Bound For the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration

Bound For the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration

by Milton C. Sernett

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Discusses the migration of African-Americans from the south to the north after WWI through the 1940s and the effect this had on African-American churches and religions.See more details below


Discusses the migration of African-Americans from the south to the north after WWI through the 1940s and the effect this had on African-American churches and religions.

Editorial Reviews

This excellent and much-needed historical study of African American religion during the great migration of African Americans from the rural southern black belt counties to northern urban cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New York draws on the census data on religion, church records, and studies by social scientists. Sernett has created a highly readable and informative portrait of the tensions and debates among northern black clergy and intellectuals such as the Rev. Richard Wright, Jr. and W. E. B. Du Bois about how to respond to this tidal wave of migrants.
Journal of American History
Milton C. Sernett has taken on the daunting assignment of examining the emergence of 'modern' African American churches during the period of the Great Migration, and he has accomplished the considerable feat of providing both a work of encyclopedic range, based on prodigious research in primary and secondary sources, and a sense of the overall picture. The forest is not lost for the trees....Sernett has accomplished a great deal with this volume. He has broadened the picture of migration so that it may incorporate all the complexity that African American churches and religion bring to the story.
American Historical Review
[A] rich and wide-ranging book....Sernett provides multiple angles of vision on black church responses to migration....This tale moves us a long way from an older critique of black church declension in the interwar years....On the whole, concludes Sernett, black churches did help migrants, even as their own orientation shifted to become more politically involved and socially relevant....Sernett's reflections on sociological and historical discourse in the 1930s highlight the class and regional biases of scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter Woodson, who examined the black church through an instrumentalist lens and found it wanting. Sernett rightly demonstrates that this still prevalent assessment must be tempered by a more balanced evaluation of both the continuities and discontinuities of black religious experience in the twentieth century.
Journal of Southern History
Milton C. Sernett breaks new ground in the study of the Great Migration....This book is notably useful for historians of the South and of the black experience in America.... Sernett writes in clear, crisp, and analytic prose and places his subject matter in the larger context of African American and United States history. He does so particularly well in explaining the cultural role played by the Great Migration in shaping the contours of the twentieth-century American religious landscape....[T]his is a well-written and well-researched book that offers valuable new information and insights into an important area of southern and African American history.
North Carolina Historical Review
Drawing extensively on contemporary studies and publications, government reports, and documentary sources....Sernett captures the magnitude of institutional chaos manifest in this critical period of change. Part of the book's usefulness is its exhaustive rendering of the range of studies conducted and analyses offered by scholars and agencies....The book's its point that the black church was forever changed by the Great Migration....Sernett's contribution significantly enhances readers' understanding of this intriguing dimension of the Great Migration.
Georgia Historical Quarterly
Sernett shows us that there is still much to be learned about this sweeping demographic shift. He offers a fresh analytic look at the period and the phenomenon, casting his analysis of the dynamic vitality of African-American culture into a framework of broader events and processes. Sernett makes clear the connections between spirituality, community, power, oppression, and poverty within the cultural milieu, and examines how the Great Migration shaped the politics of American scholarship into the 1940s and 1950s....Sernett's examination of the development of African-American-clergy-politicians who emerged in urban areas during the Great Migration is first-rate, as is his probing analysis of the transformation of African-American urban spiritual culture....Sernett has produced a splendid combination of good scholarship and a good read.
From the Publisher

“Sernett makes a persuasive argument for moving beyond an understanding of the Great Migration as a subfield of urban studies, concerned exclusively with issues of race and class, ghetto formation, and labor issues. The reader is reminded of the significant but often ignored impact of the Great Migration on culture and cultural institutions in the African-American context.”—Lewis V. Baldwin, Vanderbilt University

“This work. . . synthesizes important material that scholars of African American religious studies need in book form.”—Dennis C. Dickerson

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Duke University Press
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C. Eric Lincoln Series on the Black Experience
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Bound for the Promised Land

African American Religion and the Great Migration

By Milton C. Sernett

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8245-4



On the morning of October 21, 1916, Anthony Crawford parked his wagon in front of W. D. Barksdale's mercantile store in Abbeville, South Carolina. The owner of 427 acres of prime cotton land, Crawford raised a family of twelve sons and four daughters and through hard work and persistence had become the wealthiest black farmer in Abbeville County. Exactly why Crawford went in to see the white merchant that fateful day is not known, though Barksdale purchased cotton from area farmers and sold them seed and supplies on credit. Barksdale and Crawford fell into an argument, reportedly over the price of cotton. The merchant accused the farmer of being a liar, and the farmer cursed the merchant. A white mob gathered at the store. Crawford sought refuge in a partially covered pit in the ground at a nearby cotton gin house and armed himself with a sledge hammer. When the mob rushed him, Crawford struck one of his attackers, McKinny Cann, smashing his skull with the hammer. A rock thrown by a member of the mob knocked the black farmer down. Crawford struggled to his feet, someone knifed him in the back, and he lost consciousness.

