Many of the legends of True First were deeply spiritual, attributing success not only to their own talents but to the grace of God. In this, they reflected the enormous influence religion has played in African American history and continues to have in the lives of black Americans.
For the most part, the Africans who were captured and brought to the New World were not Christians. Many slaves brought their traditional religious beliefs and practices across the ocean, including Islam, but there are no recorded examples of organized black religions in any of the Thirteen Colonies. High death rates, the separation of families and the efforts of white owners to eradicate non-Christian customs made it almost impossible to maintain a distinctly “African” form of worship.
By the time of the American War of Independence, Baptists and Methodists were welcoming slaves to congregations which had begun to flourish throughout the South. They believed that all Christians were equal before God, an unprecedented message of hope and deliverance in the midst of oppression. The democracy that was denied to blacks in the antebellum South could be found in the church, where all races were joined in worship. Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794, the first independent black denomination in the country. Black churches then became the focal point for African American communities in the early 1800s, developing their own unique forms of spiritual expression and worship.
Following emancipation, freed blacks quickly began to form their own churches, usually based on Baptist or Methodist teachings. Ministers became both spiritual and community leaders, resulting in the near disappearance of interracial congregations. The Pentecostal movement of the early 20th Century was initially composed of interracial denominations but soon conformed to segregation.
Between 1916 and 1970, 6 million African Americans moved from the South to Northern cities in what has become known as the Great Migration. There, many adopted non-Christian religions including Islam and Judaism. Approximately 20% of the total Muslim population in the United States is of African descent and estimates of the number of black Jews in the country range from 20,000 to 200,000.
The black church played a key role in the civil rights movement, offering up leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Bernard Lee and Andrew Young. It was one of the only institutions where blacks could gather freely in the years of segregation and the church had long been both place of worship and the centre for political activism. From the pulpit, ministers preached of a new society where equality was not only possible, but within reach.
For over 200 years, black churches have been the lifeblood of the African American community. They’ve published newspapers, built schools, provided food and shelter in times of need, and empowered generations to resist in the face of injustice. Church was where people learned to read, where they conducted business and created the social societies that built an unshakeable sense of family, community and belonging.
The nation’s oldest and largest African American church is the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. with an estimated 7.5 million members. Almost 80% of black Americans identify as Christian, and an even greater number profess to believe in God with absolute certainty. Over 30 black churches were burned to the ground in the mid-1990s, and hundreds have been desecrated in acts of domestic terrorism. As white supremacists well know, to attack the black church is to drive a stake into the very heart of African American life.
In all the stories of True First, you’ll find a common thread of determination, hope and conviction that is the legacy of a people who have sustained community with the power of faith.