​Coming Home to Harlem: The New Home of Missions in the Black American Community

By Elisabeth Engel

In Encountering Empire, historian Elisabeth Engel traces how black American missionaries — men and women grappling with their African heritage — established connections in Africa during the heyday of European colonialism. Reconstructing the black American “colonial encounter,” a neglected chapter of Atlantic history, Engel analyzes the images, transatlantic relationships, and possibilities of representation African American missionaries developed for themselves while negotiating colonial regimes. Between 1900 and 1939, these missionaries paved the way for the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the oldest independent black American institution, to establish a presence in Britain's sub-Saharan colonies. African Americans thus used imperial structures for their own self-determination.

This post, drawn from the book's fourth chapter, discusses how concepts of home crystallized a counterculture of diasporic pan-Africanism within AME missionary circles. A key part of defining “home” for these missionaries was moving to a new headquarters in Harlem.

In addition to the development of semipublic communication structures for Africa missionaries, the representation of the Africa mission to both Atlantic and black American communities was an important aspect of the of the AME Church Missionary Department's work. In day-to-day business, there was one incident that indicated that its authority — to speak both about and for Africa — had much to do with defining where the home of black Americans was. For the department, the ambiguities that were traditionally involved with black concepts of home became most apparent in 1926, the year in which the department moved from its downtown New York City location to its new address on 112 West 120th Street in Harlem, the heart of the black diaspora.


The move was initiated by E. H. Coit, who in 1924 had only just begun his tenure as missionary secretary. Already acquainted with the "gravity" of this job, Coit intimated that practical reasons lay behind his effort to purchase the Harlem building. Apart from the $1,000 annual savings in rent — a sum desperately needed to support work abroad — Coit argued that the house could host "our missionaries who are required to pass this city en route to and from their fields of labor."[1] No one in the church doubted these advantages, and many saw the relocation to Harlem as a meaningful event. After the move was completed in May 1926, Coit received letters from Jacksonville to Cape Town notifying him that the new home was "the talk of the town:' They pictured the building as "a gate-way to all the world" and as an act of emancipation "from 50 years of... bondage."[2] H. M. Steady, the head of the AME Mission in Freetown, Sierra Leone, was particularly enthusiastic: "I congratulate you upon the phenomenal results accomplished... with reference to the new 'Home' of our Missionary Dept." Steady believed that the new home would “give to us as a church free and untrammelled [sic] status”:

[W]e are becoming a vital moral force of Church agencies, occupying a more dignified position, which will elevate us to greater privileges. By this act you inscribed your name in the heart and the minds of the present and future generation, as one of the ardent and honest workers to perpetuate the great cause, led by father Allen.[3]

AME Church periodicals agreed. Addressing the literate black church and scholarly black public in the United States, the AME Church Review noted that the department had clearly been "buried in the great down-town section of New York City, where our people... knew nothing of our whereabouts." The new home was advertised accordingly as an "imposing commodious building" that opened up "the way for thousands of our members, and well-wishers to come in contact with the Secretary of Missions, and to personally investigate our work."[4] The enthusiasm for the building helped people from across the board, the country, and the Atlantic to relate to the entity it represented: the beginning of AME mission work "under its own vine and fig tree."[5]

Almost worthy of the title "foreign" mission department, the house summoned local and transnational visions of black independence and emancipation. The opening celebration of the new facilities, which were held on May 10 and 11, 1926, reflected the department's desire to serve as a meeting point for its national and international missionary community. Apart from a dedication service and a missionary mass meeting, the festivities featured "local and visiting" speakers, as well as high-ranking male and female AME Church representatives. Among the most renowned guests were Henry B. Parks, the missionary secretary of the first hour, and the acting bishops of the church's overseas districts: John A. Gregg from South Africa, W Sampson Brooks (1856-1931) from West Africa, and Abraham L. Gaines from South America and the West Indies. In addition, the program featured the presidents of the women's auxiliary bodies, Mary F. Handy (WPMMS) and Lucy M. Hughes (WHFMS). Two representatives from local missionary branches, L. M. Hunter from Texas and Hattie L. Shelton from Illinois, gave a talk about "Education and Christian Womanhood;" the hot topic of the day in the black community.[6] The opening's impressive turnout led the AME Church Review to rhapsodize about the "wonderful sight" of "the venerable H.B. Parks, surrounded by those who are doing missionary work" and the inspiration contained in the image of "these Missionary leaders together."[7]

