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Black History

The Black Church: Political and Social Links

THE WESTSIDE GAZETTE — As a nation conceptualized and founded “under God,” but that also served as a haven for those persecuted for their beliefs in other societies, religion and sacred spaces have always been inextricably linked to the political and social history of the United States. In the African American community, this sentiment can be seen to run even deeper, with the “Black church” serving not only as a foundation and backbone for the community, but also as one of the only safe spaces for African Americans to gather and confront the issues of the day.

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By Carma Henry

As a nation conceptualized and founded “under God,” but that also served as a haven for those persecuted for their beliefs in other societies, religion and sacred spaces have always been inextricably linked to the political and social history of the United States. In the African American community, this sentiment can be seen to run even deeper, with the “Black church” serving not only as a foundation and backbone for the community, but also as one of the only safe spaces for African Americans to gather and confront the issues of the day.

The first Black Christian congregations began to appear during the 18th century, when for the first time, northern Baptist and Methodist itinerant preachers began to convert and minister to slaves and free Blacks throughout the southern Tide-water and Low Country regions with a message of anti-slavery and spiritual equality. They advocated for slaves to be educated in order to study and read the Bible, and even trained these early converts for active roles in the church, like George Leile who was born a slave but ordained as a missionary in 1775 and preached in the Savannah, Georgia area before taking his mission to Jamaica ten years later. There is still debate as to which of the earliest recorded Black congregations was “first,” because as religion professor Reverend Henry Mitchell explains, it is, “said that the first Black Baptist church was in South Carolina, Silver Bluff. Well, it’s true that one of the earlier churches was there, but there were churches in Virginia that were just as old…Even though it was under the leadership and sponsorship of whites, Black folks did all kinds–they didn’t, they didn’t allow them to preach, but when they allowed them to pray, they preached anyhow.” Despite the debate, it is clear that the earliest black Baptist congregations began to organize under white ministers as early as the 1750s, and became independent and officially recognized in the 1770s with the Silver Bluff Baptist Church (1773), Savannah, Georgia’s First African Baptist Church (1773), and Petersburg, Virginia’s First Baptist Church (1774) – all prior to the Revolutionary War.

Though many of the early churches were actually mixed congregations, many whites throughout both the south and north were not open to sharing their religious spaces with Blacks. In fact, the founding of the AME Church arose from a reaction to segregation in the church. Theologian James H. Cone recounts, “So when Richard Allen and his group of about twenty or so came that morning to worship at St. George, that’s where they were members. Somebody was praying as they were going to their place, and they just stopped in respect for the prayer. And the ushers were stunned that they should stop at a section that was not theirs. And so, the ushers came over and said no you cannot stop here you gotta go, and Richard Allen just said wait until the prayer is over and we will go. But he said no you gotta go now, and he began to manhandle them out. And that’s when Richard Allen rose, and the other group–Absalom Jones was a part of that group too–they got up, and they left. Never again to come in that church to worship in that way. And they started their own church which is Bethel A.M.E. Church.” Jones and Allen would go on to find the Free African Society in Philadelphia, and eventually their own churches. Jones became the first Black priest ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1804, and Allen would expand his church in 1816 into the first fully independent Black denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).

This spirit of organizing and action carried through the Black church regardless of denomination, and the church provided not only religious fulfillment for their members but acted as a center of the Black community in all aspects of life. Civil rights activist Reverend Willie T. Barrow remembers, “the Black church was the foundation of your social life. It was a social outlet. It was a political outlet. It was an educational outlet.” As a result, much of the social and political organizing that built the modern Civil Rights Movement had its roots in the church. While Blacks were both de facto and de jure second class citizens on every other day of the week, civil rights activist Reverend Benjamin Hooks reflected, “On Sunday morning we were Deacon Crowe, Deacon Hooks, Reverend Hooks, we could approach God for ourselves, we were teachers, treasurers, superintendents, choir directors. So, the Black church — that was a vehicle not only religiously, but organizationally wise they brought us through. No accident that many of our great leaders of the days in the past were preachers, many of our congress people and early state senators and state legislators were ministers of the Gospel.” Pastor and activist Reverend Gardner Taylor expanded further, “Back then, the Black preacher was the only free person there was who had no sanctions against him. What could they do other than physical harm? They couldn’t penalize him. His living did not come from the white community. I have said many times that the Black church–It had its faults. God knows it has. But it was our General Motors, our U.S. Steel, our Enron too. But it was the one place that Blacks were really free.”

