The African American Church Community in Rochester, New York, 1900-1940

Article excerpt

The African American Church Community in Rochester, New York, 1900-1940.

The first four decades of the Twentieth Century have been traversed by so many historians that the characteristics of the Age have a familiar ring - Industrial Growth, Migration, Social Reform Movements, the Great Depression, World Wars I and II. African American history also offers additional themes which are becoming increasingly familiar to students of American history - the Jazz Age, the Harlem Renaissance, the battles against lynching and legal segregation in the South, and against job and housing discrimination in America. Somewhat surprisingly, the Black Christian Church is not yet part of popular history even though the church has been the most well-established institution in the African American community since the Eighteenth Century.

In The African American Church Community in Rochester, New York, 1900-1940, Ingrid Overacker, a European American (p. 197), launches an exploration of an unfamiliar piece of local history against the familiar backdrop of the first forty years of this century. However, to say this is a historical exercise is to miss the point. The book is more accurately an explanation of the rootedness of the church in the black community. Overacker wants to show how church leaders provided the "institutional setting, theological understanding, and spiritual support." (p. 46) She wants to offer proof of a determined use of theology to assist the black community in keeping the goal in sight. That goal was to "crack racial barriers to traditional avenues of attainments" and "develop strategies of generational advancement." (p. 63)

It is not easy to write about liberation theology when the models for the exercise - James Cone, For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church (1984), and Gayraud Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism (1972) see the church at its accommodationist best in the decades covered by Overacker. It would have been a more straightforward exercise had Overacker opted to write a socio-political treatise of Afro-Rochester, 1900-1940. Yet the book Overacker does write is an attempt to re-appraise black church leadership in the early decades of the Twentieth Century by using Rochester as a case in point. It is an ambitious enterprise which, unfortunately, is still a work in progress.

In 1900, there were 601 blacks in Rochester out of a total population of 170,000. By 1920, the Rochester population had doubled; and in 1940, in a city of 324,975 residents, blacks numbered 3,262, or approximately 1 percent of the total population of Rochester.

In nearby Buffalo, the black population grew rapidly under the impetus of labor needs in the steel industry there. In Rochester, the economy dominated by George Eastman's Kodak Company was determinedly against the hiring of black Americans in any capacity. In nearby Buffalo, according to Ralph Watkins in "The Marcus Garvey Movement in Buffalo, New York" (Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol. I, No. 1, January 1977), secular meetings were held in the black churches because of "an absence of alternative facilities," and it was this secular circumstance which "increased the importance of the church and the influence of black ministers," an influence which extended "beyond church matters to include political and economic activities." Watkins claimed that the black clergy used their hold over the meeting place to crush the Garvey movement because Garvey had described them as failures. In Overacker's Study of Rochester, the black clergy are not motivated by such base impulses. Clearly, the circumstances which Overacker ascribes to the Rochester black faith community may not even find a pattern of similarity in nearby Buffalo. And it is arguable that if the case of a theology-based determinism holds true for the black clergy in Rochester, Overacker's study may still remain a peculiar case of circumstances attached only to those people and events in Rochester, New York, from 1900 to 1940. …