The Great Migration




In high school, when we learned about the Great Migration, we focused mainly on the economic aspects, and then the social ones in terms of standards of living. Never did we talk about religion, and the impact that the Great Migration had on both the religious institutions of the north and of the south. Harvey even argues that “one of the most significant forces shaping the black experience was the Great Migration…[it] shifted the center of African American religious life” (Harvey, 87).

One of the things I love about the two books we read is that Harvey explains these movements, these huge religious events and ideas in broader terms, and in Sernett’s collection, we’re able to put personal experiences, faces, and testimonies into the bigger picture. Harvey mentions Holiness/Pentecostal movements, Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, the beginnings of mass community work, the Church of God in Christ, and Marcus Garvey. We then read these ideas from the actual people themselves, and they no longer become just ideas, they become a lived experience and reality.

Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois, became the largest Protestant church in the United States, with a membership close to twelve thousand by the 1930s. It’s very clear that without the Great Migration, this would not have been possible. It likely would have remained the First African Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. This really shows what Harvey discussed, about the shift in the center of African American religious life. What’s more, though, about Olivet is the massive nature of their community outreach and service programs. It seemed to me that Olivet was a precursor to the modern megachurch, not only with size but with these programs.

Mattie Fisher and Mrs. Jessie Mapp are very religious in their language and focus heavily on the idea of service. They are part of hundreds of missionary meetings, services, prayer meetings, the Baptist Young People’s Union, and Sunday school. They see religion as a way to serve the growing, urbanizing community around them, and use that to attract members. The last line of Mapp’s excerpt struck me: “We need a trained ministry to teach our people. They need more teaching than preaching. They need to be taught the Word of God” (Sernett, 370). Despite their newfound service commitments, these women are still Baptist (and Protestant) in nature — the Bible is the Word of God, and it’s all a true believer needs. When it comes down to it, the Bible will not fail and is the best method to attract and keep followers.

Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, circa 1938

(clicking on this will take you to the Vimeo site to watch the video)

Leave a Reply