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The Excerpt podcast: Black History Month: Saving our historic Black churches

On a special episode of The Excerpt podcast:

This Black History Month we wanted to celebrate the role of Black churches in advancing a more just and progressive society. But why have so many historic Black churches been abandoned or fallen into disrepair? Juan Floyd-Thomas, Associate Professor of African American Religious History at Vanderbilt University, joins us on The Excerpt to discuss the effort to preserve these historic sites, part of the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement.

Hit play on the player below to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript beneath it. This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.

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Dana Taylor:

Hello and welcome to The Excerpt. I'm Dana Taylor. Today is Sunday, February 25th, 2024.

In 1963, 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Alabama, the first Black church in Birmingham, tragically became the site of a bombing that killed four young girls who were attending Sunday school. The church was subsequently repaired and became a symbol of the Civil Rights movement. This Black history month, we wanted to celebrate the role of Black churches in advancing a more just and progressive society. But why have so many historic Black churches been abandoned or fallen into disrepair, and who is working to save them? Here with more on the effort to preserve historic Black churches, we're joined now by Juan Floyd-Thomas, Associate Professor of African-American Religious History at Vanderbilt University. Juan, thanks so much for joining me.

Juan Floyd-Thomas:

Thank you for having me.

Dana Taylor:

Let's begin with the historical significance of Black churches in the United States, particularly during pivotal moments such as the Civil Rights movement. How did these churches function as catalysts for social change?

Juan Floyd-Thomas:

Black churches have been indispensable in terms of thinking about issues of faith, and culture, and identity and purpose in this nation. From the colonial era some 400 years ago to the current age of cloud computing that we're in now, the Black church has been a space of not just intellectual or inspirational growth, but also institutional and improvisational social change.

So when I think about the Black church in America, it has not just been a safe haven for African-Americans, but it has been, as you said, an incubator for social transformation and social justice for all Americans.

Dana Taylor:

We can go back, as you said, even further than the 1960s Civil Rights movement. What was the role of Black churches in the Underground Railroad?

Juan Floyd-Thomas:

Black churches were indispensable and crucial parts of the Underground Railroad and the overall resistance to slavery. What we have to understand is true to the nature of many African-American institutions, both historically and currently, the Black church could not just serve as a space for worship or celebration, but also had to be a space where community mobilization happened.

They organized in what were known as hush harbors and gathered secretly outside of the prying eyes of slave institutions in order to organize themselves for the Underground Railroad. That Underground Railroad, contrary to what many people think, was not an actual railroad, but was a network of locations of which churches, Black and white, became crucial way stations or stops along the pathway to freedom.

Dana Taylor:

St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Asheville, North Carolina, founded as the Freedman's Church following the Civil War, it's going to celebrate its 160th anniversary in 2026. This was a church built by a formerly enslaved person. What role did churches play in the lives of the newly emancipated?

Juan Floyd-Thomas:

The idea that the church and its work in a community, a larger society, had to be both aimed at a politics that could guarantee the life chances, employment opportunities or educational achievements of the newly freed African-American population. But then also, repair some of the tragedy and trauma of their lives during enslavement and in the years that followed.

So in many regards, heal the wounds that had been inflicted upon African-Americans at the height of slavery in this country, and that was a long and arduous process.

Dana Taylor:

Fast-forward to today, how do Black churches help shape the community's sense of identity? Is the church still at the center when it comes to creating a sense of empowerment within the Black community?

Juan Floyd-Thomas:

Historically, when the Black church or Black churches, were the main center of all social activity for the community around them has faded because of social changes in terms of suburbanization and gentrification. Sometimes the Black church may be the last symbol of what previously existed in that community, but you still see churches serving, as one song says, a shelter in a time of storm.

I think one of the great secrets of the Black church's success, sad but true, has been its ability to overcome adversity from the period of slavery through the period of segregation, and even now in our current socio-political moment of division as a nation.

So whether it's organizing Souls to the Polls and voting drives, or providing after-school programs, community development programs such as Buy Back the Block, or offering health seminars, or providing clinics, bringing resource centers during natural disasters. In these, and so many other ways, Black churches still serve a vital role in their communities, but their communities, the idea of the congregations that they serve, has now become more elastic than probably ever before.