The attempt to familiarize AME missionary officials from across the Atlantic with each other went hand in hand with efforts to advertise their missionary leadership to the church community in the United States. A few days after the official opening, the AME Mission Board convened in the new facilities for its annual meeting, taking the event as an opportunity to win church members' support for the new home. The proceedings announced that the meeting gathered a "large crowd" of ministers, laymen, and missionary men and women. To further emphasize their "significant service;' the board organized a luncheon for seventy guests in the St. Luke's Dining Room, a mutual aid institution located in Harlem. The luncheon was meant to appeal to church members' sense of being an "august body" — a strategy that was evidently met with success. As the board reported afterward, all guests were "loud in their praise" of the event and agreed that a "representative place [was] greatly needed by the people of our particular Group in the city of New York.”[8]

One of the first ways in which Coit began to use the well embraced building was to make it avenue for fundraising activities. He reckoned that most Harlem residents were "poor, hard-working men and women;" and focused accordingly on devising strategies to siphon off their "scanty earnings.”[9] To this end, Coit slated missionaries to arrange "lecture tours" whenever they passed through on their way to, or from, mission fields. Their authority and authenticity as firsthand informants, he believed, would prompt more donations than lofty ideologies or middle-class-style luncheons. To complement the lectures, Coit organized exhibitions that illustrated the efficiency of missionary activities. "[A]n ocular demonstration that the monies given by the people have not been thrown away;" Coit argued, would work best to impress working-class people with the work done "over there.”[10]

"E.H. Coit," by C.M. Bell. Created / published between 1873 and 1890. C.M. Bell Studio Collection (Library of Congress).

"E.H. Coit," by C.M. Bell. Created / published between 1873 and 1890. C.M. Bell Studio Collection (Library of Congress).

Over the years, Coit was able to improve his approach to visualizing for Harlem locals the always-distant foreign mission. In 1929, a bishop returning from South Africa brought along five "South African natives" meant to showcase African life at concerts and church services. Coit agreed with the bishop that their performances could illustrate African customs even better than lectures by missionary officials. Part of the deal, then, was that their representation "in moving pictures, in costume, in song, in dialogue, in dance" was staged in a way that emphasized Coit's "type of a Missionary Secretary.”[11] This type conformed to the general idea of enhancing the image of the AME mission, one that focused on "hope for the betterment of the conditions of the people,” as opposed to presenting an "ugly picture" — the prevalent strategy of white missionary marketing.[12] Believing in the appeal that such shows would have for the neighborhood, Coit suggested that African performers could potentially recuperate the costs of their travel in the United States, if not extra money.[13]

Coit's effort to bring the spectacles of Africa home by means of AME traveler's first-hand accounts, as well as African performers, presented a powerful addition to the representations of Africa circulating in Harlem at that time.[14] By the early 1920s, the streets of Harlem had turned into a thriving cultural venue to address the enduring question of the significance of Africa in black American consciousness. Many political agitators preached that black Americans should embrace their true identity as Africans. Garvey called Africa the "noble black man's home and Motherland,” implying that black Americans would have to return there.[15] The NAACP, which had an equally strong base in Harlem, used similar language to criticize the United States as a nation that neglected descendants of Africa as members of the national family. While the two organizations worked toward different ends, activists in both camps represented the continent as an idealized motherland. With its female connotation, Africa mobilized men in the black public to act as her courageous protectors, and it encouraged women to retreat into the private sphere, as helpmates and nurturers of men and boys.[16]

