The African American Church
No pillar of the African American community has been more central to its history and identity than the “African American Church.” For African Americans, the church was more than a place of worship. Since its birth, it has stood as the foundation for religious, political, economic and social life. Its leaders throughout history have played a powerful role in the collective struggle for freedom, hope and equality.
With language, music and symbols all its own, the African American Church served as a refuge from racial oppression. A cultural history was summoned, preserved and reinvented every Sunday in a community where African Americans could advance their aspirations; they could sing, pray and shout out their frustrations.
The African American Church had very distinct forms of expression, maybe most obvious in its forms of music. African American sacred music (songs of the enslaved), African American versions of protestant hymns and gospel music are songs that captivate a broader, nonsectarian audience and influence almost every genre of 20th century popular music. Many of the most legendary artists to emerge from the African American Church include: Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Jennifer Hudson and Whitney Houston.
By the late 18th century, African American people began to take more authority over their religious affairs because of racism and exclusion in white congregations. African Americans started to congregate in self-help and benevolent associations called Free African Societies. These societies gave rise to many independent African American churches across the country.
The African American Church has influenced nearly every chapter of the African American story. It has played a pivotal role in the social and political transformation of African Americans. During slavery, the church organized slave rebellions, nurtured and sustained the Underground Railroad, and was the training ground for orators in the abolitionist movement. In Reconstruction it powered anti-lynching campaigns, economic boycotts, and formed a foundation and meeting place for the Civil Rights Movement.
Rooted in the fundamental belief of equality between African Americans and whites, human dignity, and social and political freedom, the African American Church, and the religion practiced within its walls, was the engine behind the drive for social change in America. The Abolitionist Movement, the various phases of Jim Crow, and voting rights are all issues that have been the focus of the African American church.
For an informative and entertaining experience, we recommend the PBS documentary: “The Black Church: This Is Our Story. This Is Our Song," hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.