COLUMBIA — On a Sunday in April 1942, Wentworth Arthur Matthew refused the label "negro" while registering for the U.S. draft. Along with thousands of others participating in the Great Migration, Matthew, a naturalized immigrant from St. Kitts, insisted on defining himself by both the racial and religious term "Hebrew" on the official draft document.
This is how Judith Weisenfeld framed the story of how black Americans participating in the Great Migration — an early 20th century geographic movement away from small, rural and largely southern communities to urban areas in the North and South — rejected European-assigned identities. Instead, they asserted new connections with "the divine" through racially and religiously intertwined movements.
Weisenfeld's speech was the MU Department of Religious Studies's annual Distinguished Lecture in Religion and Public Life. She is Princeton University’s Agate Brown and George L. Collord professor of religion.
Weisenfeld's speech focused on how black Americans moved away from Protestantism to develop and join Ethiopian Hebrew congregations, the Islamically influenced Moorish Science Temple of America, Nation of Islam and the Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement. She said they believed these paths connected them to their African and divine identities.
Weisenfeld, who researches African-American religious history in the early 20th century, spoke on how large populations of black migrants, both American-born and of immigrant, usually Caribbean origin, moved to U.S. cities in search of better economic opportunities. In creating new communities together after slavery and during the development of Jim Crow, they struggled with continued oppression despite expectations that things would change for the better. They began searching for religious and racial identities outside of European-assigned Protestantism and the term "negro," which many saw as demeaning.
Weisenfeld said membership in these groups went beyond intellectual assent to changing their whole selves — how they ate, how they dressed and how they lived. Religious adherents believed that misnaming people and groups disconnected them from "divine knowledge" and "sacred destiny." By casting off European names and racial designators, individuals and new movements signified community with each other and dissent against the dominant European culture.
"They understood their bodies to be critical sites for practicing and performing their new religio-racial identities," Weisenfeld said. "These embodied performances (and) expressions tie the individual to the relevant narrative of identity ... to restore them, their entire beings, to their original and right form."
Weisenfeld focused on the Moorish Science Temple, founded by Noble Drew Ali, who proclaimed himself God's prophet and preached that black Americans were descended from Moroccans. According to Weisenfeld, he said Europeans used names like "colored" and "negro" to obscure Muslim identities. Members of the temple took on the surnames of "El" and "Bey" to signify their "original" identities and community.
Weisenfeld also examined the Father Divine movement, in which black and white people gathered in celibate, sex-segregated communities under Father Divine, who was cast as the living embodiment of God. They cast off race as being a man-made, devilish invention, and renamed themselves to cut ties with their earthly families and selves.
Weisenfeld concentrated on this topic because she wanted to explore how black Americans developed and assumed their new religio-racial identities. She said historians often ignore participants' "lived (religious) experiences," and focus more on politics than religion.
Weisenfeld's book on the same topic, "New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration," will be published by the NYU Press later this year.
Supervising editor is Jack Witthaus.