African American Missionaries To Africa in the Age of Jim Crow: A Conversation with Kimberly D. Hill

I recently asked Kimberly D. Hill a few questions about her new book, A Higher Mission: The Careers of Alonzo and Althea Brown Edmiston in Central Africa.

What’s the argument of A Higher Mission?

My book argues that alumni of historically black colleges and universities transformed their academic preparation into innovative ministry strategies in central Africa. I trace several of these strategies to these American ministers’ interactions with local African villagers, church members, and students. These neighbors motivated missionaries to adjust their own plans to fit local interests and conditions.  The book focuses on a Fisk University graduate named Althea Brown and a Stillman seminary graduate named Alonzo Edmiston. They met in 1904 and married while serving with the American Presbyterian Congo Mission.

Most of the Edmistons’ three decades of joint ministry involved cooperation with a rare team of fellow African American Presbyterian missionaries. Only one of those missionaries has been the main subject of previous scholarly books: the Reverend William Henry Sheppard. The strategies of African American ministers were often overlooked or cut short due to overlapping pressures during colonization, the Jim Crow era, and the Great Depression. But those pressures did not extinguish these ministers’ goals, and evidence of their work remained apparent even after their lifetimes.

Could you talk more about those “overlapping pressures” you mentioned? To what extent do you see the Edmiston’s explicitly grappling with the in-betweenness of being African American missionaries in Africa in an age of white supremacy? Did they feel like they were walking a tightrope? Did they engage with the ideological currents of the time, such as Garveyism and pan-Africanism, or were these things far outside their orbit?

The specific history of the American Presbyterian Congo Mission inspired church members and observers to pay special attention to race relations among this group of Southern Presbyterians. After its 1891 founding by Sheppard and his white colleague, Samuel Lapsley, the Congo Mission staff included eleven African Americans by 1908. Robert Benedetto’s introduction to Presbyterian Reformers in Central Africa includes a section about the use of honorary titles and other signs of perceived racial integration among the missionaries, but Benedetto also details some of the lingering issues. Because Althea Brown and Alonzo Edmiston served the Congo Mission through the late 1930s, they observed major shifts in the ways that African American leaders were addressed by the Presbyterian Church in the United States and by European colonial governments. The Edmistons navigated shifting race-based travel restrictions that threatened to bar them from the trains and British ships that were part of typical travel between the US and the Congo. The Edmistons watched as most of their black colleagues were dismissed from missions service based on complaints about their actions, their demeanor, or their abilities. The Edmistons adjusted their own professional duties in order to avoid further accusations that their degrees from historically black academic institutions were insufficient.

Beyond their ministry tasks, the couple also felt compelled to suspend personal interests like their subscription to the Chicago Defender and their habit of following civil rights news updates. The Belgian government flagged the black press as a source of potential radicalism and occasional support for Marcus Garvey. This potential for surveillance was one reason that Alonzo Edmiston felt that it had become difficult by the mid-1930s to fulfill his ministerial purpose while maintaining his social and cultural connections within the United States.

What were the thorniest questions you had to figure out while writing this book?

Travel logistics posed the first hurdle for my research. Due to political complications abroad, I opted out of traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo before completing A Higher Mission. That decision motivated me to visit additional archives in the U.S. South and investigate how historical developments in that region influenced African American missionaries living abroad. That shift in direction enriched my work for this book as well as my next project. 

Other significant questions were posed by the format of my archival sources. I wanted to represent the perspectives of the Edmistons’ African neighbors without relying exclusively on journals, letters, and articles written by Americans. I addressed this question by incorporating some of the significant texts in African theology. For my introduction to these texts, I must thank my colleagues in the Yale-Edinburgh Group on World Christianity and the History of Mission.  The book is dedicated to one of the group’s co-founders, Dr. Lamin Sanneh.

Why does this history matter now?

I’ll answer this question by referencing an article by my former Southern Oral History Program supervisor, Dr. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall (UNC-Chapel Hill). In her March 2005 article, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Hall argues that we must expand the perceived boundaries of when, where, and how the movement flourished. This expansion holds the key to recognition that reform remains possible in our lifetimes.

I see the potential for an expanded understanding of community responsibility through the study of early twentieth century African American missionaries, their academic institutions, and their domestic and international neighbors. Many of the people featured in my book helped each other survive famine, dire poverty, racial violence, political oppression, and the 1918 pandemic. I benefited from learning how they supported one another through difficult circumstances and why they taught younger generations to do likewise. Seeing how the benefits of that community support are still flourishing for some of the communities featured in A Higher Mission was especially inspiring.

Crusading Christians

For much of the twentieth century, many American Christians used the language of “crusade” in the context of evangelizing activity. I’d like to know more about the origins and uses of this language. I’m sure it has been thoroughly explored. Who should I read about this?

Billy Graham’s meetings were famously called “crusades.” Even in the late 1960s, the black evangelist Tom Skinner’s ministry was called “Tom Skinner Crusades.” It might seem obvious to us that American evangelists and (especially) missionaries overseas might find it counterproductive to speak in the language of “crusade” to describe what they were doing, but it wasn’t at all obvious to them. In fact, in some cases they were quite explicit in drawing on a medieval heritage that we might associate with violence and extremism. Here was the emblem of one Christian college in the mid-1960s:

northwest christian college bulletin 1964

On one level, you might suggest this is about as serious as a sports mascot. But I would argue it indicates a deeper perspective conflating Christianity and the heritage of the so-called “West.” There is an interesting gendered dimension to all of this, one that comes through really clearly when you see how the college announced students’ marriages:

ncc bulletin 1965 conquests