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Interview with the Reverend James Samuel

Samuel, James
Crawford, Vickie
Date of Interview: 
Migrant workers; Sharecropping; Southern labor; Race relations; African Americans and labor; Religion; African Americans and church; Ministerial education; Education; Integration; Multi-ethnic community; Slavery and African Americans; Church bombings
The Reverend Dr. James Samuel evaluates the black church and its influence on his life and on the national African American experience. The son of sharecroppers and migrant farm workers, Samuel describes his early religious experiences and his understanding of the church's offerings of empowerment, self-expression, and security. Samuel discusses the significance of his educational training for himself and for his parents. As a minister, Samuel speaks about the challenges of the ministry, including the responsibilities that go along with such a position. Samuel discusses the central role of the black church and offers a historical review of the evolution of African American religious thought from slavery to the present. His narrative is rich in the interpretation of biblical imagery as seen through the eyes of the African American community, especially addressing the ideas of the crucifixion and the martyred Jesus Christ. Samuel addresses the spate of then-recent African American church bombings and evaluates reasons for such violence.
1930s - 1990s
Levine Museum of the New South, Amazing Grace Series
VC (Vickie Crawford): It's Tuesday. I'm interviewing Reverend Samuel, James Samuel, Little Rock AME Zion Church. The interviewer is Vickie Crawford. Thank you so much, Dr. Samuel, for agreeing to talk with me. Why don't we begin by you having you just share where you grew up and talk about the role of the church when you grew up.
JS (James Samuel): I was born in Florence County, South Carolina, near the town of Timmonsville. My family included a mother and a father and four brothers and five sisters. I am the second youngest of ten kids. When I was four years old, my parents, who were sharecroppers in South Carolina, moved to Claremont, Florida, where we became a part of the migrant community in Florida. And so my family for the next twelve years were migrant workers in the area of central Florida. The role of the church in my life, my early life, was the moral and spiritual nerve center for the black family. My family worked six days a week and on Sunday we went to church. The churches that we attended were essentially migrant churches. No more sometimes than very sparsely built structures, largely unpainted, holes in the floors and in the roofs. Churches which were pastored by fellow migrant workers who had the experienced the call to ministry. The choirs were comprised of persons who had developed the articulation of voice out in the fields singing the old sorrow songs that were associated with the black rural experience. For me church was very powerful and very emotionally charged place, a place where I saw a strange transformation in the, the ways, the manners and in the behaviors of people that were otherwise very composed and dignified, people of quiet strength and people to whom I looked to for stability. In church I would see the transformations of persons. I'd see my father becoming emotional and shout. I'd see my mother who was so strong and, and such a resolute force within the family, I'd see her wail and moan and cry. And so for me, church became the most emotionally and spiritually charged in my experience in my life. It was absolutely mind boggling to be submerged in this kind of place. It was at once both very frightening because of the sense of raw power, but yet in another sense at the same time, it was very nurturing because there was a sense of security. There was a sense of safety. There was a sense of empowerment. There was a sense of community that was intense and profound. A church for me was the place wherein I first gained images of my own consciousness, of my own self. Two places. One is in the migrant fields with my parents, seeing the tremendous burden that they had to endure, the hardships that were inflicted upon them and the great struggle for life, which they seemed to champion and take on with great strength. And then at the other end of that spectrum there was the church, a place where we went, where we talked about freedom and we talked about peace and talked about joy. And so for me, it was a virtual vortex, the community in which I grew up, in which there was on one side great pain and suffering and on the other side great reverence, great faith, great joy. And these two came together to help to form my own particular view of the world, my own view of life. In one setting, in the migrant fields I saw my parents being subjected to the supervision of white overseers and farmers and others who were always in charge of the black laborers. And then in the church, I began to see people who were common laborers, people like my mother and father who could neither read nor write. I saw them assume positions of leadership. I saw my father as a strong officer in the church. I saw my mother as a sweet, beautiful soloist on the choir and one of the mothers of the church. And so I saw that the church was the arena for the empowerment of a people who otherwise had been rendered powerless. The other dichotomy that really influenced me in terms of the community and the church was the sense of, of early hopelessness that I felt as a child. I knew that this was not the life that I wanted. I knew that I was not born to be a migrant worker. I knew that deep in my soul I was equal if not greater than the overseer, the white overseer who lorded over my family and over my friends and over our community. The church helped me to discover that sense of self worth, self-esteem and the sense of, of self-sufficiency that made me to know that there was in the mist of a hopeless world, that there was a hope that transcended that which I found in the world. There was a power that was greater than the powers which oppressed us in the migrant communities in which I lived and my family lived. The change from that community came by way of tragedy. Sometimes it is true that in the mist of tragedy there you will find the seeds for triumph. My father became ill at a rather early age and was no longer able to continue to do the physical labor that was required of a migrant. And so we moved from central Florida into the inner city of Bridgeport, Connecticut. My father went and received employment in what was the, the industrial North, into the factories. And so it was much easier than migrant work, we thought, therefore that life had taken a turn for the better. And in many ways it was. When I was growing up and we left the South, the South was still segregated and extremely so for migrant workers and migrant families. When we went to the North, it was a totally integrated community. That was the first time that I had had an opportunity to meet and to live and to study and to work and play in the midst of white people and to deal with them as, as equals rather than as supervisors or people who are in charge of your total body, mind and spirit. And so for me, it was a radical reorientation of what was until that point a very oppressive worldview. I began to compete academically in school with children of many different cultural backgrounds: Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, Jewish, Greek, other communities of people that I didn't even know existed. And so in that context, I began to test my own humanity