Detroit and the Great Migration 1916-1929, by Elizabeth Anne Martin

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Religion, "the most, influential institution ill Negro life in the South," [1] was equally important in the lives of African-American migrants in the North. Alone as they were in a strange city, newcomers to Detroit sought the familiar comfort of God, the One they did not leave behind in the South. When others ignored, mocked, censured, or harassed the migrant, he could turn to the open arms of the church, "the most frequented institution in the social life of the Negro population of Detroit. It is to the church the Negro can go with the greatest assurance of being courteously received. He has been humiliated in so many public and privately owned institutions and amusement places that he has resorted to the church as a place in which he can be sure of peacefully spending his leisure time" [2]. Churches, in addition to Sunday services, conducted social activities almost every day of the week, including suppers, lectures, plays, recitals, debates, and more [3]. The sense of community provided by religious worship and church socials comforted migrants who were initially intimidated by the big, impersonal city.

Before 1916 there were only nine Black churches in Detroit [4]. African-American Methodism was the largest denomination, and Baptists were the second largest. St. Matthew's Episcopal Church was the only Black Episcopalian church. Only 10 percent of the Black population of Detroit belonged to St. Matthew's, but almost all of the wealthiest Blacks in the city were members of the congregation [5].

St. Matthew's, interior

St. Matthew's. From the St. Matthew's and St. Joseph's Episcopal
Church Records, Box 3, Bentley Historical Library

The composition of Detroit's religious community began to change when rural laborers came to the city. During the migration, Baptist replaced African Methodism as the largest faith. Southern Blacks typically felt alienated by the less fundamental Episcopal and Methodist services [6]. By 1926 a full 65 percent of all African-American churchgoers were Baptists [7]. The services at Baptist churches were, however, too staid for some migrants. They wanted to escape earthly problems in church, not be reminded of them in sermons addressing secular topics such as health and the work ethic [8]. Many newcomers, moreover, thought that some of the larger churches had "given them the cold shoulder instead of the warm welcome which is supposed to be due every applicant for membership, irrespective of his social standing [9].

For solace they could not find in the "stable" churches,[10] migrants often turned to "storefront" and "spiritualistic" churches. "Storefronts" outnumbered all other types of churches in Detroit in the 1920s [11]. Often, pastors seeking greater personal power, or congregation members seeking a different style of worship, separated front larger congregations to form these new churches [12]. Located in storefronts. private homes, vacant lots and other unusual places, the new congregations had such unusual names as "Fire Baptized Holiness Church" and "White Horse and Rider's Church."[13] Services involved a large amount of wailing, moaning, and fainting, which seemed to appeal to the mostly poor, uneducated, and recently arrived female membership [14].

Brotherhood of St. Andrew St. Matthews Episcopal Church, Detroit, Mich.

From the St. Matthew's and St. Joseph's Episcopal Church
Records, Box 3, Bentley Historical Library

Black community leaders deplored this type of worship, condemning the "general impression among [the migrants] that shouting, dancing hither and thither, groaning, howling. crying, protracted prayers, frantic embracing, the waving of handkerchicfs, groveling on the floor, the throwing up of arms and similar "hysterical" outbursts are the sole means of expressing devotion to God [15]. African-American elites also expressed concern that some pastors sexually exploited their predominantly female congregations. They attacked the predominantly southern-born pastors for their lack of education and lamented that "they [did] more to retard the progress of Negroes than anything else [16]. Black elites also criticized "spiritualistic" churches. Spiritualistic worship centered around the notion that communication with the dead was both possible and necessary. Services included seances. palm readings, and the like. Almost all the leaders and members of these sects were unemployed women from the South. In fact, 67 percent of all spiritualistic believers in Detroit carne from only four southern states--Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Kentucky [17].

Despite the prevalence of storefront and spiritualistic churches, almost forty-five thousand of the approximately eighty thousand Blacks living in Detroit in 1926 belonged to one of the "stable" churches [18]. Since seating in these churches could accommodate only about half as many people as wished to come there, many new churches were formed to accommodate the overflow of worshippers [19]. Other churches were established to provide places of worship for those whose faiths were not represented in Detroit before the migration. In this manner, the number of "stable" churches grew from nine in 1914 to forty-four in 1926 [20].

