African Americans possessed a deep and abiding belief in Christianity. But during slavery, they had to mute expressions of their faith. They had to worship in secret, often in brush arbors, well after nightfall. The third and final verse of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, considered the ‘national anthem’ of Black America, is all about faith.
Formation of Churches
The Day of Jubilee heralded a new beginning. African Americans seized the moment and formed churches of their own to praise God as they saw fit. Free Blacks in Southern cities also started their own churches.
The post-emancipation Black churches were more than religious institutions; they were hubs of Black life. African Americans gathered on Sundays for regular church service, and throughout the week for religious ceremonies, social events, and political meetings. As autonomous Black spaces, they allowed African Americans to worship, socialize, and discuss racial matters, free of white interference. Black churches also formalized social networks of kith and kin, extending the culture of familial reciprocity to the broader Black community, which proved pivotal to Black survival.
Benjamin ‘Pap’ Singleton
The late 19th century had its own Black prophets, men and women committed to leading Black people to a new Promised Land. Benjamin ‘Pap’ Singleton was one of those prophets.
Singleton was born into bondage in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1809, but escaped to freedom when he was 37 years old. After the Civil War, he returned to Tennessee. But sharecropping and Klan violence following Reconstruction’s collapse made life in the South for the independent-minded Singleton untenable. So, he endeavored to leave again, but this time, he would not go alone.
Kansas, where the radical abolitionist John Brown had waged war against enslavers, caught Singleton’s eye as a place to relocate. In 1877, Singleton left for Kansas, followed by some 300 African Americans over the next two years. Their success, measured in part by their ability to acquire land and live free of racial terror, prompted nearly 20,000 African Americans to move to Kansas in 1879 and 1880. These ‘Exodusters’—a name inspired by the Old Testament—had far fewer resources than the initial group, and struggled mightily just to survive. But with the aid of relief organizations, they managed to carve out meaningful and productive lives.
Singleton gloried in their collective accomplishment. The independent communities that they built and sustained fulfilled his vision for a Black Canaan. The ‘Father of the Negro Exodus’ died in 1900, but emigration sentiment did not die with him. It remained a strong ideological current in the African American community.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Politics of Respectability
However, no matter where African Americans chose to call home, faith was necessary to guide them in the struggle against white supremacy. For members of the Black middle class, it was just as important for African Americans to combat worldly vices, which they said undermined efforts to project an image of conformity to white standards of appearance and behavior.
This was the politics of respectability, which many members of the Black middle class, including James W. Johnson, championed. In ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, Johnson wrote:
Lest our feet, stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
The politics of respectability was a form of resistance, a way to combat the debilitating negative stereotypes about African Americans that abounded. But it was also limiting, especially for Black women, because it narrowly defined their roles in life, curbing what they could do and who they could be.
Despite its drawbacks, many Black middle-class women promoted the politics of respectability through the benevolent societies to which they belonged. In the 1890s, Black women’s clubs proliferated, focusing on all manner of social ills plaguing Black communities, from health and sanitation to education and racial violence.
National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs
One of the most effective was the Neighborhood Union in Atlanta, Georgia, led by Lugenia Burns Hope, whose husband, John Hope, was the first African American president of all-Black, all-male Morehouse College. He was installed in 1906, when Morehouse was still called Atlanta Baptist Seminary. But Black women’s clubs were also vehicles for direct political engagement. Many organized to secure voting rights for Black women.
In 1896, Black women formed the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, an umbrella organization that facilitated the exchange of ideas and coordinated activities among them. Embracing the motto ‘Lifting as We Climb’, the association helped uplift African Americans by promoting a culture of service and racial excellence.
Among the many women who served the Black community through the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs were Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Maggie Lena Walker.
Invocation for Black Consciousness
‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ ends by drawing faith and hope together: the faith that continuing to walk with God would lead African Americans to Canaan land, and the hope that African Americans would not falter in their religious beliefs, no matter how desperate life became in Egypt land.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand;
True to our God,
True to our native land.
The very last line of the song, ‘True to our native land’, is about neither faith nor hope. It is instead about Black consciousness. Harkening back to the call for collective action with which the song begins, the last line invokes Africa, the native land from which African Americans had been stolen.
The invocation, though, was as much about looking forward as it was about looking back, because the struggle to defeat Jim Crow required racial solidarity. To secure their freedom rights, African Americans had to close ranks and rally around their racial identity. That which had been used to oppress them would liberate them.
Common Questions about Faith and Hope in ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’
At the Black churches, the African Americans gathered on Sundays for regular church service, and throughout the week for religious ceremonies, social events, and political meetings. As autonomous Black spaces, the churches allowed African Americans to worship, socialize, and discuss racial matters, free of white interference.
In 1877, Benjamin Singleton left for Kansas, followed by some 300 African Americans over the next two years. Their success, measured in part by their ability to acquire land and live free of racial terror, prompted nearly 20,000 African Americans to move to Kansas in 1879 and 1880.
The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs‘ motto was ‘Lifting as We Climb’. The association helped uplift African Americans by promoting a culture of service and racial excellence.