Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Black Spiritual Defiance and the Politics of Slavery in Antebellum Louisville

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Black Spiritual Defiance and the Politics of Slavery in Antebellum Louisville

Article excerpt

AS THE FREEBORN WILLIAM H. GIBSON SR. TRAVELED FROM HIS NATIVE Baltimore, Maryland, to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1847, the "picturesque scenery" of the Allegheny Mountains and the Ohio River inspired his "imagination to reach out in wonder and amazement at the great and stupendous work of nature, and the possibility of these rocks and mountains fleeing away at the final consummation of all things." Migrating to Kentucky to advance the cause of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and to establish an elementary school for enslaved and free black children in Louisville, Gibson invested the unique beauty of the western landscape with religious significance. At the outset of his journey, Gibson also considered his migration a fulfillment of his youthful desire to move west, even though in Kentucky he remained in the slave South. Over time, the strains of living as a free African American in a slave state provoked Gibson in several instances to contemplate removal to safer havens, including Canada, but he elected to stay in Louisville in order to share "in the joys and sorrows of his people." To African Americans "imbued with the spirit of freedom," as Gibson was, the upper South city proved a crucial arena in which to loosen the grip of the "slaveholding power" in Kentucky during the antebellum years. (1)

Louisville also attracted free black migrants from the Deep South. Born in Georgia in 1802, the Reverend Henry Adams preached for several years in his native state and South Carolina before making Louisville his home and the headquarters for his ambitious denominational work on behalf of black Baptists. In his more than forty years as pastor of Louisville's first independent black church, known originally as First African Baptist Church, Adams enjoyed legendary success, converting an estimated ten thousand people to Christianity in his lifetime. "Verily he was a lover of his people," observed the Reverend Charles Parrish, Louisville's most prominent black minister in the early twentieth century. Adams had the opportunity and financial wherewithal to leave the South: he married a free black woman from Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1842 and might have agreed to serve any number of northern black Baptist churches. But he decided, as had William Gibson, to remain in Louisville through the course of his career "for the cause's sake." Adams nurtured black Baptist congregations throughout the region and raised up a powerful organizational base ready to assist African Americans in the transition from freedom to slavery. In 1865 his Louisville church hosted the formation of the State Convention of Colored Baptists in Kentucky, the first such organization in the American South, and First African Baptist Church would later be celebrated as the "mother church" of the state's black Baptist movement. (2)

Why did Louisville--where one could regularly witness "wrenching scenes" of slaves being sold for transport to the Deep South--attract such ambitious southern-born free men as Gibson and Adams, and why, especially, did these deeply religious figures view the upper South city as so conducive to blacks' spiritual growth and autonomy during a period of intense white scrutiny of black religious activities? In the 1840s, black evangelicals and missionaries like Gibson and Adams deemed the city critical to expanding the number of black southern churches entirely independent of white ecclesiastical oversight. Supporting schools and missions both within and beyond the city limits, the independent churches established by Gibson and Adams brought a powerful message of uplift and liberation to Kentucky's enslaved and free black population. Their achievements, undertaken while most white evangelicals and civil authorities viewed organized black meetings of any sort with suspicion, if not outright hostility, are profoundly significant but not unique to Louisville or the upper South during the antebellum decades. Especially in urban settings, southern black Protestants carved out spaces for congregational worship and community life largely beyond the purview of whites, even under the "ubiquitous surveillance" of the period after Nat Turner's 1831 rebellion in Virginia. …

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