“One Church: Separate But Not Equal”

Black people have found an attraction to the Anglican expression of Christianity in spite of the fact that it is the church of a large number of those who upheld the enslavement of blacks. It has been among the churches which by word and deed has consistently negated the worth of black people and yet it is the church which can rightly boast of a noble line of black clergy and lay persons whose devotion and piety, together with sound scholarship and unwavering loyalty, have enriched immeasurably the fabric of life in the Episcopal Church. –E. Don Taylor (Former Bishop of Jamaica and Former Vicar Bishop of New York, deceased)

After the Civil War, white Episcopalians found themselves in a spiritual and ethical quandary as to what to do about freed slaves. Several issues faced them: 1) Reclaiming the masses of newly emancipated slaves who fled the church once they were declared “free;” 2) Training of black preachers whose fitness to be ministers they questioned; 3) How and if and to what extent to allow these “freedmen” to have voice in the governance of the Church–their own and the larger Church; and 4) Whether or not to create separate racial jurisdictions.

 While many among the emancipated left, all did not abandon the Episcopal Church. Of those who remained, there were a few, primarily in the South, who formed their own congregations. In every instance, however, when they applied to be admitted as parishes with the rights and privileges of other parishes, they were denied. The same Southern Episcopalians who had refused to recognize those, whom many had previously been slave masters to, as equal citizens under the law, refused now to allow them equal privileges as members of the Church.

And while they claimed to have an earnest desire to evangelize African Americans so as to save their souls, such desires were considered by many African Americans to be half-hearted, at best. Author, retired priest and historian, Harold T. Lewis says in his Yet With a Steady Beat, while ‘Southern churchmen wanted to build up the body of Christ among blacks, they clearly wanted the extension of the Kingdom to be on their terms…their unwillingness to accept black congregations on an equal footing … was indicative of a desire on their part to exert as much control over the newly established black congregations as  they had over the slave chapels on the plantations prior to Emancipation.”

The majority of bishops and clergy in the South were convinced that white Episcopalians should keep a hand in the religious affairs of black people, but there was ongoing uncertainty and disagreement as to just how far that hand should reach. They, like most post-Civil War whites, believed black preachers to be “ignorant and … grossly immoral,” and felt that, if left unchecked, they would, in the words of Gardiner Shadduck, Jr. in his Episcopalians and Race, widen the gulf between the races and carry African Americans inexorably beyond the reach of white church people.”  And while many felt that the Church would be best served and the Gospel best proclaimed by white priests, they also realized that black preachers would be necessary to lure blacks, who wanted to be ministered to by someone who could relate more to their own experiences.

The challenge of educating the freed black preacher, however, presented a challenge not unlike that of evangelizing enslaved blacks. Just as the white evangelizers were challenged with teaching slaves the love of Christ and the freedom assured them by a life in Christ, without stirring in them the desire or expectation of earthly freedom, now the Church was challenged with providing the black preacher training in theology and the polity of the Church without stirring in them the hope or expectation that they would ever be full participants in it. All agreed that African American preachers should receive a theological education; in fact, they must, but not at their seminaries. Because they did not want black ministerial students to enroll at their white school, funds were collected to establish a racially separate seminary on the grounds of St. Stephen’s Church in Petersburg, VA, which in 1878 became the Bishop Payne Divinity School, the principal training ground for African American clergy.

Throughout the 1870s, white Episcopalians in the South wrestled with the question of whether black parishes, made up of the African Americans whom they had evangelized, should receive official recognition in their dioceses. In response to this questioning, in 1883, at the invitation of the Bishop of Mississippi, a group of Episcopal bishops, priests, and lay people, assembled for a conference at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, to discuss the “relations of our Church to the  late slave population and the best means we can adopt for their religious benefit.” The proposal to be discussed and voted upon at General Convention would give the bishop of each diocese the right to organize black communicants into separate missionary districts under their direct supervision which would deny blacks the right to vote in diocesan conventions or elect deputies to the General Convention.

In protest of this legislation, a group of black clergy, led by the Rev. Alexander Crummel of Washington organized the Conference of Church Workers Among Colored People (CCWACP), and through their efforts, the canon was defeated.  But while the Sewanee Conference rejected the plan that called for these separate racial jurisdictions and the idea of creating the position of “Suffragan Bishop” in charge of Colored Work, proposed by Texas Bishop Alexander Gregg, this entire effort made it clear that the group’s foremost concern was not, as purported, the  “religious benefit” of the former slaves.

The defeat of the Sewanee Canon was not indicative of the Church’s change of heart or warm embrace of its darker brothers and sisters, nor did it end the effort of the Church to segregate its black and white members. Beginning in the 1880’s, individual southern dioceses grouped black clergy and parishioners into separate “Colored Convocations” and appointed “Archdeacons for Colored Work” to provide supervision. These Convocations were set up as “parallel yet subordinate to” the Diocesan Convention. They were not allowed to elect their own Bishops, make their own rules, or send delegates to General Convention. And for their own Diocesan Conventions, representation was limited to a fixed number of persons–usually two clergy and two lay persons chosen by the Colored Convocation.

In an attempt to further placate but not empower its black members, the General Convention of 1907 approved the position of Suffragan Bishop, originally proposed by Bishop Gregg back in 1833, Two “Suffragans for Colored Work” were consecrated in 1918, Edward Thomas Demby in Tennessee and Henry Beard Delaney in North Carolina, but having no vote and little authority, no others were elected to this position.

Much of the struggle of the Church to reconcile its issues of race–issues of the drawing and re-drawing of jurisdictions, empowerment or the lack of it for African Americans,  controversies over how to deal with “colored work” in general could be summed up by the words of author and historian, J Carleton Hayden: “Most white Episcopalians were indifferent to the mission to blacks. They frankly did not want blacks in their churches, school, seminaries, charitable institutions, or legislative conventions. They felt that the Episcopal Church was ‘so closely identified with the Anglo-Saxon character’ that it was unsuitable for blacks…” Clearly, the efforts of the Church to address these issues has been and continues to be a work in progress.

African Americans who have maintained their love and loyalty to the Church in spite of its problematic history have done so, sometimes at great cost to themselves. They have faced challenges on two fronts: The challenge of maintaining their faith and dignity while worshipping alongside their white Brother and Sisters and the challenge of being rejected and, in some cases being considered traitorous, by their own people who have considered them suspect for choosing to belong to the Church of the “oppressor.”

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