Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Charles Octavius Boothe: An Alabama Apostle of "Uplift."

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Charles Octavius Boothe: An Alabama Apostle of "Uplift."

Article excerpt

Historians have generally agreed that African-American churches played a critical role in the emergence of a cohesive community of black folk after the Civil War. In addition to their spiritual thrusts, churches operated schools, provided social services, and served as the fulcrum for former slaves' learning new skills and becoming better able to meet threats from a white society that feared unshackled African-Americans. Women and preachers performed most of the actual labor and exhorting, working for and calling on their race to "uplift" itself. Until the end of the 19th century, many black church leaders even argued that a higher moral standard and a greater display of industry by African Americans would actually mitigate white racism. Among black evangelicals in Alabama, Charles Octavius Boothe (1845-1924) stands as an example of a preacher dedicated to meeting the needs of his people and helping them to improve their faculties for confronting a hostile secular world.(1)

Preachers like Boothe have not lacked critics. Often labeled "accomodationists," such pastors believed whites would treat blacks better if blacks behaved better, an assumption about white racism that events have discredited. Black parsons, thus, did not directly resist the tightening "Jim Crow" practices after Reconstruction sternly enough to satisfy many modern observers, as often they advised their parishioners to worry about the status of their souls instead of their status in society. One does well to remember that evangelical preachers have an otherworldly focus by virtue of their religious beliefs. Boothe offers no exception to this pattern. Yet he crusaded vigorously for his people to help themselves in this life and was not unwilling to challenge corrupt practices by the white power structure. Besides, much of his public career occurred before legal disfranchisement in Alabama and his own velitations with the white power structure proved amiable, not adversarial, more often than not.(2)

Boothe was born into slavery on June 13, 1845, in Mobile County, Alabama, and was legally the property of Nathan Howard. Boothe's great-grandmother had been born in Africa, his grandmother in Virginia, his mother in Georgia. Boothe made no mention of his father, whose identity he may not have known. His grandfather, though, was "pure African, who had not only learned to read the Bible and hymn-book," but taught others how to sing. Among Boothe's earliest recollections was a "Baptist church" near his home "where white and colored people sat together to commune and to wash each other's feet."(3)

Slave children received no formal schooling, but the precocious Boothe learned the alphabet from letters stamped on a tin plate. Transferred to the custody of Nathan Howard, Jr., six-year-old Boothe also learned "life's sterner facts," the harsh realities of slavery. Some schoolteachers apparently boarded with the Howards, and the residence was filled with books. In this environment, Boothe soon learned to read and write "fairly well." He heard whites reading the Bible and "began to read it for myself." Despite this religious influence, Boothe did not convert to Christianity until after the Civil War had ended, and he was not baptized until 1866.(4)

Boothe's experience with slavery seems less harsh than those recorded in more famous accounts. In part, his remembrance reflected his youth. Young boys did not go to the fields, as a rule, and when Boothe did become old enough to work, he worked as an office boy for Colonel James S. Terrel, an attorney whose brother was a judge in nearby Clarke County, Alabama. A house slave, Boothe actually read law books in Terrel's office. He later mused, "I think I can say that the colonel and I actually loved each other."(5)

Boothe knew as well as anyone that a loosely shackled slave remained a slave nonetheless and that the comparatively mild treatment he received at the hands of his captors did not make him an apologist for the institution after emancipation. …

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