African American/Black Places of Worship in Boston

For African Americans, the social atmosphere of nineteenth-century Boston was rife with segregation and/or outright exclusion. Trains, entertainment halls, hospitals, social societies, and even churches--where brotherhood and kinship were meant to abound--operated on racialized policies that forced the black community to rely upon their own resources for a sense of community. Black churches functioned not only spiritual gathering places for an otherwise isolated demographic, but also as community-building centers that helped to define a black identity within the urban context. Though the African American discourses  of the period suggest that white culture and the “ideology of whiteness” that prospered in early nineteenth-century New England functioned as a constraint on everyday life, it did not in any way influence the "black Bostonian" experience.

 

(Why) are black churches so important?

Scholar George Levesque begins his section on African American places of worship with this simple yet essential statement: “A community’s ‘sense of community,’ the distinctive ethos or culture it evolves, is powerfully influenced by religion and other belief systems.” By 1848, the black population of Boston, numbering barely 2,000 people, supported no fewer than four black churches--two Baptist and two Methodist. Some questioned the necessity of their existence, terming their establishment a form of “self-segregation.” William Watkins, an African American writer for The Liberator, claimed that  “There is no justification for our worshipping God exclusively under our own vine and fig tree’ when ‘churches in which we can unite and worship God as men and brethren are thrown wide open for our reception...’ He called such institutions either a “tacit acknowledgement” that blacks believed in their own  ‘innate inferiority’ or that they willingly accepted the principle of exclusiveness based on race. Others claimed that black houses of worship served as asylums for an affronted people. This exhibit seeks to determine what function, if any, black churches served in the nineteenth century, both for the African American and larger Bostonian populations of the period, using the relationship between the First Baptist Church and the African Baptist Church as a case study.

 

What do we know about the development of black churches?

Unsurprisingly, black churches were most often established in areas with a high African American population. One such area (the biggest in the city during the 1800s) was the North Slope of Beacon Hill (see “Beacon Hill”). Residential segregation based on economic segregation was prominent, so there were only a few neighborhoods in which African Americans tended to live.

Black churches began cropping up long before blacks began to establish any other kind of exclusive institution, and often functioned dually as centers for worship and community. In other words, the black church was much more than simply a religious institution.



What do we know about racial discrimination in non-black churches?

There is no doubt that segregation existed in nineteenth-century Boston, and churches were no exception. One incident goes as follows: “In 1830 a Boston Negro, Frederick Brinsley, acquired a white churchgoer’s pew at the Park Street Church in payment for a debt. Unsuccessful in trying to sell the pew, Brinsley and his family attended services a number of weeks running, occupying the newly acquired pew--despite the existence of designated ‘Nigger Pews’ in the Church’s upper level. For this breach of policy, a church committee warned Brinsley “not to occupy any pew on the lower floor…” or ‘you will hazard the consequences.’ Undeterred by the threat Brinsley returned to the church only to find a constable, employed by the church committee, stationed at the pew door, after which he made no further efforts to exercise his right over his own property.” (Horton 40). However, aside from segregated pews, such overt racism was relatively rare in white churches. This makes a desire for equality among the black community unlikely as the only reason for the establishment of black churches, but was probably a contributor--after all, if even the church, a supposedly moral institution, could not treat its members equally, how could blacks expect equal treatment in any other sector?

We also know that many African American members of early churches maintained contact after beginning to attend to black churches, including members of the black clergy. This is discussed in more detail in subsequent pages of this exhibit.

 

Credits

by Imogen Rosenbluth