Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"On the Shore beyond the Sea": Black Missionaries from Arkansas in Africa during the 1890s

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"On the Shore beyond the Sea": Black Missionaries from Arkansas in Africa during the 1890s

Article excerpt

A WAVE OF INTENSE INTEREST in the continent of Africa swept through black communities across Arkansas in the 1890s. In black neighborhoods from Marianna to Fort Smith, from Osceola to Texarkana, people dreamed of Africa. As Arkansas's General Assembly wrote disfranchisement and Jim Crow segregation laws in the early 1890s, thousands of African Americans pinned their hopes on return to an ancestral homeland. They sold possessions and pooled their money, forming African exodus clubs in order to emigrate to Liberia, the black republic in West Africa founded by descendants of American slaves. Of the 815 known African-American emigrants to Liberia in the 1890s, more than half left from Arkansas, far more than from any other state.1

By inspiring a broad and deep identification with an African homeland, the emigration movement directly contributed to black efforts to establish Christian missions to the continent. Many people who did not wish actually to emigrate, or who could not, instead organized missionary societies and raised money for African missions. Several clergy and lay folk offered themselves as missionary workers, and about a dozen black Arkansans and their families actually crossed the Atlantic to win over the "dark" continent for Jesus Christ and western-style civilization. They would represent nearly a quarter of all known black missionaries who went to Africa from the United States during that decade. As race oppression in Arkansas reached its worst point in the 1890s, mission work provided black men and women with the opportunity for lives of leadership and dignity in an all-- black world.

The Arkansas missionaries left for Africa just as the missionary movement worldwide was getting into full swing. The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw an explosion of Christian missionary work around the world. As Europeans staked out empires in Africa and Asia and the United States collected territories in the Pacific region, missionaries followed colonial administrators and traders to the far corners of the planet. The number of Christian missionaries in foreign lands increased from around 2,000 in 1876 to more than 15,000 by the end of the century.2 After the Berlin Congress of 1884-85 established international ground rules for the claiming and development of colonies in Africa, that continent emerged as an especially ripe field for the Christian harvest. Several white-majority denominations in the late nineteenth century had tried to recruit black missionaries, laboring under the delusion that black Americans were better suited than whites for the tropical climate and disease environment of Africa and could more easily evangelize people of their own color. By the 1870s, several black missionaries had served in Africa on behalf of mostly white denominations, most famously Alexander Crummell, who worked for twenty years as an Episcopal missionary in Liberia.3

By the 1880s, black churches, too, became interested in African missions, although they lacked the financial resources of white denominations. Several black clergymen had emigrated to Liberia in the 1870s and 1880s and organized congregations among the American settlers there. Apparently, they made few overtures toward native African populations. Some of the earliest of these stirrings of interest in evangelizing Africa came among the Baptists. Black Baptist leaders from several states, including three delegates from Arkansas, had met in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1880 to establish the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, which managed to send a few missionaries to Liberia in the following decade. In 1886, some pastors from Arkansas attended a Baptist Foreign Mission Convention in Memphis where they heard three returned missionaries speak about their experiences. The Reverend Elias C. Morris of Helena, the president of the state Baptist association, reported that the missionaries also brought "one of the little heathen boys, which made it still more interesting to be there. …

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