The Abbeville sheriff arrived and temporarily stayed the blood thirst of the mob with the promise that Crawford would be kept in jail until it was known whether Cann would live. By midafternoon a second mob gathered at the jail, incensed by talk that the sheriff planned to spirit Crawford away on the four o'clock train. Acting out a scenario that plagued many black communities of the pre-Great Migration South, the mob broke into the jail, took Crawford, tied a rope around his neck, and dragged him through the black sector of town. At the edge of the fairgrounds, the rioters hanged Crawford's lifeless body from a pine tree and fired several hundred bullets into it. The all-white coroner's jury, despite the ritual spectacle enacted in the presence of numerous witnesses, failed to name anyone responsible for the tragedy in Abbeville.

Whites talked of burning the Crawford house but contented themselves with closing down black businesses in Abbeville and passing an ordinance demanding that Crawford's children, nine of whom were married and lived around their father's farm, leave their land within two weeks. Though the resolution was later revoked, the prospects of further antiblack violence precipitated an exodus from the county, as had happened after the Phoenix riot of 1898 when whites attacked blacks who were attempting to vote in Greenwood County, South Carolina. Some migrants from the Abbeville-Greenwood area headed for north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where a sizable colony of blacks from the region had already gone. The murder of Anthony Crawford remained for a long time in the collective memory of black Philadelphians.

Crawford's death at the hands of a white mob was not unusual in the pre-World War I decades. The use of rope and faggot to intimidate and punish blacks was common in the South. There were 754 lynchings of blacks in the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century. Between 1900 and 1909, 92 percent of the lynchings took place in the South (including Missouri), as compared to 82 percent in the 1890s. In the nineties 32.2 percent of the victims were white, but between 1900 and 1909 the ratio of white victims decreased to 11.4 percent. As the historian C. Vann Woodward observed, lynching "was becoming an increasingly Southern and racial phenomenon." In 1910 sixty-seven African Americans were lynched. Though the aggregate number of lynchings in the second decade of the twentieth century was not as large as in the 1890s, when lynchings peaked, one person was lynched in the South every five days, and the ratio of black to white lynchings was ten to one, a disparity that held into the 1930s.

Anthony Crawford's murder struck a raw nerve because it took place when many were puzzling over the causes of the black exodus that began as a trickle in the summer of 1916 and rapidly was becoming a major tributary. Contemporary observers pointed to the expanding labor market stimulated by the outbreak of war in Europe as the lure attracting southern blacks from the South. Historians embellish this economic thesis with detailed descriptions of regional disparities in wages, fluctuations in the price of cotton, and the effects of farm mechanization. Wartime and postwar studies emphasized the primacy of economic forces, as did Edward E. Lewis's book, The Mobility of the Negro, which helped to canonize the now familiar interpretive paradigm of the "pull" of the industrial demand for labor in the North and the "push" of agricultural disorganization in the Cotton Belt. In The South Since 1865, a general survey of changes in the region since the Civil War, John Samuel Ezell flatly stated: "The desire for economic improvement was the Negroes' chief motive for heading north."

Anthony Crawford and his family, however, did not fit the profile of the black tenants or sharecroppers who lived on the razor's edge of economic ruin or of the landless poor who were already drifting to the South's larger towns and cities. By virtue of hard work, thrift, and a good business sense, the patriarch of the Crawfords had become the epitome of success. Following the dictum of Booker T. Washington delivered in 1895 at the Cotton Exposition in Atlanta, Crawford had cast down his bucket where he was. His landholdings amounted to almost 10 percent of all the property owned by African Americans in Abbeville County. His success proved to be his undoing, at least in the eyes of one observer. "Crawford was worth around $20,000 and that is more than most white farmers are worth down here. Property ownership always make the negro more assertive, more independent, and the poor whites can't stand it." They hated to see "a 'nigger' forge ahead of them, and they lay for a chance to jump him." If we are to understand the full significance of the Great Migration as a religious event, then we must come to terms with the deeper meaning of what happened in Abbeville in the fall of 1916.