In modern times, the potential power of the Black church has been fully recognized and strategically courted. As The Honorable Reverend Walter Fauntroy put it in his 2003 interview with The HistoryMakers, “It’s important in this era because there’s a reason that politicians show up at black churches on the Sunday before the Tuesday election. It’s because they know that you’ve got a block of people who have been tutored every week about the importance of taking care of the least of these. And if I can get their votes, I may win. And so, I’m hopeful that the Black church will remain as relevant as it was in the ’60s for civil rights in this era.” As religious freedoms and values seem to become more and more deeply intertwined with this country’s political and social climate, Fauntroy’s hope will certainly be put to the test.

This article originally appeared in The Westside Gazette.

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Activism

Call to Protect Geoffrey’s Inner Circle from Threatened High-Rise Development

Geoffrey’s, located at 410 14th St., is part of the city’s Black Arts Movement and Business District which was formed in 2016 by reso-lution of the Oakland City Council to protect Black-owned businesses and enhance a downtown district that would encourage the historic African American legacy and cul-ture of Oakland.

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By Ken Epstein

Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, a downtown Oakland Cultural Center that has featured live jazz and served music lovers and the Black community for decades, is now under threat from a proposed real estate development that could undermine the stability and future of the facility.

Geoffrey’s, located at 410 14th St., is part of the city’s Black Arts Movement and Business District which was formed in 2016 by resolution of the Oakland City Council to protect Black-owned businesses and enhance a downtown district that would encourage the historic African American legacy and culture of Oakland.

Now, the Oakland Planning Commission is considering a high-rise building proposed by out-of-town developers next to Geoffrey’s, which would jeopardize both the survival of the venue and the Black business district as a whole.

In addition to running a business that has been a crucial institution in the local community and the regional arts scene, Geoffrey Pete, founder, has utilized his business to offer meals for thousands of unsheltered individuals and hosted countless community events.

The following petition is being circulated in defense of Geoffrey’s and the Black Arts district (To add your name to the petition, email info@geoffreyslive.com):

“The African-American community in Oakland has been seriously damaged by developers and public offcials who are willing and sometimes eager to see African Americans disappear from the city. Black people comprised 47% of the population in 1980; now they make up only 20% of said population. In response to this crisis the 14th Street Corridor from Oak to the 880 Frontage Road was established as the Black Arts Movement and Business District by the City Council on Jan. 7, 2016, in Resolution 85958.

Tidewater, an out-of-town developer, is proposing to build a high-rise building at 1431 Franklin, which will damage the Black business district and the businesses in the area including the iconic business of Geoffrey’s Inner Circle at 410 – 14th St.

We demand that the Planning Commission and the City Council reject this predatory building proposal and proceed with plans to fund and enhance the Black Business District.”

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Arts and Culture

IN MEMORIAM: Autris Paige

Paige performed regularly at Four Seasons’ Yachats Music Festival in Oregon from 1983-2017, with artists from around the world. Puerto Ricans Ilya and Raphael LeBron, soprano and baritone, remember him: “He leaves us with a warm memory of the simplicity that made him great: as a human being, as a friend and as a masterful artist!” Baritone Anthony Turner of New York says: “Autris was the embodiment of class and elegance. He delivered every song with a warm silken tone and economy of gestures. Autris gave of himself, his truth, his joy and love.”  Pianists Dennis Helmrich and Gerald Hecht often collaborated with Mr. Paige said: “Autris Paige was among the most intuitively refined musicians we have encountered: a pure pleasure and a cherished memory.” Pianist Jeongeun Yom, pianist, responds,”Autris will be remembered for his kindness, cheerfulness, and above all for his voice, with which he touched  the listeners’ heart.”

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AUTRIS T. PAIGE grew up in Oakland, California where he attended Star Bethel Church and graduated from McClymonds High School. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from San Francisco State before pursuing advanced studies in musical theatre at the University of Southern California.
AUTRIS T. PAIGE grew up in Oakland, California where he attended Star Bethel Church and graduated from McClymonds High School. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from San Francisco State before pursuing advanced studies in musical theatre at the University of Southern California.

