His Light Shines in Our House
PART ONE OF TWO
by Christopher S . Hunter , Ph . D .
Assistant Professor of Architecture Mississippi State University
First African Baptist Church , Savannah , Georgia . Christopher S . Hunter
This little light of mine , I ’ m gonna let it shine , Let it shine , let it shine , let it shine
This refrain was a familiar one in the church house where I grew up . Church elders teaching Sunday School taught little ones this simple song about inner strength and faith . By the mid-twentieth century , this song would also become a powerful expression of activism and defiance in the fight against Jim Crow and segregation in the United States . Both contexts of this song — seen through the eyes of a child or a civil rights marcher — would connect generations of people who shared the calm and secure space created in their church building while living through turbulent and changing times .
The institution of the Black church is generally known for two things : the people and the events that constitute their history . There has been little discourse on the actual church buildings which housed the people and hosted their events . This article is the first of two which shall introduce , through an architectural and socio-cultural lens , the origins and design of early African American church buildings constructed between 1800 and 1920 . 1
Historical beginnings of the Black Church
One of the earliest documented studies of the institution of the Negro church and its architecture is the book The Negro Church , written by W . E . B . DuBois . Published in 1903 , the book was the first full-length treatment of the Black church in the United States , developing a sociological survey of Black religious life and the experiences of the Negro community at the turn of the twentieth century . The book begins with a brief description of primitive African religion and how important religious expression is to Africans . DuBois documented that religious belief and expression was an enduring element that allowed Africans to survive the horrors of the Middle Passage , the transatlantic slave trade , and the syncretization of their various religious beliefs to the exposure to Christianity in the context of chattel slavery in the United States .
The book also chronicles the state of the Negro church in America at the turn of the twentieth century by documenting the number of congregations by state , population counts of people active within various denominations ( i . e ., Baptist , African Methodist Episcopal , Colored Methodist Episcopal , etc .) and the value of church property . It is the first scholarly historical account of the Black religious experience in the United States , as well as the first empirical study of religion to
1 Author ’ s note : The terms ‘ African American ’ and ‘ Black ’ are used to describe and characterize the common ancestry of people of African descent and not in reference to the color of a person ’ s skin . The terms ‘ Negro ’ and ‘ colored ’ are used within appropriate historical context .
10 SACRED PLACES • SUMMER 2022