Black Hebrews’ Origins
Translation from French: Olivier Maheo
Brooklyn Nets basketball star Kyrie Irving has been suspended for two weeks for promoting an anti-Semitic film online. Hebrews to Negroes espouses ideas in line with more extreme factions of the Black Hebrew Israelites, which have a long history of misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and especially antisemitism. We chose to translate this article by Baptiste Bonnefoy, published in French in 2021 about the origins of the Black Hebrews. Another translated article will soon be publish about William Saunders Crowdy (1847-1908).
The Black Hebrews (or Black Israelites) appeared at the turn of the twentieth century in the United States and have given rise to a vast bibliography. This phenomenon first interested two pastors of color: the historian Miles Mark Fisher in the 1930s and the anthropologist Arthur Fauset in the 1940s.1 They tried to understand why thousands of African-Americans had turned away from the traditional black churches (mainly Baptists and Methodists) in favor of more radical and more militant movements on the question of the color line. The Churches of the Living God, heirs to a movement founded in 1889 by William Christian, had 2,676 members in 1906 and 17,402 in 1926, and William S. Crowdy‘s Church of God and Saints of Christ had 1,823 members in 1906 and 6,741 in 1926.2 Fauset thus affirmed that race consciousness was a constitutive element of these new cults, which were very much in the minority, but whose successes highlighted the failure of the historical black churches in the face of the problems of racial segregation, a failure already foreseen in 1903 by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of the Black People.
In the 1960s, the civil rights movement and black nationalism amplified this interest in the Black Hebrews, who became a veritable object of study, at the crossroads of social history and religious history.4 This object progressively became a privileged entry point to approach the relations between Jewish and African-American populations in the United States.5 However, these numerous works often struggle to accurately reconstruct the genesis of these religious communities. For example, historiography has long located the origins of African-American Judaism around the figure of the prophet Frank Sandy Cherry (1875-1963), claiming that he founded his church in 1886 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, before moving to Philadelphia. The date is not plausible, as Cherry was born in Georgia in 1875. Moreover, he does not appear as a preacher in the sources until the 1930s-40s, when Fauset became interested in his church, the Church of the Living God, Pillar and Ground of the Truth.6
Others have pointed to the role of Rabbi L. Richlieu, who is said to have established the Moorish Zion Temple in Brooklyn in 1899, but there is no evidence in the sources to support this information, which was disseminated in the 1920s by Temple officials.7 The historian Jacob S. Dorman has thus shown that it is necessary to place these fictional chronologies in the context of their production, the 1920s, when a struggle for seniority pitted different groups of Black Hebrews against each other on a city or neighborhood scale. Seniority was a marker of stability and legitimacy in a highly competitive religious environment.8
More recently, Jacob S. Dorman has offered a more accurate account of the genesis of the Black Israelites, which he calls them, because they claimed to be not so much Jewish as direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews, like the early Christians. Their struggles and strategies were thus fully in line with Christianity and African American nationalisms. According to J. S. Dorman, most of the groups created on the East Coast of the United States during the interwar period were directly descended from Christian’s Church of the Living God and Crowdy’s Church of God and Saints of Christ.9 In Harlem alone, there were three such groups in the 1920s: the Commandment Keepers, the Moorish Zionist Temple and the Beth B’nai Abraham Congregation.10 But unlike the Christian and Crowdy movements, these groups were ultra-minority, very localized and not very proselytizing.
Jacob S. Dorman discusses in detail the obvious kinship between the Christian and Crowdy movements, which emerged in Arkansas in 1889 and in Kansas in 1897, only eight years apart. Both preached that Adam, Abraham, Moses, Solomon, and Jesus were black and that African Americans were their direct and legitimate descendants. Both claimed to be inspired by the practices of early Christianity: Sabbath, foot washing, baptism by immersion, water and unleavened bread for the Eucharist. Both were influenced by the democratic ideals and religious fervor of the Baptists and the racial theologies and hierarchical structure of African American Methodism. Not without contradictions, they stand halfway between religious universalism and a racialized conception of election in religion, between anti-segregation discourses and forms of black supremacism. Given this enduring tension, and despite their successes, neither succeeded in creating the biracial church they had hoped for.
What Dorman does not know, but which largely confirms his hypotheses, is that William S. Crowdy was ordained pastor of Christian’s Church of the Living God only a few months before he created his own movement.12 From then on, he only introduced the ideas of Christian on the East Coast of the United States and progressively radicalized them. From then on, there was a very gradual shift from the Methodist theologies of the nineteenth century to the African-American “Judaism” of the 1930s, passing through the heterodox movements of Christian and Crowdy.
1. M. M. Fisher, « William S. Crowdy and the Saints », conference given at Howard University, 11/12/36; « Organized Religion and the Cults », The Crisis, Vol. 44, No. 1, 1937, p. 8-10 ; A. H. Fauset, Black Gods of the Metropolis, a Dissertation in Anthropology, Philadelphia, Publications of the Philadelphia anthropological society, Vol. 3, 1944. And this chapter, same year: Roi Ottley, « Found : The lost tribe of black Jews », New world a-coming : Inside Black America, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1943.
2. U.S. Department of Commerce, Religious Bodies 1936, New York, Norman Ross Publishing, 1941, p. 434, 486.
3. The Salt Lake herald (Salt Lake City, Utah), 27 octobre 1907, p. 4 (Chronicling America).
4. A. Ehrman, « The Commandment Keepers: A Negro Jewish cult in America today », Judaism: A Quarterly Journal, No. 8, 1959, p. 266-270 ; H. Brotz, The black Jews of Harlem : Negro Nationalism and the Dilemmas of Negro Leadership, New York, Free Press of Glencoe, 1964 ; A. Dobrin, A history of the Negro Jews in America, Mémoire non publié, City College of New York, 1965 ; R. Landes, « Negro Jews in Harlem », Jewish Journal of Sociology, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1967, p. 175-189 ; H. Waitzkin, « Black Judaism in New York », Harvard Journal of Negro Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1967, p. 12-44.
5. P. Chireau, N. Deutsch (éd.), Black Zion : African American Religious Encounters with Judaism, New York, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 3.
6. NARA, T627, Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, Roll 3750, Philadelphia City, Ward 47, f. 8A.
7. See D. Shapiro, « Factors in the Development of Black Judaism », in C. E. Lincold (Ed.), The Black Experience in Religion, New York, Anchor Press, 1972, p. 266.
8. J. S. Dorman, Chosen People : the rise of American Black Israelite Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 200.
10. R. S. Gold, « The Black Jews of Harlem : Representation, Identity, and Race, 1920-1939 », American Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 2, 2003, p. 179-225.
11. J. S. Dorman, Chosen People, op. cit., p. 88-90.
12. Lincoln County Courthouse (Chandler, Oklahoma), Miscellaneous records, Book 1, Certification of ordination of William S. Crowdy, p. 410.