The Church's Role in Education

The African Methodist Episcopal Church’s emphasis on black autonomy paved the way for the Church’s building of schools to educate black people. Education was one means of furthering the black liberation cause as well as reinforcing the religious and moral teachings of the church. By 1900, the African Methodist Episcopal Church had opened thirty-two secondary schools and colleges (Baldwin, 106). An 1876 lithograph by John H. W. Burley evinces education had become the cornerstone of the A.M.E. Church’s efforts to uplift the black race and integrate them as productive members of the larger society. The lithograph includes illustrations of Wilberforce University and the Payne Institute—two educational institutions founded by the A.M.E. Church. It is clear from the lithograph that these two institutions were amongst the most significant achievements for the A.M.E. Church. In “The Church and Negro Progress,” George Haynes outlines the growth of black schools and black churches which played an integral role in the progress of the black race. Haynes claims that the black church serves two functions in educating African Americans. First, it provides financial support to start schools and colleges, and second, it distributes “information and emotional stimulation” (Haynes, 264). One interesting aspect of this document is that Haynes notes African American schools were gradually gaining support from the General Board of Education and from public taxes in southern states (Haynes, 264). This fact signifies a clear shift in public opinion in support of African American education when this was written in 1928.

And yet, education through the A.M.E. Church would not be the sole solution to the Black’s problems. As Walker argues in “A Rock in a Weary Land,” the A.M.E. Church was opportunistic and “naïve” in assuming that education would be the key to black integration into white society. The A.M.E.’s model society was based on the equality of blacks and whites. To Walker, education is incapable of uniting the two races as equal (Walker, 46). Additionally, D.E. Tobias disproves the popular claim that education is the solution to the black’s problems. While he recognizes the importance of literacy for the black race, he argues that no progress will be made unless the white race educates itself on the subject of morality and ethics. In support of his argument, he points to the fact that the attitude of the master towards his slave is not unlike the Southern attitude towards an educated African Americans (Tobias, 43).  In short, Tobias finds that the black race has seen limited change since emancipation because the white race holds steadfast to their uneducated, racist beliefs. The African Methodist Episcopal Church occupied a precarious position between uplifting the black race through education and subjecting them to danger. In some cases, the opening of black schools by the A.M.E. Church exacerbated the animosity and violence that existed between blacks and whites. In “Startling Correspondence,” an article dated June 19, 1866, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner recounts in graphic detail the beating and stabbing of an A.M.E. deacon for opening a school in Alabama. In the Bishop’s words, “Four white citizens broke into his room at midnight, and beat and stabbed him till’ he appeared; when I met him, like a lump of curdled blood”. This incidence serves to show that the A.M.E. Church’s efforts to integrate African Americans into society through opening schools was met with much consternation and resistance from the white community. It sheds light on this complex idea that whites not only felt threatened by blacks integrating into their society, but they were also threatened by blacks forming their own separate institutions away from white society.