Dana Taylor:

The National Trust for Historic Preservations African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund through its Preserving Black Churches program has now awarded 9.8 million in grants to 80 churches nationwide. Is that enough funding to meet the demand, and is there a particular region in the country where historic Black churches are in decline?

Juan Floyd-Thomas:

It's commendable that that amount of money has been devoted to Black churches, but it's not nearly enough. The invisible institution of the Black church was forced underground quite literally because of the legal and illegal measures in terms of terrorism and racial violence, including church burnings that happened throughout much of the South from the period of reconstruction on through to the high point of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, is in some ways it is a far too late acknowledgement or compensation for the lack of protection and care that our society, American society, had for too often neglected Black churches and the communities that they serve and represent.

When we have situations such as bombings and church burnings, that is not just carving and attacking the heart of vibrant communities, but also it demonstrates a disdain, a disrespect for our very core values, our First Amendment values in terms of freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of belief.

Dana Taylor:

What about the work of preserving smaller prayer houses or praise houses? What can you tell us about the history of these humbler houses of worship?

Juan Floyd-Thomas:

The significance and the importance of so many of these smaller houses of worship, especially if they're in communities that are also neglected and blighted economically, if they're also part of a history of racial strife, and separation and discrimination that many people would rather escape than embrace, would rather ignore than somehow memorialize, then these smaller houses of worship will just fade away.

Once again, that messy thing known as the First Amendment. If you can worship and pray however you choose, people should be allowed to see in real terms, in real time the manifestation of those choices.

Dana Taylor:

So in what ways can the revitalization of abandoned Black churches address the overall revitalization needs of a community, and are there examples of communities coming together to preserve or repurpose these spaces that have transformed the neighborhoods they're in?

Juan Floyd-Thomas:

There are developers even now who are eager to get their hands on any piece of land possible, but the idea that the local community has organized and galvanized themselves and worked in partnership with local, state, and federal entities to guarantee that these rare houses of worship, even though they're humble, rural, little backwoods locations deserve to exist and deserve funding and protection.

That is just one model of what I think should be a national example, especially in places like Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, where some of the harshest and hardest examples of racial division and economic despair have visited these spaces.

Dana Taylor:

Is the push to save historic Black churches primarily to preserve them as historical sites, to restore them as active houses of worship, or both?

Juan Floyd-Thomas:

I'm hoping and expecting that it should be both. I've had the opportunity in recent years to visit England and Germany and France, and travel in other spaces internationally and seeing fine cathedrals and beautiful chapels. But one of the things that is sad is that those hallowed spaces are also hollow. What we should not repeat here in America is that same mistake of preserving the buildings, but not investing in the people who make those houses of worship what they need to be for our culture and our society.

Dana Taylor:

There are, of course, many historical Black churches that continue to thrive. Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which was founded in 1886, one of the spiritual homes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Today, its Senior pastor is US Senator Raphael Warnock. Is this intersection of politics, social justice and traditional ministry an outlier, or is it still at the heart of the Black church today?

Juan Floyd-Thomas:

I count the Reverend Dr. Senator Raphael Warnock, not just a colleague, but a good friend. So I speak in a somewhat informed fashion about his role.

Now, it seems extraordinary in our time, but we also have to think back in the not too distant past where we had ministers such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson, or Reverend Al Sharpton run for the US presidency. We've had situations where one of the most powerful congresspeople in our nation's history was the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, who during the height of the Civil Rights movement, was working on the Senate committees that were receiving Civil Rights legislation that was brought forward and largely inspired by the protest movements that were led by Dr. King.

We also have to look to the fact that to have a prominent Black minister in Congress who was also leading the charge from the policy side was very crucial, and he could only do that because of the strong base of support he had in Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Dana Taylor:

Thank you so much for being on The Excerpt, Juan.

Juan Floyd-Thomas:

Thank you so much, Dana. It's been a pleasure.

Dana Taylor:

Thanks to our senior producers, Shannon Rae Green and Bradley Glansrock for their production assistance. Our executive producer is Laura Beatty. Let us know what you think of this episode by sending a note to podcasts@USAtoday.com. Thanks for listening. I'm Dana Taylor. Taylor Wilson will be back tomorrow morning with another episode of The Excerpt.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The Excerpt podcast: Saving our historic Black churches