- Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration
In February 1987, the Smithsonian Institution opened its historic exhibit, “Field to Factory: Afro-american Migration, 1915—1940.” Under the direction of Spencer Crew, its chief curator, “Field to Factory” struck an exceedingly responsive chord. Popular and scholarly interest in the Great Migration soared. The exhibit soon inspired a variety of films, symposia, and new books, including Bound for the Promised Land. As the author states, “I lingered for a long time at many portions of the 7,000 square foot exhibit, looking and listeningI became a silent witness to the power of the material to evoke the spiritual” (p. 2) Bound for the Promised Land examines the Great Migration as a religious or redemption movement. Specifically, Sernett places the growth of the northern black urban church at the center of his analysis, emphasizing the Great Migration as a “Second Emancipation” and the fulfillment of God’s will to deliver “his people” from the “land of Egypt.” As such, he reinforces recent efforts to supplement our usual focus on the economic, social, and political dimensions of the migration with fresh new cultural perspectives.
Building upon the recent explosion of scholarship on black migration, Sernett situates his study within the larger context of socioeconomic, political, and cultural changes that existed in the rural and to some extent the urban south on the eve of the Great Migration. Unlike other recent studies, however, Sernett offers an extended discussion of the rural black churches, emphasizing the programs and activities of individuals like W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, who used Atlanta University and Tuskegee Institute as vehicles to reform what they called the “low moral and intellectual standard” that prevailed among rural black churches. Before the onset of the Great Migration, according to Sernett, few elites understood that black rural religion could and would animate a mass exodus of African Americans out of the agricultural south into the heart of urban-industrial America.
Bound for the Promised Land not only illuminates the rural roots of black population movement. It also offers telling insights into the reception of migrants by [End Page 257] northern black churches. Whereas established urban studies portray the ambivalent and often hostile reception that newcomers received in established northern churches, Sernett shows how northern black churches overcame such hostility and transformed concern for the migrants into a special mission, and, as he puts it, “a sacred duty.” Scholars, activists, and journalists like Robert Abbott of the Chicago Defender all echoed the same theme—the northern black church and minister occupied the pivotal “position of moral, spiritual and, in a sense, the social leadership of the Race” (p. 128). While Sernett acknowledges substantial variation from city to city, he uses Chicago as a detailed case study to show how “mainline” black Baptist and AME churches responded to both the spiritual and material needs of their new parishioners. In addition to Sunday fellowship, these churches provided food, clothing, housing, educational, health, leisure, and employment services to migrants and their families.
However benevolent northern black churches may have been, Sernett concludes that migrants themselves played the key role in transforming the religious landscape of northern cities. Migrants not only fueled the expansion of the mainline churches by joining established congregations, but established their own independent churches, particularly storefronts. Rather than following the usual stereotype of storefront churches as the peculiar home of Pentecostal, holiness, spiritualist, or other so-called “exotic cults,” Sernett shows how storefront churches cut across all denominations—Methodist, Baptist, and Holiness as well as a variety of new religious movements. Within the context of the storefront church, Bound for the Promised Land demonstrates that migrants came to the city with their own cultural resources that enabled them to resist “total assimilation into the cultural traditions of the Old Settlers and set up their own religious safe places in a hostile urban environment”(p. 180).
Based upon the preceding propositions, Bound for the Promised Land also offers...