The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1882. They are, from left to right, Patti Malone, George E. Barrett, Mattie L. Lawrence, C.W. Payne, Ella Shepard (seated), F.J. Loudin, Maggie L. Porter (seated), B.W. Thomas, and Mabel R. Lewis (seated).
I’m interested in the way in which the past affects the present and I think that if we understand a good deal more about history, we automatically understand a great more about contemporary life.

—Toni Morrison

The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.
—William Faulkner

As a teacher of poetry, I find myself constantly telling my students to take some time to learn the history of the lands they and their family have inhabited, the people they come from, the countries they claim and that claim them in return. When a poet works with history, they are ciphering the currents of time, the eddies and splashes that cause more and more ripples, the waves of cause and effect that enveloped their predecessors and are washing over us today—and will baptize new generations in the woes and wins of our present. I didn’t realize how thoroughly I would be reintroduced to that lesson when I started writing Olio. But part of the surprise of poetry lies in the lessons a poet learns by chance. The ones that slap us upside the head in the middle of a line or a passage, and those that bubble and spring when we slowly realize the way a poem might move in unexpected ways.

It took about seven-and-a-half years to write Olio. During that time, I was researching the lives of 19th century African American creatives—the first generation of freed black folk who decided to make their livings weaving trouble and joy into song, sculpture, and the syncopated soliloquies of ragtime. I was constantly studying folks who had departed at least 100 years ago, and as a result I was thrown back and forth between events of the eighteen- and nineteen-hundreds and those of the 21st century. I’d come up for air between the pages of history books to be startled or shocked by the turmoil in my social media newsfeeds and daily headlines. I would read about lynching statistics from the 1880s, and then bear witness to the 21st century lynching of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin… the list goes on.

One of the first things I wrote for the book was a crown of sonnets about the Fisk Jubilee Singers. For those unfamiliar with this poetic form, a crown of sonnets is a circular series where the last line of the first sonnet becomes the first line of the second sonnet. Then the last line of the second sonnet becomes the first line of the third sonnet. This pattern repeats for several sonnets—in this case 15—until the last line of the last sonnet becomes the first line of the first sonnet. Thus, the last becomes first and the first becomes last. 

I’d taken careful notes from Andrew Ward’s Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America, a fantastically moving history of the nine young students of Fisk University. These former slaves sought the formerly captive dream of reading and writing without reprisal of death sentence or torture. These students would go to their cabins after classes and sing the songs their mothers, fathers, and grandparents sang on the plantations—songs that were/are another river that holds time in its belly, the sonic memory carrying ripples of all that was left after the drum and the native tongues were stripped away. A muddy, swollen river that got baptized in a foreign tongue. A religion of persecution that was subverted to a hymnal of liberation. It rebuked the devil and bore them up under the bulk and brunt of labor and lash. That first choir of nine was responsible for spreading the sound of the Spiritual across the United States and then overseas. The legacy of these first international ambassadors of the Newly Freed Black Sound continues today.

After many drafts over several years, I finally felt good about the crown of sonnets—almost. I felt good about the fact that I’d tried to deliver their stories into the 21st century—the poems had even been published in their entirety in a prominent journal. However, there was something that I’d felt was missing from them, something I couldn’t quite get…

This feeling gnawed at me, worrying me like an invisible itch I couldn’t quite reach. It seeped into my subconsciousness and dogged me while I went through section after section of the book, continuing after the manuscript had been signed by my publisher, on until the last months of working toward the final pages. It seemed that the poems needed a balance to their legacy of praise. A tempering of their joyousness that would illuminate their singers’ inner strength. One day, taking a plane from one side of the country to the other, looking out the window a half-mile over the countryside, it suddenly dawned on me that there was a piece of American history that I had somehow overlooked, even though its scars of heat had been a furnace surrounding the Spiritual river of song.  It framed the troubled waters sung by generations of Black congregations—it was the arson and bombings of Black churches.  

"Burner of Negro Church Found Guilty" headline, newspaper clipping.

Afro American City Edition. March 23, 1940.

 

The Black Lives Matter movement had reminded us to remember: name after name after name of unarmed police-shooting victims glowing across my laptop screen, in the streets, in the headlines, from our lips. It occurred to me that while I knew there was a legacy of attacks on Black churches, I knew almost none of the names of these churches. I knew nothing about these congregations that had lost their hard-won investments of time, resources, wealth, and spirit to the flames of those who claimed the same religion. I knew about 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls two years before my birth, but because the names of all the other immolated Black churches had never been spoken to me, the scale and humanity of those congregations remained nebulous and vague. I had heard Martin Luther King declare that “…eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour in Christian America,” but seeing the names of the congregations would do more to illustrate that observation than anything I could conjure up inside the dense, biographical fabric of the sonnets. 

