Allison Dorsey, To Build Our Lives Together: Community Formation in Black Atlanta, 1875-1906. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2004. 238 pages. ISBN: 0-8203-2619-4. Reviewed by Curtis Evans, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Allison Dorsey's To Build Our Lives Together provides readers with a rich analysis of communities and organizations that blacks built and sustained in Atlanta, Georgia, from Reconstruction to the “race riot” of 1906.  She argues that “the culture, traditions, and survival mechanisms that African Americans developed in slavery provided a significant role in the culture and community institutions that they created in the post-Civil War period” (p. 1).  From this premise, she attempts to demonstrate that the “terrors of slavery” combined with the “solidarity of the slave quarters,” active white racism, and “racialist thinking” in America fostered notions of black cohesion in Atlanta, which partially hindered “nascent intraracial class conflicts” within the black community during the first three to four decades following abolition (p. 1).

"Dorsey notes the important convergence of the views of Northern white missionaries and educated black Northerners descending on the South, criticizing the 'emotional' and 'superstitious' worship of Southern blacks."  


The book is rather even in its treatment of black churches, schools, fraternal societies, and political activism.  Of particular interest to readers of this journal is Dorsey's analysis of black churches in Atlanta.  It is not clear why the chapter is entitled, “The Black Church in Atlanta,” when the author rightly notes the class and social divisions within and among black churches.  The particular problems encountered by black Congregationalists and black elites in their interactions with the broader black community seems to question Dorsey's earlier claim that an ideology of intraracial class conflicts was partly muted in the three decades after the Civil War.  What she shows are black Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, and other groups vying for their space—worship space, social space, and breathing space not under the control of white paternalists.  Thus Dorsey notes the important convergence of the views of Northern white missionaries and educated black Northerners descending on the South, criticizing the “emotional” and “superstitious” worship of Southern blacks.  Though Dorsey does indicate that slave-based religious traditions continued to exist in black churches, there is not a clear sense of what this meant on the local congregational level (p. 69).  There is a very good discussion of black and white negative reactions to this form of worship and religious practice, but not a clear delineation of how this played out in a specific church or group.

What particularly struck me in Dorsey's treatment of black churches was her analysis of Henry Hugh Proctor, a Yale-educated black Congregationalist who served as the pastor of First Congregational Church from 1894 to 1920.  First Congregational was a product of Northern Missionary efforts, and according to Dorsey, “not rooted in slave-based religious traditions” (p. 72, emphasis hers).  Ronald C. White, Jr.'s Liberty and Justice for All (1990) and Ralph Luker's Social Gospel in Black and White (1991) have done much to help us understand the nature of this church within the broader context of progressive racial reform and the Social Gospel movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Given the involvement of Proctor and his church in the institutional church movement and various outreach ministries in the community, one is struck by the romantic racialist vision of Proctor that Dorsey explicates.  Proctor's autobiographical sketches, Between Black and White (1925) are gently criticized by Dorsey as having “misunderstood the nature of slave religion” (p. 74).  One wonders how it is that Proctor could espouse this view of the docile religious Uncle Tom image of black slaves in light of his own urging of a Social Gospel that focused on this world and the realities of urban poverty, among other things.  Further, with a publication date of 1925, what was this image of slavery attempting to accomplish?  Though this may be beyond the scope of Dorsey's study, it is an interesting and potentially rich contradiction that goes unnoticed primarily because Dorsey's interest seems to be on Proctor's role as a leader in the Congregational Church that did not value the vibrant and exuberant worship practices of many black Southerners.

An area of particular interest to students of Southern history is Dorsey's assertion that reporting by the white press on the Atlanta riot focused only on the surface when it singled out black men allegedly raping white women.  She notes that the image of the black “brute” intent on raping white women was indeed a powerful one, but it was one among other catalysts that formed the immediate backdrop to the riot (p. 154).  Herbert Gutman's The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (1976), Joel Williamson's The Crucible of Race (1984), and more recent works have shown the increasing popularity and spread of ideas in the 1880s onward about blacks “retrogressing” without the “beneficent” influence of slavery.  Dorsey's reading of the Atlanta riot is consistent with this analysis.  She contends that fears of black crime, vice, and addiction to alcohol inflamed whites immediately before the riot, but these specific concerns dovetailed with previous arguments about black vagrancy, the “necessity” of controlling black labor, and preventing “Negro domination” in the political sphere (151).  Attention to black dives and lower class “depravity” also led black leaders to emphasize their efforts for racial uplift. The upshot of these developments, Dorsey notes, was that the riot demonstrated that the “uplift model” adopted by black political activists and civic leaders was shown to be ineffective.  Whites were just as threatened by upwardly mobile blacks as they were by “dangerous” and lower class blacks. She notes that black elites realized that efforts to uplift blacks and inculcate Victorian religious and cultural values into the masses were not a workable or even desirable endeavor.  Race mattered to whites more than class, and even the “model city” of Atlanta demonstrates the enduring power of race in white attempts to control black aspirations and use violence in securing such control.

To Build Our Lives Together ties together various strands of New South historiography by looking at one of the New South's “model cities.”  By emphasizing blacks' own efforts to structure their lives and paying close attention to the racism that they encountered as Jim Crow laws constantly restricted their freedoms, Dorsey's work strikes a helpful balance in its general analysis.  It also provides us with a broad overview of the various elements of black culture, demonstrating the ways in which churches supported and coincided with efforts at political activism.  For these reasons, it is a useful study of blacks and their struggle to build their lives in a hostile and racist environment.

Curtis Evans, Harvard University

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