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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.

Black History

DeBoraha Akin-Townson: Trailblazing Cowgirl

According to the Texas State Historical Association, weekend rodeos featuring Black cowboys began in the late 1940s, thanks to the formation of the Negro Cowboys Rodeo Association in 1947.

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Rodeo is a sport in which cowboys and cowgirls showcase their skills in riding and roping. Its storied history has deep roots among many Blacks and Native Americans in the Midwest and South. 

Developed during the second half of the 19th century, events mainly took place in northern Mexico, the U.S., and western Canada. Despite the numbers of Black cowboys at that time, none were able to compete.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, weekend rodeos featuring Black cowboys began in the late 1940s, thanks to the formation of the Negro Cowboys Rodeo Association in 1947. Many from this organization would eventually pass the torch to DeBoraha Akin-Townson.
Quickly rising in the sport, Townson not only picked up the torch but made history by becoming the 1989 International Professional Rodeo Association Western Region Champion and, in 1990, the first Black cowgirl to compete in the International Professional Rodeo finals in Tulsa, Okla. 

She is also the only Black woman to compete with a professional card in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association at the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events throughout the U.S.
Very little has been recorded about Townson’s life. What is known is that she is of Native American heritage (Cherokee and Arkansas Indian) and was born in Rockford, Ill. She is about 62 years old and still married to her long-time husband, Stewart Townson. Her all-time hero, she told Indian Rodeo News, is her “maternal grandmother, who taught me to please God first through obedience and discipline. She was a true Proverbs 31 woman, and I try with all that I am to model myself after the godly example that she showed me.”
In 1980, Townson attended her first rodeo in Hemet, Calif. That’s when her interest in participating in the sport’s professional ranks was piqued.
Her event of choice was ‘barrels,’ something she had enjoyed since she was a child. In this event, a horse and rider attempt to run a cloverleaf pattern around preset barrels in the fastest time. 

Participants in this women-only event are known for quick turns and high speeds. The winner is determined by thousandths of a second, and Townson was fast. Yet she joked about a time when her horse finished the race before she did.
“It wasn’t so funny when it happened,” she told Indian Rodeo News, “but it became something that I could laugh about later. I fell off the back of my horse trying to pick up the third barrel. My horse finished the pattern without me with the fastest time of the rodeo. The barrel was up, but since I wasn’t on him when he crossed the finish line, it was a [disqualification].”
Today Townson works as a horse-racing instructor and has passed her love of the rodeo down to her children. She advises all youth to “dare to not just dream but dream big and find a rodeo mentor to advise you and spur you on.”

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African American News & Issues

Company Will Pay African Americans $125 to Participate in Research Project

Participants in the survey need a stable, high-speed internet connection since the interviews are all being conducted via Zoom. The researchers are also asking potential interviewees to make sure that they have access to a quiet room and a dedicated telephone, and that they should be willing to share their experiences and opinions for approximately one hour.

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Glasses, Notebook and Laptop courtesy of Dan Dimmock via Unsplash

Evitarus, a Black-owned, Los Angeles-based public opinion research firm, is surveying African Americans in California to gauge opinions on healthcare and racism. The goal of the project, the company says, is to gather data that can influence healthcare policy.

“We are conducting one of the largest scale studies of Black people in the U.S. regarding their perspectives on health and experiences with health care,” said Shakari Byerly, partner and principal researcher at Evitarus.

“This research will be focused on Black Californians with the goal of changing both practice and policy as it relates to health care delivery and the elimination of racism in the health care system in California,” Byerly added.

People Evitarus select for the one-hour interview will be paid $125 for their time. Researchers plan to interview 3,200 people.

During the second phase of the survey, researchers will conduct interviews with African Americans to discuss their personal experiences with the healthcare system, healthcare disparities and the impact of racism.

Participants in the survey need a stable, high-speed internet connection since the interviews are all being conducted via Zoom. The researchers are also asking potential interviewees to make sure that they have access to a quiet room and a dedicated telephone, and that they should be willing to share their experiences and opinions for approximately one hour.

Byerly, former director of the California Governance Project at the Center for Governmental Studies, is also a National Academy of Sciences Ford Foundation Fellow, a Rev. James Lawson Teaching Fellow at UCLA, and a member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

She is also active in a number of African American-focused statewide and local civic and community-based organizations, including serving on the boards of Black Women Organized for Political Action, the African American Community Empowerment Council, and the Los Angeles African American Women’s Political Action Committee.

Byerly said, with the study, Evitarus intends to do a deep dive into the demographics of African Americans in California.