When a vision of Africa as a motherland went beyond political rhetoric, it became a theme of plays produced for Harlem's many stages, ranging from theaters to schools and the streets. In these productions, the idea of female Africa created an avenue for women to enter the public sphere as embodiments of the raped continent, who wept and grieved endlessly for her lost children in the United States.[17] The dramatic artistic representations intersected with the imagery developed by groups devoted to overcoming black youngsters' alienation from Africa. Carter G. Woodson's Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) attempted to give children a positive sense of their black past by constructing a lineage from Negro life in Africa through slavery, the struggle for freedom, and emancipation to the battle for social justice. The youth sections of many local organizations — as well as editors and publishers — joined in. Such knowledge, they believed, would encourage young people's racial pride, uplift, political zeal, and affiliation, and thus serve as a precursor to a broad-based coalition premised on antiracist and anticolonial politics.[18] Like most activities in Harlem, black history lessons took place ad hoc on the streets.[19]

AME churchgoers had long been part of this thriving political and cultural landscape. St. Mark's AME Church on 138th Street was listed as a main attraction in the Harlem Directory, and Greater Bethel AME Church, founded in 190l in the Harlem Library building on West 123rd Street, was widely known as one of New York's oldest black parishes.[20] Harlem was also the birthplace of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ), the AME Church's sister denomination, which became independent from the New York-based Methodist Church in 1820 based on discriminatory practices similar to those that led Richard Allen to found the AME Church in Philadelphia in 1816. From that point on, the Mother AMEZ Church in West Harlem was a leading voice in the local black community.[21] Due to their proximity, members and officials of the local AME congregations were often involved in Harlem's political and cultural activities. Racial uplift, philanthropic work, and civil rights activism constituted traditional fronts around which AME Church women and men joined their secular counterparts. Many held memberships in the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), the NAACP, and the National Urban League (NUL), a civil rights organization focusing on urban living conditions.[22]

The position of the missionary department in these environs at once strengthened and complicated the existing loyalty and cooperation. After the opening of the new headquarters, Coit invested his department's publicity funds to support the Joint Committee for the Employment of Negro Workers and the NULs "Harlem Employment Campaign.”[23] He also helped to promote Woodson's Journal of Negro History, the ASNLH's monthly paper, and reprinted political programs and proclamations of local activists in the Voice.[24] Reports about the AME Church's missionary work circulated, in turn, in the NAACP's Crisis and the NULs Opportunity.[25] William T. Vernon, the freshly returned bishop of South Africa, was invited to address an NAACP annual meeting in Indianapolis, where he talked about Jim Crowism, social equality, and unjust judges.[26]

At the same time, the department's insertion into local politics blurred its representational dominance regarding the church's foreign activities. Once the AME Africa mission made it into the black press, the department increasingly had to defend it against unauthorized and defaming third-party reporting. In 1927, the Afro-American, one of the most widely circulated newspapers in the mid-Atlantic states, claimed to be in possession of cablegrams from West African AME workers, and revealed that "missionaries are starving with no relief from the mission board.”[27] In addition, word got out that their superintendent W. Sampson Brooks, one of the church's most efficient missionary fundraisers, had gone to jail in Monrovia. Such reporting was delicate, for it compromised not only the department's reputation but also its status as the sole provider of accurate information. Although Coit demanded rectification, the Afro-American insisted that "there was no error in the AFRO story" and continued to talk about AME missionaries' starvation and neglect.[28]

A similar conflict emerged in the January 1929 issue of the Crisis. In it, editor and race leader WE. B. Du Bois criticized the department for its treatment of Charlotte Manye Maxeke (1874-1939), a missionary from South Africa, upon her visit to the United States as a delegate to the AME General Conference. Du Bois, who knew Maxeke from her time as a student at the AME Church's Wilberforce University, blamed the department for having failed to grant her absences from the field, as well as appropriate funding for her work. "To cap the climax;' he wrote, "the Missionary Department of the A.M.E. Church is sending her back in the steerage all the way to Africa! Twenty-two days of travel, — nearly as many days as the years which she has given to the Church and its cause! She goes back grey-haired, stricken, poor but serene."