The murder of Anthony Crawford, who not incidentally had been secretary of the Chappelle African Methodist Episcopal Church for nineteen years and its largest contributor, suggests that the causes of the exodus of nearly a half million African Americans from the South during World War I are not fully exposed by pointing to economic variables. Crawford's mutilated and savaged body, which one witness described as a "mass of bloody pulp," put the lie to the southern myth that by playing according to the rules blacks could coexist with whites with some hope of the good things of life promised by Booker T. Washington's philosophy. In The Man Farthest Down, published in 1912, Washington had argued that African Americans were better off in the South than were the depressed classes of Europe in their homelands. He maintained that "more than anywhere else, the colored people seem to have discovered that, in gaining habits of thrift and industry, in getting property, and in making themselves useful, there is a door of hope open for them which the South has no disposition to close." Ironically, Washington's remarks were published during an outbreak of Ku Klux Klan violence in Mississippi that targeted prosperous African Americans of the class to which Anthony Crawford belonged. His murder gave the lie to Washington's proposition that the achievement of material prosperity by African Americans was the solution to "the race problem" in the South.

By briefly surveying conditions of African American life in the South on the eve of the Great Migration before examining the state of health of the black southern church, we can better understand the subsequent exodus as the religious event that it was. African Americans invested the Great Migration with religious meaning precisely because they understood that what happened to Anthony Crawford could happen to them, no matter what their economic status or how carefully they negotiated the dangerous labyrinth of racial politics in the South. The potential for white violence was always present. Without political and civil rights, southern blacks lived a precarious existence. Whatever toehold they had on material prosperity was threatened by their inability to protect themselves against indiscriminate violence.

The Atlanta Constitution acknowledged on December 10, 1916, "Lynching was indeed a cause behind the black exodus.... The heaviest migration of Negroes has been from those counties in which there have been the worst outbreaks against Negroes." African Americans felt particularly vulnerable to lynch law because the federal authorities had adopted the policy that the "Negro Problem" was something best left to the white South. Following the contested election of 1876, Republicans in order to hold onto the White House gave up on efforts to protect the rights of southern blacks. The Compromise of 1877 gave the election to Rutherford B. Hayes, but it left blacks in the South to the mercy of whites committed to racial supremacy. Conservative southerners used the states' rights argument to deflect any outside criticism of the treatment of African Americans. Frederick Douglass commented on the effects of the doctrine of states' rights, or local white control, in 1889. "This idea of self-government," he said, "destroyed the Freedman's Bureau, drove United States soldiers out of the South, expelled Northern immigrants, excluded Negro citizens from State legislatures, and gave all the power to the Southern slavemasters."

After the approximately 4 million slaves became free by virtue of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 and then became citizens of the United States with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, an air of jubilation prevailed. Many former slaves believed that God had a hand in their deliverance. A black woman in Virginia said of the miraculous end of slavery, "Isn't I a free woman now! De Lord can make Heaven out of Hell any time, I do believe." This atmosphere of hope deteriorated during the Reconstruction period, when it became clear that southern whites and their conservative allies in the federal government would fiercely contest each political or social gain made by the Freedmen. The dismantling of the Reconstruction agencies, coupled with a resurgence of white power in the South and federal complicity with southern white interests, struck hard at the ex-slaves' dreams of freedom, forty acres, and a mule.

In their search for a place free of the domination of whites, some southern blacks experimented with the formation of all-black towns such as Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and Boley, Oklahoma. About sixty such communities were organized between 1865 and 1915, but the total number of inhabitants represented a small proportion of the South's African American population. Lacking federal initiative and support, a massive exchange of place was impossible. In 1879 Senator William Windom of Minnesota, troubled by the failure of the federal government to protect black civil rights, introduced a resolution in Congress to study the practicality of encouraging blacks to leave the South. His proposal drew little support. European immigrants were filling the need for unskilled labor in the North and Midwest, and antiblack sentiment did not confine itself to the South.

Despite the lack of federal relocation assistance, southern blacks needed no persuasion, and some of them sought better lives elsewhere. Shortly after the removal of federal troops from the South and the reintroduction of political control by whites who bemoaned the defeat of the Confederacy, African Americans began to look for a way out of the region. Senator Windom's resolution was blamed for the spread of the Kansas Fever Idea in the rural parishes and counties of Louisiana and Mississippi. However, as historian Nell Painter points out, southern blacks were already anxious to move and were of the belief that the federal government would provide them with free transportation, land, and supplies.