And so, I had a vision—each of the sonnets surrounded by the names of those burned churches. The names reaching inside the sonnets to contextualize the praise of the implicit hymns in each poem. One problem: I had to track down the names. 

I called all the places I could think of that might have such a list. The National Baptist Convention, NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Council, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. I called the Congress of Racial Equality and one of their representatives said that sometimes their offices containing records of church burnings were burnt as well, destroying their own historical records. I even called the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the ATF. Still, no answers.  

However, there was a scourge of burnings in the 1990s that were documented through a Congressional Committee and Christopher Strain’s comprehensive treatment of the era in Burning Faith: Church Arson in the American South. There were some SNCC papers in a University of Southern Mississippi archive as well. An industrious professor named Christian Davenport had some church names listed online. Finally, I conducted as many electronic searches as I could. 

"Whites Accused of Mississippi Church Arson" headline, newspaper clipping.

Chicago Daily Defender. January 24, 1967.

 

While I searched, I knew that I was under a publication deadline. It slowly dawned on me that the mission of collecting these names could have gone on for years, like a PhD thesis. In the end, I was able to track down 146 names of torched and terrorized churches. But I knew that there were tremendous gaps in this tenacious timeline of terror—gaps of decades that must have witnessed scores of church burnings that were either never reported or were deemed not important enough to document. I sent them to the folks at Wave Books with my notes, and the names were incorporated into the manuscript. Finally, my aesthetic itch had been scratched. I had completed the list by the spring of 2015. I thought I was done. I was feeling a sense of relief. 

And then, history repeated itself. In June of 2015, Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat down in a prayer circle, listened to the parishioners for an hour, and then shot nine of them to death. 

Every year, we are besieged by tragedy after tragedy blooming from the barrels of guns across this nation. Week after week, month after month, I get numb to the senseless murder—I simply can’t afford that amount of emotional energy to engage them all too deeply. But every season or so there is one that shakes me to the core. I remember walking, mid-day, into a beautiful church in a white neighborhood in Oregon the week of the shooting. I remember seeing the children in daycare, singing nursery rhymes. I remember wandering into the nearly empty sanctuary, sitting down in a vacant pew while the church organist practiced a hymn. I remember thinking about what it would take, what mentality one would have to have to walk into a place of worship and just open fire on everyone. I remember the slow, choking tears surprising me, and the desperate, scalding sobs that left me weakened and confounded to find myself at this place in history, having to process a kind of violence that recalled the savage terrorism that my parents had endured—and their parents—and their parents...

I called my publisher and told them I needed to add one more church name to that list. While it hadn’t been burned to the ground, the parishioners had been brutally killed in its sanctuary. The publisher agreed without hesitation. The chronological list of churches that ran throughout the crown of sonnets had come to an end, and ran from 1899 to 2015...  at least that’s what I thought.

Then I heard from somewhere about the history of the church. I did my research just to make sure, because it seemed too awful and gruesomely poetic to be true…  It turned out that this Emmanuel church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the Southland, had been burned to the ground in 1822. Denmark Vesey, a Black abolitionist and a founding member of the church, had organized a slave rebellion that was crushed. Church arson was part of the punishment levied upon the community.

Thus, Mother Emmanuel AME Church became the first and the last church in the long list of burned churches. Like the crown of sonnets that the chronological list of churches surrounded, the last became the first and the first became the last. We had circled a bloody and charred way from 1822 to 2015 and back again, mirroring the structure of a crown of sonnets. The number of burned churches in the list went from 146 to 148, with Emmanuel counted twice.

I hadn’t planned for history to be so cruelly present when I started writing about the long-dead artists in Olio. But it seems that history caught up with me, as it does all of us, in the most telling of ways. My intellect tells me I shouldn’t be surprised by now. My soul can’t help but tremble for the lessons history keeps teaching me. I’m facing the river to see the ripples across my reflection. And still I sing.

