Dr. Artika R. Tyner
Throughout history, the Black church has served as a pillar in the community. It is a place where people gather for spiritual nourishment, renewal, and empowerment. It also represents the epicenter of civic engagement, community organizing, and political activism. The African Meeting House in Boston, Massachusetts embodies each of these characteristics and played an integral role in U.S. history. 150 years ago, it is the place where seeds of social change were planted which took root with the abolishment of slavery and adoption of the 13th Amendment. Legendary leaders gathered in this humble church house and cultivated the seeds of social justice.
A few months ago, I learned about the history of the 13th Amendment through an unexpected turn of events. While attending a conference in Boston, I began an exploration of the history of the Boston Tea Party and American Revolution. My first visit was to Faneuil Hall, a marketplace and meeting hall established in 1742. Samuel Adams and other historical figures convened here to develop a blueprint for America’s independence. As I learned more about the revolutionary way, I discovered “The Great Hall” located upstairs where abolitionists challenged slavery and sought equal citizenship for all.
My learning journey suddenly took a new course. I soon found myself on a new journey which focused on the role of African Americans in the struggle for freedom from the chains of the bondage of slavery. The next morning, I was headed down Joy Street to the African Meeting House. The African Meeting House is the oldest black church structure in the United States. It was founded in 1805 under the leadership of Reverend Thomas Paul, an African American preacher from New Hampshire.
The African Meeting House provided a place of refuge and strength for many. It first provided a space to expand the mind through the enrichment of education. From 1808 until 1835, classes were held on the first floor. Students gathered in this space for an impartation of knowledge. As I walked through the classrooms, I could imagine students gathered in this space learning the three Rs- reading, writing, and arithmetic. They also received the type of education which provided them with a sense of cultural heritage and cultivated their passion for the cause of justice. They recognized that obtaining education within itself is a revolutionary act since knowledge is power. The type of power needed to lead social change by dismantling systems of oppression.
Next, I climbed the steps to the sanctuary. I could not wait to ask the curator if I could stand at the podium. As I stood with the microphone in front of me, I was reminded of the great leaders who came before me. They recognized that words have power- the power to challenge old narratives and create new narratives. By challenging the injustice of slavery, they were writing a new chapter on freedom’s journey. I stood in awe as I thought about Frederick Douglass standing at this podium declaring: “This is a meeting to discuss the best method of abolishing slavery and each speaker is expected to present what he regards as the best way of prosecuting the anti-slavery movement… all methods of proceeding against slavery, politics, religion, peace, war, bible, constitution, disunion, union- every possible way known in opposition to slavery is my way.” These words demonstrated the type of collective engagement and strategic planning which took place in this sacred place.
Maria Stewart also stood in this pulpit and challenged slavery as a grave moral injustice. Stewart was the first American-born woman of any color to lecture in public. She reminded those who gathered about the importance of honoring our shared humanity when she stated: “For it is not the color of skin that makes the man or the woman but the principle formed in the soul.” A sense of soul force compelled Maria Stewart and other leaders to take action and join in the struggle of justice.
The voices of leaders in the abolitionist movement, Frederick Douglass, Maria Stewart, William C. Nell, and William Lloyd Garrison, raised the consciousness of America related to the promise of equity and justice. They reminded others that the supreme law of the land, the Constitution, was still yet one missing crucial principle: equality of citizenship. This equality had to be won through struggle and each generation has the responsibility to wage this battle.
The changes that the Constitution has undergone in its history — as a living document — reflect this struggle. African Americans, in particular, have struggled to overcome the racial caste system that relegated them to slavery. The words of the Constitution sound noble on paper, but they are abstractions until people breathe life into them.
In 1865, the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery was such an example of striving towards freedom. This Amendment according to Frederick Douglass challenged America to include African Americans in the concept of “we the people.” This type of advocacy paved the way for the passage of the 13th Amendment which provides:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
This year, December 6, 2015 marks the 150th Anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment. As we reflect on the 13th Amendment, we are reminded that the struggle for justice will continue until we realize the vision of a free and just America for all. Issues we face today- mass incarceration, impediments to the ballot box (like felon disenfranchisement), school to prison pipeline, and widening income gap, remind us of the importance of “promoting the cause of human brotherhood,” as William C. Nell once proclaimed during a speech at the African Meeting House. It is left to us to garner the same energy of the African Meeting House by engaging, discussing, and exchanging ideas to make freedom a lived reality. Remember, “the plant of freedom has grown only a bud and not yet a flower,” according to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How will you plant seeds of social change? This is a call to leadership.