave trading banned
200,000 blacks in Union Army & Navy
1870 -Hiram Revels first black in Congress
Republican senator from Mississippi
2009-2017 - first black President
Barack Obama from Chicago,IL
(Adon Taft was religion editor for 37 of his 48 years as a reporter for The Miami Herald. He taught Social Sciences at Miami-Dade Community College and authored the chapters on religion in the three-volume history of the state, “Florida from Indian Trail to Space Age .” edited by Dr. Charlton W. Tebeau and Ruby Leach Carson.)