BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
In many ways, it was the church that built the community.
The "Echoes of Emancipation: One Region, Many Voices" conference at Tusculum College opened Friday with the Rev. Cecil C. Mills Jr.'s keynote address, "From the Ground Up: Black Churches after Emancipation."
Mills, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church here and an assistant district attorney general of the Third Judicial District, emphasized the church as the focal point and source of strength for an oppressed community.
"Think for a moment about those who had yearned for freedom when they heard about ... when they learned about ... when they were able to experience the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863," Mills said.
"Just as it has been preached from the time I was small, it was like a reenactment of the exodus story of the ancient Israelites. It looked like, again, God had intervened in history to liberate these slaves," he continued.
"It was more than putting a pen to paper. These former slaves had to attempt to reunite families, find meaningful jobs, figure out how to live as free when they had always lived as property.
"One of those tasks was forming and organizing religious communities in which to worship," he said.
Once churches for the now-freed slaves had been established with the aid of many already-flourishing denominations from the North, the black churches' membership in the South grew rapidly by the tens of thousands, Mills said.
Baptist churches led the movement, he said, but there were several denominations that played key roles in the development of black churches: African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.), A.M.E. Zion, Colored Methodist Episcopal (later Christian Methodist Episcopal), the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Incorporated, the National Baptist Convention of America Unincorporated, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
ELEMENTS OF BLACK CHURCHES
The order of the service was unique to any form before it, combining "African ritual, slave emotionalism, Southern suffering" and individual elements to "reflect the anguish, the pain -- and, yes -- the occasional elation of 19th-century black life in this country," he said.
Many elements, Mills noted, are still practically the same today: devotion, prayer and the choir.
The ministers used drama, poetry, vivid imagery and analogy to convey their messages.
"Those preachers provided spiritual guidance and understanding to a people whose faith and capacity for forgiveness was tested daily," he said.
These churches had a male hierarchy that remains largely in place today, he added.
"But always, always, always, most of its congregants were women -- are women, were women," he said.
"Don't fool yourselves. They may have had a male pastor, but every male pastor that wanted to remain a pastor knew where the power was in that church."
COMMUNITY FOCAL POINT
Spiritual guidance was not all that these churches were called on to provide, however, he explained.
As the pivotal part of many black communities, these churches also united, educated, and protected, and provided leadership.
Later, these churches went on to establish what are today many distinguished colleges, seminaries and universities, and even provided such secular elements as theaters and concert halls.
"The stroke of a presidential pen did not eliminate the dislocation of these people," he said. "The stroke of a pen could not eliminate the chaos that they faced.
"Whatever you want to say, black churches were the focal point of black communities, and their members, quickly seceding from white churches, demonstrated their desire to manage their own affairs independently of white supervision."
The ability to do these things gave the black community another something more, Mills concluded.
"Our society, then, was powerless amidst the brokenness, oppression and injustice, poverty and sometimes godlessness. But they were always taught that the church of Jesus Christ had power," he later added.
"God used the church to instill in people through the power of what is Jesus Christ to surely raise up shoulders when the rest of the world told them their shoulders ought to be down -- stooped and down. The power of His word did that."
The audience gave Mills to a standing ovation and long-lasting applause at the conclusion of his remarks.
The two-day conference is being presented by AAHA!: African American Heritage Alliance of East Tennessee.
Partners include the George Clem Multicultural Alliance, Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, Tusculum College, Carson-Newman University, and Minter and Associates Design.
"As East Tennessee is one region which has been and continues to be shaped by the echoes of emancipation, there are many voices here to remember the significance of the struggle of emancipation and to carry forward the significance of work yet to be done to advance the causes of freedom -- freedom from prejudice -- and justice for all," said Dr. Melinda Dukes, vice president of academic affairs at Tusculum.
The conference continues today at Tusculum College through 5 p.m.