Southern white Christians and Race in Reconstruction Richmond

This is called “Rethinking Moral and Religious Education in Reconstruction Richmond”—which is a terrible title for a public talk—and I delivered it today as part of the American Civil War Museum’s Civil War and Emancipation Day program. This represents some preliminary thoughts I’m trying to bring together for a side project, and I’m aware that it’s covering ground that folks like Luke Harlow and others have already trod, and that it’s rather undeveloped at this point, but I thought I’d share it anyhow.

1866. Just two weeks after the enormous Evacuation Day parade in Richmond that saw thousands of African Americans assert their claims to citizenship, Episcopal Bishop John Johns addressed the Diocese of Virginia as it faced the post-emancipation world. Regarding freedpeople, Bishop Johns reported, “the interest for their religious welfare, which has almost been hereditary among Christians at the South, will allow no decline under the changed relations which have occurred, but rise with the occasion, and prove itself intellectually and piously adequate to the emergency.” What Bishop Johns is saying is that while everything had changed, nothing had changed.

I want to look inside of this slight paradox—slavery had ended but things wouldn’t change—by looking at the ways white Christians in the aftermath of emancipation talked about education; religious education in particular. In what they said you can begin to see how the larger white south fundamentally understood what emancipation meant to them, why Reconstruction was so important in the process of defining freedom, and how white Christians changed their understanding of race relations for the generations to come.

At the heart of Johns’ boast in 1866 was the way white Christians thought about the relationship between white and black people, and to understand that we have to go back before the Civil War because it’s deeply rooted in proslavery theology. They considered the relationship a “sacred obligation.” Each race had a responsibility to the other. In theory, whites governed and guided blacks, and blacks served whites. The goal, in white Christian theological thinking, was the shepherding of the African race to Christianity. Thomas Castleman, in Plain Sermons for Servants, wrote that it is “the indispensable obligation [that] every master and mistress lies under, of bringing up their slaves in the knowledge and fear of Almighty God.”

Denominations created initiatives they called “Religious Instruction for the Colored People”—or, Mission to the Slaves—by which they raised money for Sunday Schools for the enslaved and paid Sunday School teachers, hired missionaries to preach to slaves, and published sermons to be read to enslaved blacks, and sermons for white masters that exhorted them to pray with their slaves, to bring them to church—or allow them to attend another church. Richmond had numerous Sunday Schools for slave and free black students in white churches. St. James Episcopal, for instance, reported ten teachers and 200 black students in 1854. This is what Johns meant when referred to the “hereditary interest.” Protestant Sunday Schools, of course, had at their heart the study of salvation, but they simultaneously offered reading lessons to white students and dressmaking skills to poor girls. Protestants saw a direct connection between morality and education, and were in fact, some of the loudest promoters of free public education before the war in a way that blurred the distinction between religious and secular learning.

For white Christians, Religious Instruction of the Colored People defined the meaning, and benefits, of slavery. Black people stood outside of society in an inequality ordained by God because if made free, white people alleged, black people would either kill all white people in an orgy of violence, or die off from sheer incompetence. The greatest sin would be to allow either tragedy to come to pass by actually freeing slaves and so white Christians condemned abolitionists for desiring those outcomes. White Christians then defined slavery not as a tool for economic gain, nor as a means of political dominance, but as a sacred obligation given them by God. When Johns declared “the emergency” in 1866 he believed that this had happened, and that it was a spiritual disaster as much as a social one.

Between emancipation and 1867, blacks’ status remained unresolved. Were they citizens with political rights and obligations? Were they no better than slaves without the legal sanction of slave laws? Bishop Johns’ appeal to the sacred obligation in his 1866 address assumed that—no—blacks still required guidance. While Richmond’s city government, composed entirely of ex Rebels, worked hard to suppress black aspirations in 1865 and 1866, freedpeople looked to education as a claim to citizenship, equal rights, and autonomy. James Hunnicut, the speaker at the Evacuation Day parade in 1866 told the crowd, “Only six years ago it was a crime under the laws of Virginia to teach a colored man to read and write: now you have schools and school marms! Work and work steady, and then, indeed, you can command respect and position. With education you may become creditable doctors, lawyers, skilled mechanics, or clergymen, and without it you will be nothing.”

Yet neither the state nor the city had a system of public schools. So churches and religious people combined with the Federal government filled the gap. But these were not southern white churches and religious people. The Freedman’s Bureau operated schools around Richmond, at places like Chimborazo, and in 1867 opened the Richmond Colored High and Normal School. Northern religious groups like the Quakers and the American Missionary Association supplied teachers, and they worked in close cooperation with black churches. New Englander Lucy Chase, perhaps the most famous, noted that within a month of the liberation of Richmond, “more than one thousand children and seventy-five adults” crowded into her Sunday School at First African Baptist. Even the national Episcopal Church dispatched teachers to operate a school at St. Philips, the black Episcopal Church in Richmond that had once been supplied by Virginia’s Diocesan Missionary Society.

These efforts by Freedman’s Bureau officials, and northern Episcopalians irritated Bishop Johns because these were the very abolitionists who had advocated violating the sacred obligation that protected blacks in slavery. Supervision by northern whites would lead freedpeople to make inappropriate demands like citizenship and political equity. Johns urged the Diocese of Virginia to act to further educate black people, with the expectation that local white people should take up the task, or take it up again, as they had before the war. The Diocese established the Select Committee for the Religious Instruction of the Colored People (and it’s telling that that’s the same name as the committee they had established during slavery.)

