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Reginald Hildebrand Goes Deeper On The Importance Of The Black Church In The Carolinas

This week, a four-hour series has been airing on PBS that explores the history of the Black church, hosted by historian and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates. "The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song" goes back to the religious practices of enslaved Africans and the church's role in escape routes and uprisings up to its importance to African Americans today.

Rev. Al Sharpton (on tape): The Black church was more than just a spiritual home. It was the epicenter of Black life.

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Dr. Reginald Hildebrand

Oprah Winfrey (on tape): " ... The church, gave people a sense of value and of belonging and of worthiness. I don't know how we could have survived as a people without it.

Gwendolyn Glenn: The series explores the Black church's role and social and political movements, the importance of song, and how the church was an incubator for historically Black colleges and universities such as Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte.

For many Black people over the years, the church has been seen as a place they could always count on, a protector. Reginald Hildebrand, a retired UNC Chapel Hill and Durham Tech history professor, is featured in the series. He says that protective role is somewhat missing now, with most churches closed due to the pandemic as challenges persist.

Reginald Hildebrand: We have a greater consciousness of sometimes deadly criminal activity of police, and the whole world has a greater consciousness about the impact of systemic racism. People who are at the bottom end of the economy are having worse periods now than ever.

So there are a great many strains on people's consciousness, their psyche, their sense of well-being. And ordinarily the church would have been where you would go to connect with people, to comfort each other when you're having difficulties. To aid those who are ill. And none of that — not even being able to come together to worship — is available to us now.

Glenn: What you said just now about the church's role as being there for African Americans, let's go back to slavery. When the churches serve that same role, enslaved Africans used it as a place where they could go.

Hildebrand: During slavery, what became the Black church was then known as the invisible institution because they had to worship in secret, at night, in hushed harbors. And because they did not want to bring attention to the fact that the message they were hearing that was being preached to them by Black preachers was not the message that was supportive of their subordination and of slavery. It was a message of hope and deliverance.

And the other gift that they gave us were the spirituals and the foundations for Black music coming out of that extreme experience and slavery where they were deprived of all sorts of material support and institutional supports and other kinds of things they had to rely on and dig deep into their spiritual nature and strengths.

Glenn: And in the documentary series, you talk about Richard Harvey Cain, and he was the first pastor of Mother Emanuel in Charleston.

Hildebrand (on tape): Richard Harvey Cainhired the son of Denmark Vesey as the architect for that church, symbolically making a statement. He took great pride in saying that every nail hammered in Emanuel was drawn in by a Black hand.

Hildebrand: Richard Harvey Cain was an extraordinary individual. He came from Brooklyn to South Carolina when he was 40 years old. Cain was a member of the state legislature, was elected to the U.S. Congress, had a newspaper, had a school.

Glenn: And the church was burned down then.

Hildebrand: In 1822, when Denmark Vesey's conspiracy was uncovered, his plan to fight against slavery was uncovered. That church was shut down. African Methodism was banned throughout the South. The minister of that church, a man named Morris Brown, had to flee for his life to Philadelphia. But that was about 40 years before Cain shows up and rebuilds Emanuel.

Glenn: And that violence continued. You know, you had the burning of churches, I guess that was in the '90s. You had Dylan Roof kill nine parishioners there at Mother Emanuel. The Black church has always seemed to have been a target.

Hildebrand: When the church becomes a source of oppositional strength to oppression, people on the other side are going to push back. And if the belief is that their problems are being caused by the strength people are getting from the church or the leadership that is coming out of the church, then they will strike at that with whatever forces they have. Much to characteristically, that was violence. Bombings, burnings and shootings.

Glenn: And looking at today, we just had a very controversial presidential election and the Black church played a big role in that election — not just for the presidency, but for Congress and local elections as well, wouldn't you say?

Hildebrand: I would. The church has traditionally played that role. So the church still plays an important role. And we look to people like Reverend William Barber, who is on the cutting edge of, I think, where we need to be in the kinds of approaches that are absolutely essential.

But the church no longer has a monopoly on leadership, political, economic or educational, as it once did, because we had nothing else. I imagine, in the lead-up to the to the election, particularly the presidential election, I doubt there's any Black person who went to any Black church who did not on a regular basis hear sermons or messages about, "Have you registered? You must register. You have to vote." Almost as if this is your religious responsibility — particularly in this time because people thought there was so much at stake with this election.

Glenn: Well, looking to the future of the role of the Black church and especially where youth are concerned, are they embracing it? Do you see the role of the Black church changing?

Hildebrand: It is changing. And we're going through a period of change. People, if you're interested in the Black lives, if you are engaged in that, you may look around and not see the church there with you and wonder, you know, if the church can play the role it played during the civil rights movement.

The church has a challenge from the "woke" generation, the millennials who are questioning it and challenging it. I think it's beginning to hear that challenge. How well it will respond is an open question.

But there is another group that I think is just as crucial that the church may be missing. And there in Charlotte, there was a great leader who died last October. Her name was Judy Williams. She was the co-founder of Mothers of Murdered Offspring. That is the ministry that I think the church has to respond to.

And they may be developing ministries of their own outside of traditional church. They remind me very much of the invisible religion of the slave community, that when I go to vigils with those people and I see them comfort each other and hear them pray and hear them talk about the persons they've lost, it seems to me that I'm transported back to a slave community that has just lost a loved one. And knowing that no one's going to take care of them but themselves and their faith in God, they gathered.

That, I think is a challenge of the church beyond the challenge of Black Lives Matter, which is an important challenge, but the one will help define what the church becomes in the future.

Reginald Hildebrand taught history at UNC Chapel Hill and Durham Technical Community College.

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