August 17, 1938 – January 12, 2023

AUTRIS T. PAIGE was the youngest child born to Estella and Overton Paige in Sugar Land, Texas on Aug. 17, 1938.  He passed away on Jan. 12, 2023 in Oakland after a brief illness.  He was supported and comforted by his longtime companion Donna Vaughan.

Mr. Paige grew up in Oakland, California where he attended Star Bethel Church and graduated from McClymonds High School. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from San Francisco State before pursuing advanced studies in musical theatre at the University of Southern California.

He served in the U.S. Air Force.

In 1971, he made his debut with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, appearing in Candide at the Los Angeles Music Center and at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. He appeared with Ray Charles and the American Ballet Theatre and performed in several musical theatre productions on Broadway including Lost in the Stars; Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope; as Walter Lee in Raisin; and in Timbuktu with Eartha Kitt.

Mr. Paige has also sung with the New York City Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and with the San Francisco Opera. Other opera companies in which he performed include the Seattle Opera and the Glyndebourne Opera in England. He was featured in the PBS film and award-winning EMI recording of Porgy and Bess as well as the recording of the opera X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X.

When he returned to Oakland to “retire” he met Dr. W. Hazaiah Williams, Founder and Director of Today’s Artists Concerts (now Four Seasons Arts), who auditioned Paige and invited him to perform on his series. Mr. Paige began a new phase of his musical career.

He appeared many times under the auspices of Today’s Artists Concerts/Four Seasons Arts in New York’s Alice Tully Hall and in venues around the Bay Area in their Art of the Spiritual programs. He was featured in his own Spiritual Journey in 2009. His recently released solo CD, Spiritual Journey, based on this program, has received critical acclaim.

Paige performed regularly at Four Seasons’ Yachats Music Festival in Oregon from 1983-2017, with artists from around the world. Puerto Ricans Ilya and Raphael LeBron, soprano and baritone, remember him: “He leaves us with a warm memory of the simplicity that made him great: as a human being, as a friend and as a masterful artist!” Baritone Anthony Turner of New York says: “Autris was the embodiment of class and elegance. He delivered every song with a warm silken tone and economy of gestures. Autris gave of himself, his truth, his joy and love.”  Pianists Dennis Helmrich and Gerald Hecht often collaborated with Mr. Paige said: “Autris Paige was among the most intuitively refined musicians we have encountered: a pure pleasure and a cherished memory.” Pianist Jeongeun Yom, pianist, responds,”Autris will be remembered for his kindness, cheerfulness, and above all for his voice, with which he touched  the listeners’ heart.”

In 2011, Mr. Paige was featured in Four Seasons Arts’ annual W. Hazaiah Williams Memorial Concert with the Lucy Kinchen Chorale and later with soprano Alison Buchanan. In 2013, he performed his Spiritual Journey II in Berkeley with pianist Othello Jefferson. A second CD entitled Classics and Spirituals was released in September 2013. Pianist Jerry Donaldson of Oakland was a frequent collaborator with Mr. Paige, performing throughout the Bay Area.

A Celebration of Life for Autris Paige will take place Friday, Feb. 3 at 11:00 a.m. at Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, 1399 McAllister Street, San Francisco.

A repast will follow the service.

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Activism

16th Annual MLK Day of Service on the Richmond Greenway

The 16th annual MLK Day of Service in Richmond honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  was held Jan. 16 with a day of service to the community and activities for families on the Richmond Greenway.

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“…Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 16th annual MLK Day of Service in Richmond honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  was held Jan. 16 with a day of service to the community and activities for families on the Richmond Greenway.

The event was hosted by Urban Tilth and the City of Richmond. Event partners were Groundwork Richmond, Rich City Rides, Moving Forward, Hope Worldwide, The Watershed Project, Contra Costa Resource Conservation District, Building Blocks for Kids, City of Richmond, Cal Cameron Institute, Friends of the Richmond Greenway; and Pogo Park.

The celebration made possible with the support of the Hellman Family Foundation, City of Richmond, and hundreds of individual donors.

The day’s schedule included volunteer projects along the Richmond Greenway and a Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial and community celebration at Unity Park.

Among the community service projects were opportunities to take part in projects to transform and beautify the Richmond Greenway Trail, like tending to the Greenway Gardens, trash pickup, and planting native plant and trees.

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