Mother Emmanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC 1822
Cross-Ankle Church, Palmetto, GA, 1899
Green Leaf Presbyterian Church, Keeling, TN, 1900
Red Top Church, Hopkinsville, KY, 1915
First Baptist Church, Carteret, NJ, 1926
Fulton Street M.E Church, Chgo, IL, 1927
Second Baptist Church, Detroit, MI, 1930
Macedonia Baptist Church, Egg Harbor City, NJ, 1935
Mount Methodist Church, Henderson, NC, 1940
Negro Methodist Church, Loganville, GA, 1947
Negro Baptist Church, Loganville, GA, 1947
St. James AME Church, Lake City, SC, 1955
Pine Grove A.M.E Church, Summerton, SC, 1955
New Hope Baptist Church, Cleveland, MS, 1957
I Hope Baptist Church, Colquitt, GA, 1962
High Hope Baptist Church, Dawson, GA, 1962
Mt. Olive Baptist Church, Albany, GA, 1962
Mount Mary Baptist Church, Albany, GA, 1962
St. Matthews Baptist Church, Macon, GA, 1962
Shady Grove Baptist Church, Albany, GA, 1962
Zion Methodist Church, Neshoba Co, MS, 1964
Antioch Baptist Church Blue Mountain, MS, 1964
Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, Philadelphia, MS, 1964
Sweet Rest Church of Holiness, Brandon, MS, 1964
Williams Chapel, Ruleville, MS, 1964
Church of Holy Ghost, Clinton, MS, 1964
McCraven-Hill Missionary Baptist Church, Jackson, MS, 1964
Pleasant Plan Missionary Baptist, Browning, MS, 1964
Jerusalem Baptist Church, Natchez, MS, 1964
Bethel Methodist Church, Natchez, MS, 1964
Mt. Zion Hill Baptist Church, McComb, MS, 1964
Pleasant Plan Missionary Baptist Church, Browning, MS, 1964
Jerusalem Baptist Church, Natchez, MS, 1964
Bethel Methodist Church, Natchez, MS, 1964
Christian Union Baptist Church, Canton, MS, 1964
Rose Hill Church, McComb, MS, 1964
Mount Moriah Baptist Church, Meridian, MS, 1964
Mt. Pleasant Church, Gluckstadt, MS, 1964
St. Matthews, Baptist Church, Brandon, MS, 1964
Perry's Chapel, Itta Bena, MS, 1964
Daniel Baptist Church, Aberdeen, MS, 1964
St. John's Baptist Church, Natchez, MS, 1964
Society Hill Baptist Church, McComb, MS, 1964
16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, GA, 1964
Bell Flower Baptist Church, Grenada, MS, 1967
Reformed Missionary Church, Chgo, IL, 1967
Newell Chapel Methodist Church, Meridian, MS, 1968
Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church, Chgo, IL, 1970
Mulberry Baptist Church, Wilkes Co, GA, 1977
Zoora CME Church, Wilkes Co, GA, 1977
Antioch CME Church, Lincoln Co, GA, 1977
Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Lincoln Co, GA, 1977
Ridgely Zion United Methodist Church, Largo, MD, 1978
St. John's Baptist Church, Queens, NY, 1980
Bethel AME Church, Queens, NY, 1980
Macedonia Baptist Church, Queens, NY, 1980
First Baptist Church, Queens, NY, 1980
Rosebud Baptist Church, Chatham, VA, 1980
New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Lancaster, SC, 1984
Roanoke Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR, 1963
Mt.Pleasant Plain Baptist Church, Lancaster, SC, 1984
New Hope AME Zion Church, Lancaster, SC, 1984
Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, 1984
Smith Grove AME Church, Adairville, KY, 1986
New Bethel AME Church, Rocky Fork, IL, 1988
Apostolic Faith Assembly Church, Louisville, KY, 1990
Moore`s Chapel Baptist Church, Boger City, NC, 1990
Asbury Chapel AME Church, Louisville, KY, 1990
Sandhill's Freewill Baptist Church, Hemingway, SC, 1
991Barren River Baptist Church, Bowling Green, KY, 1991
Ebenezer A.M.E. Zion Church, Seattle, WA, 1991
Thornwell Orphanage, Clinton, SC, 1991
Oak Grove Church, Desha Co., AR, 1992
St. James Church, Desha Co., AR, 1992
Love Rest Baptist Church, Arkansas Co., AR, 1992
Tucker Baptist Church, Union, SC, 1992
Springhill Freewill Baptist Church, McComb, MS, 1993
Rocky Point Missionary Baptist, McComb, MS, 1993
Camp Welfare Baptist Church, Fairfield, SC, 1993
St. Stephens Baptist Church, St. Stephen, SC, 1993
Rock Hill Baptist Church, Aiken County, SC, 1994