The largest contingent, perhaps four to five thousand, followed Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, a cabinetmaker who claimed "divine inspiration," to Kansas beginning in 1879. Known as the "Exodusters," many of these refugees were from Mississippi, which was one of the first southern states to reintroduce a white supremacist government. Black leaders such as Henry Highland Garnet and Sojourner Truth, veterans of the pre-Civil War abolitionist struggle, endorsed the exodus to "John Brown's" Kansas. But Douglass opposed the Kansas migration on the grounds that it was ill-timed and badly organized. More fundamentally, he believed that by staying in the South blacks could exercise greater political muscle by virtue of their demographic concentration. "The public and noisy advocacy of a general stampede of the colored people from South to the North," Douglass maintained, "is necessarily an abandonment of the great and paramount principle of protection to person and property in every state of the Union." Douglass held the minority position among African American leaders, and he would later temper his optimism that the white South was amenable to change.

Douglass's skepticism of the exodus to Kansas was borne out. It was short-lived and of modest size. Kansas was cold, much of the land was infertile, and nonfarm jobs were scarce. Those who went to Kansas were motivated by a desire for personal liberty and economic opportunity. But they differed from the host of African Americans who fled the South beginning in 1916 in one important aspect. In her detailed study of the Kansas fever, Painter concludes, "The Exodus was a rural-to-rural migration, at least in intent, whereas the later movement was a rural-to-urban. After the turn of the century, the Afro-American quest for land subsided, or turned into a hunt for jobs. In a sense, then the Exodus was atavistic, for the fundamental drift of American population in the late nineteenth and the twentieth century was toward the cities."

In 1880 6,580,793 African Americans lived in the United States, constituting 13.1 percent of the nation's total population. Approximately 90 percent lived in the former Confederate states. In the last decades of the nineteenth century a small percentage of black southerners were leaving the South and settling in northern cities. These migrants were generally individuals whom W. E. B. Du Bois called "The Talented Tenth." They were better educated than most black southerners or had skills with which they hoped to cope in the North. Northern employers showed little interest in importing unskilled black workers from the South, except as strikebreakers or domestic help. For example, when stockyard workers went on strike in Chicago in 1894 and in 1905, management sought black laborers from the South. This outflow to northern industrial centers was the exception that proved the rule. More commonly, African Americans living in the South as the last decades of the nineteenth century got under way expected to remain there. Their destiny, for good or bad, was intertwined with that of whites, as it had been before and after Emancipation.

In 1886 Henry Grady of the Atlanta Constitution began a campaign to attract northern investors. This apostle of the New South was eager to bring his region into the mainstream of American life. To those who asked what was to be done with "the Negro," Grady responded that a "racial instinct" would keep blacks and whites separate. Confirmation that African Americans were to be relegated to a separate place in social and political life of the New South came in the watershed decade of the 1890s, when the force of law was added to social custom, notably in the Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. The decision prescribed segregated seating on trains and served as the legal justification for systematic segregation in many other areas. Plessy v. Ferguson cast a pall over the lives of black southerners, regardless of education or location, by defining personal liberty in spatial terms. Jim Crow laws became more rigid and consistent, and by 1900 signs saying "Whites Only" or "Colored" hung from public facilities all over the South. Whether on the streetcar or at a drinking fountain, at school or in a hospital, at work or at play, black Americans, regardless of their behavior or accomplishments, were reminded on a daily basis that they were still in Egyptland. Ray Stannard Baker, the investigative journalist who wrote for McClure's magazine, said after a visit to Atlanta in 1906, "After I had begun to trace the colour line I found evidences of it everywhere—literally in every department of life."

The color line that Baker observed split the southern Populist movement in the 1890s. The agrarian radicals attempted to form a third party by appealing to the interests of both white and black farmers. The Populist credo and economic doctrines pitted all those who worked the land against corporate greed and monopoly. The South's best-known Populist, Tom Watson, said, "The accident of color can make no difference in the interest of farmers, croppers, and laborers." Efforts to bridge the color line in the Populist crusade came up against deep-seated prejudices and fears of "Negro domination" raised by southern Democrats. The election of Grover Cleveland in 1892 gave southern Democrats additional clout in their contest with the agrarian reformers. To hang onto the votes of white farmers and laborers, Populist leaders ceased to condemn lynching and racial discrimination. Tom Watson's rhetoric became increasingly filled with antiblack sentiment. Once Democratic politicians in the South felt that they had the Populists on the run, they no longer attempted to attract black voters. The defeat of the Populist movement left a legacy of racial bitterness and further isolated African Americans in the South from any significant political participation.


Excerpted from Bound for the Promised Land by Milton C. Sernett. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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