St. John's Presbyterian Church was among the new congregations formed because of the migration. In the winter of 1917 Reverend J.W. Lee, "field secretary for church extension among colored people in the North," came to Detroit hoping to establish a Presbyterian church. He was disturbed by the fact that many migrants of the Presbyterian faith had turned to other denominations because there were no Presbyterian churches in Detroit. In April 1919 Lee organized thirty-nine believers into a new congregation. He served as pastor until 1921, when he recruited a southern preacher front Alabama to take his place. By 1925 the Sunday services at St. John's were so popular that some people arrived as much as three hours early in order to secure seats. Hundreds of persons had to be turned away at both Sunday and weekday services [21].

Finding room for new members was also a concern of leaders of the largest established denomination, the Baptists. Thirty thousand Black Detroiters (more than a third of the entire Black population in the city in 1925) followed the Baptist faith [22]. Second Baptist Church, the largest African-American congregation in the city, grew steadily in membership during the migration years. From three hunched members in 1910, the church grew to three thousand by the end of the 1920s[23]. Long-time church members made an effort to give "the Negro new-comer the spiritual and moral buttress necessary to make [him] a steady, reliable and contented working man and law-abiding citizen" [24]. Robert L. Bradby, pastor from 1910 to 1946 dedicated himself to helping migrants. He began by greeting all inbound trains and offering migrants the services of Second Baptist. When the task proved too much for one man, he appointed a committee to assist him [25].

Baptist leaders of several Detroit congregations met in 1920 "to compare ideas on the course Detroit Baptists should take in view, of the large number of people arriving in the city." They decided to establish an auxiliary to the Detroit Baptist Union to provide religious, educational and financial aid for African-American migrants [26].

Another Black congregation, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, had to open up at lecture room to handle the multitudes of worshippers who began arriving in 1916 [27]. In 1922 the church purchased a larger site to accommodate the increase in its membership [28]. Bethel's Sunday school, the largest African-American Sunday school in the state became so large that teachers had to divide classes by grades in 1926 [29].

[click on image to see larger view]
schedule from the Second Baptist Church Records

From the Second Baptist Church Records,
Reel 3, Bentley Historical Library

In order to meet growing needs of communicants during the migration, Bethel's social service department greatly expanded the services it had been providing since 1911 [30]. Volunteers helped provide food, clothing, and some monetary relief for destitute migrants. Other church organizations instructed migrants in "proper" living habits. A few members of the church belonged to the Detroit Conference Women's Home Missionary Society, which established the "Detroit Friendship Home" as a refuge For young African-American working women who arrived in the city without families [31].

Few lower class migrants sought refuge at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church because of its elitist character. In the hope of changing that impression, Reverend Robert Bagnall abolished pew rentals so that penniless newcomers could feel as much a part of the congregation as the wealthiest members [32]. He also devised plans for a parish house for recreational and community service programs. Thanks to a donation from Henry Ford, the parish house was completed in 1925 after Father Everard Daniel had succeeded Bagnall. During his years as pastor, Daniel continued the efforts of Bagnall by encouraging the development of parish organizations for education and assistance for newcomers. He was also a strong advocate of youth organizations. In soliciting the support of adult congregation members for these groups, he pointed out that the migration had a destabilizing influence on young people, causing them to require the additional guidance provided by youth groups [33].

As indicated, the migration had a much greater effect on Detroit's African-American churches than the mere increase in their membership. Migrants caused churches to change the way services and activities were conducted. Splashy, emotional services became popular in response to migrants who desired a more southern style of worship. A church with a southern preacher became an especially big attraction because he "[knew] what the people like[d]" [34].

Most significantly, the migration forced churches to take on a new role as "social agency" in addition to that of spiritual guide [35]. This change was not one that migrants had intended to force. nor one that the churches were necessarily prepared to make. But a number of generous church leaders and congregation members did their best to welcome new worshippers to church and to help them survive outside of it. Whenever the church was unable to provide adequate assistance, members at least attempted to direct the migrant to other agencies that might be able to help. As more and more migrants flocked to churches for assistance, "the old type of church that appealed only to the spiritual side of the individual [was] being replaced by the type which [was] striving for both the spiritual and the social improvement of the community" [36].