Old Rosemary Baptist Church, Aiken County, SC, 1994
Springfield Baptist Church, Madison, GA, 1994
Elam Baptist Church, Jones County, GA, 1994
Greater Missionary Baptist Church, Clarkesville, TN, 1994
Benevolent Lodge #210, Clarkesville, TN, 1994
Rice's Chapel, Buffalo, SC, 1994
New Wright's Chapel, Shelby County, TN, 1994
Shrub Branch Baptist Church, Blackville, SC, 1994
St. Paul A.M.E. Church, Cades, SC, 1994
Salem Missionary Baptist Church, Fruitland, TN, 1994
Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Columbia, TN, 1995
Canaan AME, Mt. Pleasant, TN 1995
Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, Bolivar, TN, 1995
Sike Savannah Methodist Church, Ruffin, SC, 1995
Summer Grove Baptist Church, Aiken, SC, 1995
Macedonia Baptist Church, Manning, SC, 1995
Zion Chapel AME, Sun, LA, 1995
Sandy Grove, Bennettsville, SC, 1995
Islamic Mosque, Greenville, SC, 1995
Mount Hill Missionary Baptist Church, Aiken Co, SC, 1995
Jesus Christ Holy Gospel, Laurens, SC, 1995
Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Boligee, AL, 1995
Mount Moriah Baptist Church, Hillsborough, NC, 1995
Johnson Grove Baptist, Bells, TN 1995
Macedonia Baptist, Denmark, TN, 1995
Mt. Calvary Baptist, Hardeman County, TN, 1995
St. John Baptist Church, Dixiana, SC, 1995
Mount Zion AME Church, Greeleyville, S.C., 1995
Bethel AME Church, Harrisburg, PA, 1995
Inner City Church, Knoxville, TN, 1996
Little Zion Baptist Church, Boligee, AL, 1996
Glorious Church of God and Christ, Richmond, VA, 1996
New Liberty Baptist Church, Tyler, AL, 1996
Gays Hill Baptist Church, Millen, GA, 1996
Butler Chapel A.M.E., Orangeburg, SC, 1996
St. Paul A.M.E. Church, Hatley, MS, 1996
El Bethel Church, Yazoo County MS, 1996
St. Charles Church, Raincourtville, LA, 1996
Rosemary Baptist Church, Barnwell, SC, 1996
Effingham Baptist Church, Florence County, SC, 1996
Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, Tigrett, TN, 1996
Mount Tabor Baptist Church, Cerro Gordo, NC, 1996
Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, Lumberton, NC, 1996
Rising Star Baptist Church, Greensboro, AL, 1996
Murkland Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, NC, 1996
Shiloh Apostolic Faith Church, Weirton, W. Va., 1996
Macedonia Baptist Church, Bloomville, SC, 1996
New Light House of Prayer, Greenville TX, 1996
Church of the Living God, Greenville, TX 1996
Immanuel Christian Fellowship, OR, 1996
Greater Jefferson Baptist Church, Eatonton, GA, 2000
Stubbs Chapel Baptist Church, Macon, GA, 2000
New Evergreen Baptist Church, Macon, GA, 2000
Bethlehem AME Church, Macon, Georgia, 2000
St. Phillips Baptist Church, Swainsboro, Georgia, 2000
All Faith Family Worship Center, Americus, GA, 2000
Roberson Grove Baptist Church, Waynesboro, GA, 2000
Mount Hope AME Church, Macon, GA, 2001
Holly Springs Baptist Church, Washington County, GA, 2007
Mount Sinai Baptist Church, Washington Co., GA, 2007
Macedonia Church of God in Christ, Springfield, MA, 2008
Warrior Hill Baptist Church, Pine Level, AL, 2011
New Holy Deliverance Outreach, Axton, VA, 2013
Flood Christian Church, Ferguson, MO, 2014
Carswell-Grove Baptist Church, Millen, GA, 2014
First Deliverance Church, St. Albans, WV, 2015
Mother Emmanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC 2015


Destiny Deliverance Ministries, Morgantown, WV 2018

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, October 1964 list of African American church burnings
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, October 1964 list of African American church burnings

 

Originally Published: April 30th, 2018

Born in Detroit, poet Tyehimba Jess earned his BA from the University of Chicago and his MFA from New York University. He is the author of leadbelly (2005) and Olio (2016), winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Jess is the rare poet who bridges slam and academic poetry. His first collection, leadbelly...