Thursday, May 30, 2024

Dissertation Topic and Focus


            My approach to my dissertation research topic is specifically informed by the idea of the “long civil rights movement” that is, there is an ongoing and long-running struggle for equality of rights and opportunities for African Americans that pre-dates the twentieth century. While this is generally recognized by scholars this continuity is less well-known in popular understanding in regards to Black history. In addition to recognizing that the fight for Black civil rights extends into the early 1800s, a significant element of this history is the ways that theological justification both for and against racial equality has been used. This debate continues into Reconstruction and into the twentieth while also being joined with other cultural streams and arguments. For example, justification for applying Jim Crow laws to church polity in New Orleans was based on external cultural movements. Some scholars, such as Ed Blum, argue as well that while white northerners were motivated by theological arguments toward equality, more located justification in these same arguments for maintaining the color line. Du Bois, Douglass and others fully recognized at the time the connection between religious arguments and racial equality, referencing it often in their speeches and writings.[1] During this same time, Black ministers were preaching against segregation, urging cultural and political change.

            One such individual was Francis Grimké. Francis Grimké, (1850-1937) ,who was born a slave, coming out of a family of abolitionists was a minister in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, DC. Grimké produced a significant number of sermons, addresses, pamphlets, and other materials during his lifetime, many of which were directed at social conditions, particularly the color line, effecting Black life both in Maryland and nationally.  While Grimké has been quoted and referenced, his life and worth has not received significant scholarly attention since Henry J. Ferry’s 1974 biography Francis James Grimke: Portrait of a Black Puritan. Carter G. Woodson also published a 4-volume collection of Grimké’s writings in 1942 entitled The Works of Francis J. Grimké. Grimké’s life and work is a specific example of seeking to use his position and place to influence not only his own parishioners but general thinking about racial equality. He regularly published his sermons, issued pamphlets, and taking care to share his work broadly, using printed materials to do so.

            Chandler Owen (1889-1967) was a close friend and associate of A. Philip Randolph. In fact, much of what is known about Owen is due to the letters between him and Randolph. They were co-editors of the Messenger (1917-1928) a significant Black periodical that sought to influence Black approaches to popular culture while voicing opinions and debates about Black life in America.  While Owen was not connected with a specific religious denomination, he invested significant time and energy in the Messenger. Owen’s role as a magazine editor in a predominately secular publication demonstrates the ways that which the African American community sought to influence and encourage one another as they encountered racial violence and hostility. While Owen has been noted in biographies about Randolph or in studies of the Messenger, his work and life would benefit from being re-examined.  

            Grimké and Owen’s work and life have not previously been compared or studied together. While it is not currently clear if they met, they ran in similar circles and geographies. In this study I am hoping to uncover some of these connections in tracing the ways that religious/theological arguments were made in support of equality, such as Grimké made, and ways that other, secular arguments were also made, particularly at the turn of the century, such as Owen made in the pages of the Messenger. While neither ever achieved the public significance or fame of a Du Bois, Wells, or Douglass, they are important figures in understanding the variety of ways that African Americans, particularly in the northern states, sought to influence thinking regarding racial equality.

            Both Owen and Grimké made a habit of living their life in public, in making arguments in public for racial equality and abolishing the color line. While historians are notorious for publishing books with titles like “the lost history of…” or “the unknown history…”, neither Grimké or Owen have truly been forgotten. Instead this study proposes using the details of their life and work to consider how they approached the fight for racial equality and the ways that this influenced the ongoing fight for civil rights. I am hoping to find connections between their life and work that demonstrate their approach to this fight. I’m also interested in tracing the ways that Grimké and Owen built on top of existing networks and print culture to find audience and distribute their works. The fact that there remains archival items to study from each of these men does mean that there were enough copies produced to survive. Furthermore, historical events can be easier to relate to when there narratives that help us connect our understanding of a particular time with an individual. Thus, Grimké offers an understanding of living through and engaging Reconstruction as he and Owen both, from the perspective of two different professions, living through and engaging the events around racial violence particularly at the turn of the century.

            In my master’s thesis I argued for a framework, defined as civilizer theology, which broadly reviewed American racial history from the early 1700s to the present day.[2] This current project is an opportunity to focus in on a particular time period that has tended to be somewhat overlooked by historians, and even, the general public, in considering the history of civil rights. I am excited to work closely with the writings of Grimké and Owen, contextualizing their life and work within broader social and historical movements as a contribution towards a fuller understanding of the long civil rights movement in this country.

[1] For a brief discussion of Du Bois’ relationship to religion, this is an excellent summation:

[2] That thesis is available in full text here: