Black Women's Christian ActivismSeeking Social Justice in a Northern Suburb

Black Women's Christian ActivismSeeking Social Justice in a Northern Suburb

Betty Livingston Adams

Print publication date: 2016

ISBN: 9780814745465

Publisher: NYU Press


This book argues that religion made a difference in black working women’s activism and organizational strategies in the struggle for social justice in the first half of the twentieth century. Living and working in an overwhelmingly white and affluent New Jersey suburb, black women like Violet Johnson initially entered public space through their church work. Their willingness to challenge hegemonic assumptions of gender, race, and class amid the nationalization of Jim Crow segregation mattered in the churches they built, the institutions they created, and the communities they sustained. They negotiated alliances across gender, race, and class boundaries, expanded the church’s mission, collaborated in the woman’s temperance reform movement, transformed the white state woman suffrage association into an interracial organization, and converted their Christian service into a force in electoral politics. Over a half century their goals evolved, but their basic strategy of community organizing remained constant. So did their commitment to civic righteousness, just laws, and moral institutions. In contrast to analyses that focus on middle-class women’s activities, this study, anchored in the religious narratives of two women who emerged as state and national leaders, one a domestic servant and Baptist missionary and the other a seamstress and ordained African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister, foregrounds the agency of non-elite black women and their important albeit bounded victories. It reperiodizes the Civil Rights Movement by showing how racial segregation worked in the North and what African American church women’s organizing meant.