I’ve referred Episcopal churches, but two other Protestant denominations—the Baptists and the Methodists—understood education in a different context. The Episcopal Church never had many enrolled black members (a fact which deeply troubled Episcopal clergy) but the Methodists and Baptists had thousands, in white churches and separate black congregations overseen by white clergy. After Emancipation, freedpeople rapidly departed the white churches they had been compelled to attend, and established their own congregations. This mass-outmigration troubled some whites, but not others. The Methodists, for instance, were furious. Without southern white religious instruction of blacks, blacks risked grave theological error. “Various causes have led many, who were once ‘of us,’ into other communions, and they are now served by strange pastors, with whose modes of thinking and acting neither we nor their flocks have been familiar.” Virginia’s Methodist conference proposed creating a separate colored conference that would allow black Methodists to congregate together with black clergy but under white theological supervision. But the Methodists in these years never seriously proposed an education outreach to freedpeople and quickly moved to devote their educational efforts to the development of Randolph Macon College and the raising up of white ministers.

Where Methodists desperately wanted the return of blacks to their supervision, Baptists really didn’t care. It’s not a matter of disinterest—it’s a matter of Baptist congregational polity—Baptists prioritized congregational authority, didn’t worry too much about hierarchy, and happily allowed a great deal of autonomy in separate black congregations before the war, most notably at First African Baptist and Emmanuel Baptist here in Richmond.

In 1866 the Baptist General Convention made the most radical statement in regard to education of freedpeople. “The policy of a former state of things, which prevented their literary instruction, having ceased, the prejudices of the community should also cease, and wherever practicable and agreeable, common schools, taught by white persons of the South, for their special and separate instruction, should be favored.” The Baptists advocated not just Sunday School instruction, but general public school instruction for black people as well. It was conditional—upon segregated instruction—but it was more than any other Protestants had thought possible. At the same time the Baptists did endorse a program for Religious Instruction for Colored People in Sunday Schools and even in the late 1860s, after the Episcopalians and Methodists had lost interest in the endeavor, the Baptists continued to assign their State Mission Board block grants for books and teachers in African American Sunday Schools.

Now… Despite all their language, and compared to the efforts of the Freedman’s Bureau, northern missionaries, and Richmond black churches, Richmond’s white Christians didn’t actually do much. Few Sunday Schools formed and few black Christians remained in or returned to white congregations. By the late 1860s—within four years of emancipation and Bishop Johns’ call to redouble efforts to instruct freedpeople—Richmond’s white Christians ceased talking about it at all.

Then why am I talking about a thing that didn’t happen? Because what is happening here is a great picture of how white Christians adapted theological conviction to changing material contexts—of conforming belief to reality—and how white people reacted to the failure of one justification for slavery, and began to rationalize new reasons to support white supremacy.

What caused this change? Many things, but I’ll point to just three.

The state constitution adopted in 1867 provided for public schools, and Richmond established a public school system in 1869, relieving federal and ecumenical groups of that responsibility.

The 14th Amendment conferred citizenship upon freedpeople, finally establishing them as full members of political society.

And despite the desires of white Christians, blacks absolutely did not return to white churches. White Christians could have deluded themselves about blacks upholding their end of the sacred obligation during slavery, but black defiance after the war, proved it was a lie. (But that didn’t stop white Christians from telling themselves otherwise.)

This realization of loss didn’t happen in 1864 when some Confederates began to disavow slavery as a reason to fight; it didn’t happen in 1865 when emancipation by force of arms happened. It slowly occurred by 1870 under the weight of post-war reality.

You can see this slow realization in the words they used in the late 1860s. The Methodists confessed that “We cannot overlook the fact that these people are among us, a part of our society, and, in contact with them we shall be brought daily, it may be for some time to come.” Baptists said, “That we regard the religious instruction and improvement of the colored people of essential importance to the interests of society, as well as to the welfare of their own souls…” These were admissions that divine inequality had failed as a concept, and that religious sanction and religious instruction could hold blacks outside of public life.

The move toward viewing freedpeople as part of “society,” required a different set of ideological tools to maintain white supremacy.

The Episcopalians, by the turn of the 1870s, continued a few Sunday Schools for African Americans, but had largely stopped promoting religious education of blacks by whites. But these things in churches go in waves, and after the Readjuster tumult, they began advocating for African American education again in the 1880s.

Their language, as always, was cloaked in religious racial paternalism—we white people have an obligation to provide for our inferiors. But the underlying justification had changed. Gone was the individual imperative to mentor blacks in salvation. Gone was the ecclesial desire for blacks to come to white churches.

When Assistant Bishop Alfred Randolph addressed the diocese in very passionate ways on behalf of equitable public and moral education for African Americans in 1886, he did so in the language not of religion, but of the emerging Gilded Age disciplines of political economy and evolutionary science.

“If I were a politician I would advocate the Christian education of the colored population, as the strongest ground for the stability of our political institutions…As a political economist I would advocate the evangelizing of the race, as contributing to national wealth and material prosperity.” Randolph continued, “Those faculties of steady purpose and will and openness to ideas, which have trained us to deal with the formal and complex relations of government through centuries of discipline, he [the black man] has had no opportunity to develop.”

Randolph argued for greater public and moral education because African Americans needed access to better resources in order to prosper—and that was good for society all around. But Randolph drew from evolutionary science to suggest that black inequity was real because blacks lacked the capacity, acquired by whites over a thousand years of experience, for self-government and intellectual achievement. This view, sanctioned by religious leaders like Randolph, helped white Christians move from a desire to save black souls to a desire to lock them out of social and political circles. It led to the political structure of Jim Crow built in the 1890s and enshrined in the 1902 Constitution, and to Virginia’s pseudo-scientific Racial Integrity Laws of the 1920s.

So, Bishop Johns was right. Everything had changed, but everything remained the same.

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