“We are especially interested in reaching Californians in harder to reach segments of our community, including those 70+ years of age, men of all ages, the LGBTQ+ community, lower income Black Californians, and those in key regions such as the Far North, Central Valley, Central Coast, and Orange County and San Diego counties,” she said.  “That said, all Black Californians are encouraged to participate.”

For more information about participating in this project, visit https://evitarus.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_enXQ1qkDsWWQfau.

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African American News & Issues

Reparations Task Force Agrees It Needs the Ideas, Input of Black Californians

Regions in the southern, northern, and central part of the state (where many Black farmers reside) should be involved in the process, said Grills. The “listening sessions would go beyond” formal task force meetings and would not infringe upon scheduled discussions, Grills added.

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Reparations Word Scramble Stock Via Google

On July 9, California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans held its second meeting in a series of 10.

During the Zoom conference, the group’s nine members shared differing views on how to best get Black Californians involved in their deliberations.

But they all agreed on one key point: having voices and ideas of African Americans across the state influence their conversations would be the best approach to successfully accomplish their work.

“A lot of things that’s important is we as a task force not let ourselves operate in a vacuum,” said Dr. Cheryl Grills, a member of the task force and professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “Not to assume that the public comments that happen at the end of our meetings are adequate to represent the community voice.”

Grills delivered a presentation titled “A Community Engagement Strategy for Taskforce Consideration.” In it, she put forth a plan to get Black Californians involved.

Grills suggested the task force host “listening sessions” across the state since it only has limited time to assess California’s role in slavery and Jim Crow discrimination — and follow up that work with developing resolutions to compensate African Americans for past and ongoing race-based injustices.

Regions in the southern, northern, and central part of the state (where many Black farmers reside) should be involved in the process, said Grills. The “listening sessions would go beyond” formal task force meetings and would not infringe upon scheduled discussions, Grills added.

The intent, she said, would be to involve Black Californians from varying backgrounds.

“Black folks exist in an ecosystem and the system includes a diverse, cultural base of people, social class, education levels, etc.,” said Grills. “So how do we make sure that those people are impacted. They need to be at the table.”

Through news coverage, Grills also suggested the National Association of Black Journalists could play a role in keeping the ongoing discourse about reparations “in the forefront and minds” of the Black community.

Lisa Holder, Esq. a nationally recognized trial attorney and task force member, emphasized that the proposal she prepared was not “in conflict” with Grills’ outreach plan and that her proposal offered a framework within which the task force can draw up its strategy to move forward.

Holder told fellow task force members that she and Grills are on the same page.

“This plan, for a lack of a better word, is in alignment with the blueprint we just saw (presented by Grills),” Holder clarified. “Grills focuses a little bit more on the details of how we can implement the community engagement plan. This outline I put together is a little bit broader and more of a concept.”

The meeting’s other seven participants were task force chair Kamilah V. Moore, a Los Angeles-based attorney, reparations scholar and activist; vice-chair Dr. Amos Brown, a civil rights leader and respected Bay Area pastor whose journey to leadership started under the tutelage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s; Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena); Assemblymember Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles); San Diego Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe; Dr. Jovan Scott Lewis,  chair of the Department of Geography at the University of California Berkeley; and Attorney Don Tamaki, Esq. is an attorney best known for his role in the Supreme Court case of Korematsu v. the United States. Tamaki overturned the conviction of Fred Korematsu who refused to be taken into custody during the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in World War II.

After hearing Grills’ presentation, Brown raised concerns about transparency.

He also said that other groups around the state should have an opportunity to present a plan for community engagement.

“What will we do around this state without our giving due diligence to announce to everybody, that you can present a plan, too?” Brown asked. “Whether it’s northern, central California, whatever. We talk about transparency, but if we are going to be about it, then we should be about it.”

The task force voted 8-0 to consider both Holder’s and Grills’ community engagement plans. Brown opposed the motion and abstained, withholding his vote.

Bradford said he favored a “blending” of the two proposals. Both Grills and Bradford suggested that the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA and the Mervyn Dymally African American Political and Economic Institute at California State University Dominguez Hills could assist in facilitating the statewide listening sessions, possibly through the California Department of Justice. Both academic research institutes are located in Southern California.

Steppe expressed confidence in her colleagues and the process.

“The (Black) community is going to play a huge role in getting whatever we present across the finish line,” she promised.

The task force also agreed to move public comments during the meeting from the end to the beginning of the sessions. Public comments will also expand from two minutes to three, Moore announced.

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