Du Bois's assault amounted to further suspicion. "Somebody standing between the members and the missionaries has kept back or stolen the money which should go to support Charlotte Manye;' he ventured.”[29] With this story, the Crisis intimated that Coit was making money off an allegedly altruistic missionary project. Although both papers eventually apologized, the effects of such negative publicity were not easy to contain. Coit considered bringing the matter to court.[30] But this, as he wrote to other African missionary representatives, would not change the fact that Maxeke would "[n]ever be received by the good women of this nation with the same spirit... that she was received last year." In addition, he warned that the disclosure of Maxeke's complaints "make it hard for those who may come here [from Africa] to represent our Church to be decently entertained by our Church.”[31]

For the church, underneath these debates lay a basic question about emerging race leadership. In the early 1920s, black independent churches acutely felt the rise of secular movements along with dropping numbers in membership. Between 1916 and 1926, AME Church membership stagnated at about half a million, with a decrease of 0.5 percent compared to the years between 1906 and 1916.[32] To approach the problem constructively, it invited debates about race leadership. In 1921, the Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia reasserted its role as a century-old religious organization dedicated to the social and spiritual needs of black Americans, and asked its competitors Du Bois and Garvey, the renowned heads of the NAACP and the UNIA, to appear on stage for two nights in a row and to juxtapose their leadership styles. According to the Christian Recorder, both of them represented a "blanket type - to 'advance the race' [i.e., NAACP], or to 'improve the race' [i.e., UNIA]." With their focus on economic and social betterment of colored people, the Recorder argued, they indeed created "the prospect of political leadership:' At the same time, the paper asserted that "blanket types" did not sufficiently represent the race. Leadership "among our people;' it argued, had to become "more and more diverse as our development becomes more complex:' It saw religious organizations in possession of this feature, unlike the two men it analyzed. Neither "Mr. Garvey nor Mr. Du Bois is much bothered with religious leadership;' the paper concluded, "except occasionally to criticise it.”[33]



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Advertisement for shares in the Black Star Line

With its understanding of different leadership styles, the church emphasized the possibility of variety within the race as much as the necessity to differentiate between the representatives of any one group encompassed by such variety. This was particularly crucial for the mission project, which was often mistaken for a "militant Negro religious organization'' aligned with Garvey's back-to-Africa campaign.[34] As the department's correspondence underscores, it regularly received misdirected requests about Garvey's Black Star Line, the ship company he operated to facilitate black remigration to Africa in the early 1920s.[35] While the department was happy to clarify the difference between its own cause and Garvey's anticolonial propaganda to re-conquer ''Africa for the Africans" in its communication, the confusion was less easy to clear up with the U.S. State Department and the colonial administrations. In 1919, for instance, the consul of British Guiana rated the church's Christian Recorder together with Garvey's Negro World among the black papers that adopted "a policy of antagonism to the white race... which [is] causing the British Guiana Government some anxiety.”[36] The problem was exacerbated in 1924, when special agents of the U.S. State Department reported that Garvey had publicly declared that "all colored clergy throughout the world were working for Free Africa and that they had 'Ambassadors' located in every important section.”[37] After all, Garvey's radicalism moved the AME mission into the focus of U.S. and British government surveillance across the Caribbean, South America, and West and South Africa.

Since most AME missionaries, particularly in the Caribbean, could agree with Garvey's nationalist scheme of racial uplift, the department enforced their strict exclusion whenever they overtly supported the movement.[38]Any alignments with Garvey, it warned, could bring the church "into disrepute and suspicion on the part of the Government officials.”[39] The policy ensured that black missionaries would be admitted to British colonial territory and it carved out a terrain for their religious leadership in the landscape of black political activism during the 1920s and 1930s. As Bishop William W. Beckett (1859-1927) clarified in 1923, the department did not only criticize 'GARVEYISM: but we unqualifiedly oppose, denounce and repudiate it as a fraudulent organization, utterly unrepresentative of the Negro people of the world; misleading to the ignorant and easily devised, and positively detrimental to the best interest of the Negro race. Acting on behalf of the best interest of the race, Beckett thereby implied, did not necessarily mean to assert racial essentialism or representing people, above all, as blacks.[40]

While missionary leaders grappled with race leaders, the Voice brought the integration of its Atlantic missionary community to fruition. The magazine featured reports about the new home in Harlem with increasing regularity, supplying images and information about its clerks, worth, furniture, insurance, and mortgages. The wide coverage of the reporting was in part due to a campaign, called "Lifting the Load;' that the department launched during the Great Depression. While the department actually aimed at balancing its decreasing budget for the work overseas, it presented the financial crisis as an issue that primarily concerned the maintenance of the headquarters at home.[41] In response to its call to support the house in Harlem, donations poured in from South and West Africa, in particular. H. M. Steady from Freetown, for instance, readily transferred what he called a "humble contribution to help in 'Lifting the Load' of the Missionary Home;' along with his assertion that the Sierra Leone- based church had "long desired to make this contribution.”[42] To continue encouraging such transatlantic solidarity, the Voice printed on its cover page Steady's statement, followed by an invitation to all delegates traveling in 1936 to the United States for the General Conference in New York to visit the Harlem headquarters. "This will be the first opportunity;' the Voice announced, "to see this much talked about and criticized department of the church... It is your property, and we want you to see it and get an idea what your public servants are trying to do for you and with your property.”[43] That the Atlantic missionary community came to rescue a home in Harlem, rather than fight a political cause in Africa, suggests that its formation evolved around a concrete location, a house they could visit in real life. Widely discussed and fleshed out in AME Church periodicals and correspondences, the home in Harlem gained more than transatlantic recognition. It gathered adherents in a transatlantic community of black people who wanted to distinguish themselves from political agitation that propagated Africa as the homeland of the black race. By moving its core institution to Harlem, the AME Africa mission claimed its place in the black metropole and brought its non-pan-African views to the core of the diaspora, two trajectories that were not strategic essentialisms but a counterculture that emerged alongside the dominant notions of race, home, and Africa in interwar black agitation.

Elisabeth Engel is a historian of modern North America, specializing in colonial and racial entanglements and the history of risk and uncertainty in the Atlantic world. She is currently a Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute, and holds a PhD from the Freie Universität. Encountering Empire was awarded the Franz Steiner Prize for outstanding manuscripts in the history of transatlantic relations and published by Franz Steiner Verlag in 2015.


[1] E.H. Coit to J.A. Gregg, [1926?]. SCRBC, AME CR, box 43, folder "Corr. G, 1924- 1926:'

[2] R. A. Grant to E. H. Coit, May 6, 1926. Folder "Corr. G, 1926"; and R. S. Jenkins to Board of Missionary Department, March 1, 1927. Folder "Corr. J, 1927:' Both SCRBC, AME CR, box 43.

[3] H.M. Steady to E. H. Coit, June 15, 1926. SCRBC, AME CR, box 43, folder "Corr. H. M. Steady, 1926:'

[4] "Our Missionary Department;' AME Review (July 1926): 24.

[5] Our Missionary Department, 1928. SCRBC, AME CR, box 45 , folder "Misc. Reports, 1928:'

[6] E. H. Coit to H. L. Shelton, April 7, 1926. SCRBC, AME CR, box 43, folder "Corr. Sf-Sm, 1926:' For a discussion of this, see Section 4.2.

[7] "Our Missionary Department;' 24.

[8] "St. Luke's Dining Room Patronized by Missionary Board of the A. M. E. Church, in their Annual Board Meeting, New York City:' SCRBC, AME CR, box 45, folder "Misc. Reports, 1926- 1927:'

[9] E. H. Coit to Brother, September 9, 1926. SCRBC, AME CR, box 45 , folder "Misc. Reports, 1926- 1927:'

[10] J. A. Gregg ton. n., August 31, 1926. Folder "Corr. G, 1926"; and E. H. Coit to W S. Brooks, May 4, 1927. Folder "Corr. Bishop W S. Brooks, 1927:' Both SCRBC, AME CR, box 43.

[11] F. H. Gow to E. H. Coit, June 28, 1929. SCRBC, AME CR, box 45, folder "Corr. F. Herman Gow+ L.B., 1929:'

[12] "Interpretative Thinking;' 3.

[13] F. H. Gow to E. H. Coit, June 28, 1929. SCRBC, AME CR, box 45, folder "Corr. F. Herman
Gow+ L.B., 1929:'

[14] The following is based on Jonathan Gill, Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America (New York, 2011); Robert M. Dowling, Slumming in New York: From the Waterfront to Mythic Harlem (Urbana, 2007); Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto, Negro New York, 1890- 1930 (New York, 1966); and Sacks, Before Harlem.

[15] Qtd. in Corbould, Becoming, 18.

[16] Ibid., 22.

[17] Ibid., 35.

[18] Ibid., 106.

[19] Ibid., 94.

[20] "Harlem Directory: Where to Go and What Do When in Harlem;' Harlem, November, 1, 1928, repr. in Voices from the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Nathan Irvin Huggins (New York, 1995), 46.

[21] While the two African Methodist churches never merged, they had a shared agenda and were in close - and for the most part, favorable - contact. The unification remained difficult for administrative reasons. For the purpose of this study, it is important to note that the AME and the AMEZ Church had the same discipline and doctrine, and together they orchestrated their mission work in Africa. On the AMEZ Church, see David Henry Bradley, A History of the AME Zion Church, 2 vols. (Nashville, 1956-1970).

[22] Wright, Bishops, 32.

[23] Ira De Reid to E.H. Coit, October 20, 1926. SCRBC, AME CR, box 43, folder "Corr. Ra-Re, 1926:'

[24] Carter G. Woodson to J. W. Rankin, January 23, 1924. SCRBC, AME CR, box 42, folder "Corr. W-Y, 1923:'

[25] See, for instance, Richard R. Wright Jr., "Wilberforce in South Africa: Forty Years [sic] Missionary Work of the A. M. E. Church;' Opportunity(October 19 3 7 ): 306-10.

[26] “Address Delivered Before National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;' Christian Recorder, June 30, 1927, 12

[27] E.H. Coit to Carl Murphy, December 4, 1926. SCRBC, AME CR, box 43, folder "Corr. Mo-Mu, 1926:'

[28] Carl Murphy to E.H. Coit, April 9, 1927. SCRBC, AME CR, box 43, folder "Corr. Bishop W S. Brooks, 1927.”

[29] W. E. B. Du Bois, "Charlotte Manye;' Crisis (January 1929): 22, emphasis original.

[30] E. H. Coit to Mary F. Handy, January 1929. SCRBC, AME CR, box 45, folder "Corr. Mary F. Handy, 1929:'

[31] E. H. Coit to H.F. Gow, February 27, 1929. SCRBC, AME CR, box 45, folder "Corr. Herman F. Gow +LB, 1929:'

[32] U.S. Bureau of the Census, "Religious Bodies;' 49.

[33] "Race Leadership;' Christian Recorder, April 14, 1921, i.

[34] Qtd. in Vinson, Americans Are Coming, 91.

[35] J. W Rankin to Floyd L. Lawson, June 30, 1921. SCRBC, AME CR, box 41, folder "Corr. L, 1921.”

[36] C.E. Chamberlain to Secretary of State, May 3, 1919. Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., ed., Federal Surveillance of Afro-Americans, 1917- 1935: The First World War, the Red Scare and the Garvey Movement (Frederick, 1986), reel 12, frame 0405.

[37] Frank C. Higgins to R. S. Sharp, March 18, 1924. Federal Surveillance of Afro-Americans, reel 18, frame 0744.

[38] S.M. Jones to R.R. Downs, January 1, 1923. SCRBC, AME CR, box 42, folder "Corr. I-J, 1923.” For Garveyists in the AME Church, see Burkett, Garveyism as a Religious Movement.

[39] Clerk to W.A. Fountain, January 19, 1922. SCRBC, AME CR, box 42, folder "Corr. Bishop W.A. Fountain, 1922:'

[40] W.W. Beckett to S. M. Jones, January 10, 1923. SCRBC, AME CR, box 42, folder "Corr. I-J, 1923.” The AME Church was stricter than other black mission boards. For African American missionaries active in the UNIA, see Randall K. Burkett, Black Redemption: Churchmen Speak for the Garvey Movement (Philadelphia, 1978).

[41] See all issues of the Voice of Missions published in 1936.

[42] I. C. Steady, ''A Letter;' Voice of Missions (January 1936): cover page.

[43] ''An Invitation to the General Conference to Visit the Headquarters of the Missionary Department;' Voice of Missions (April 1936): 5.