against a multi-culture community. We played sports together. We competed academically in classes for the same grade. And I found in the mist of that multi-cultural context that I was well capable of competing both athletically and academically and excelling in settings wherein I had felt myself less than worthy, having grown up in a very oppressed and migrant community. And then I began to, to realize the true depth of my own background in learning, and I found that the education that I had received in the all black schools was indeed sufficient to allow me to graduate with a very good grade point average and with a very good academic record and with an athletic experiences that allowed me to go into college. And as the first of ten kids in my family, I was able to go to college. And for my family you can imagine what a time of jubilee it was. It was almost as if being admitted was tantamount to having graduated. And so we rejoiced over the grace of God that had allowed this son of illiterate migrant workers and sharecroppers to go to college. And for me in going to college and getting away from my parents' home was an opportunity to try out my new-found freedoms. And so part of that freedom was to maybe not go to church as often as my parents had, had insisted. Because in my father's house, to be in my father's house, was to be in church. Sunday mornings you didn't have a choice; you went to church. And that was expected and that was adhered to until you left. And so when I left, I found the freedom of college and the freedom of being young and vibrant in the late 60s and early 70s in the midst of all of the freedom movement. And it was just wonderful not to have the restraints of parents upon me. And so I began to experience the thoughts about my own spirituality and began to study the great atheist and agnostics and having being an English major and reading the great literatures of the world and the great scholars and thinkers and philosophers and movers and doers and the shakers. I began to become perhaps more agnostic and say, "Ah, maybe there's not a God." "Maybe if there is a God, maybe God isn't as particularly concerned with that as we would like to think God is." And surely if there was a God, then why is there so much tragedy, suffering and pain. And then the more I began to study about black history and I saw the suffering of our people, it seemed to at that point in my life, affirm that perhaps God was not as particularly concerned with us as I had been led to believe growing up in the midst of my community and home and family. It was shortly after I graduated from college and began to go out into the world and began to build a home and a family of my own and run into the various stumbling blocks that are often put in the way of young African Americans that I found that the necessity of coping with life made me to turn back to the spiritual roots that had given my mother and my father and my sisters and brothers the strength to be able to deal with the various vicissitudes which we are confronted. In so in doing, I found that the spiritual roots that had been planted in me by my parents had really not been affected by my agnostic, philosophical questionings and searchings but actually had been affirmed. So in the midst of my own personal struggles I began to see my relationship to the historical struggles of our people. And that is that because we have had to come through so much tragedy, tribulation and turmoil, it does in no way disaffirm the presence of God in more perhaps of a deeper way than any other aspects of human experience could. Our sufferings, our oppression, affirms that there is indeed the presence of God in our lives, in our history, in our communities because as the old black song says, "If it had not been for the Lord on my side, where would I be." And I began to see that it was not by my strength, or by my might, and even though I was a good student and had graduated with honors and all that, it was not me, but it was truly a greater sense of power and strength within me that had allowed me to do something significant and meaningful with my life. I was a banker at an early age with one of the largest banks here in the state, and came in the management during the era when the affirmative action program was at its height and when the banks began to be pressured to hire minorities at various levels. And so I came in at that time. And it was from that setting, having been with the bank for about six years, that the Lord placed a call on my life. And I was compelled to become a preacher of the gospel. I remember then how many times in talking with the supervisors and other managers of the bank about the discrepancies in the ways in which banking policies were carried out in the black and the white community. And I remember being told in so many board meetings that I had a great future if and only if I would stop being so concerned about black people. But there was a deep and abiding need in me to speak to the needs of our people who were living and who had lived and who were going to live in the same struggle that I myself had lived. And so for me, the calling that God put on my life was indeed a call to rele--, relevance, not to have a glorious title and position and office in the bank, but to be able to relate my experiences and my struggles and my triumphs with those that were continuing within the black community. And so I found myself at a proverbial crossroads. I either had to choose to separate myself from the intense sufferings and struggles of my people and to go for myself and to subsume upon me the image that was desired by my employers or to seek to become that which I knew God had created me to be. And that was another link in an eternal chain, the legacy of human endurance against oppression. And so I left the bank and went to Duke Divinity School. I remember, therein again, feeling a great irony in my presence there. Here I was on the campus of one of the greatest universities in the nation, a university wherein my father, when I was born, would not have been permitted to sweep those marble floors. And I went first into the chapel, and I kneeled down there in the quietness of Duke Chapel and I prayed a prayer, a prayer that had to have been prayed by mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers, all the way back to those who cast my genes upon this world. And I said to them in the same--. I said to God in the same words I'm sure they said to him, "Father, I stretch my hands to thee. No other help I know if thy withdraw theyself from me, Lord whither shall I go." And I got up from there and I went and I registered for my classes. And I graduated from there as a Dean's Scholar, and I remember my mother and my father were there when I graduated. And I think that was the happiest day of their life to be able to see their son to graduate, this time not just from college. And it wasn't so much that I was at Duke University. It really to them had no real bearing on them as to the great tradition of the school. But what was most important to them on that day was that their son had graduated from seminary and was now going to be a minister of the gospel. I think had it been from any seminary they would have been equally as proud. But it was the calling that I had embraced, it was that which they had instilled in me that they saw now brought to fruition that allowed them to have such pride. I remember when I went to graduate school at Drew University, where I did my doctorate, I remember telling my mother, "Mom, I'm going to school to study for my doctorate degree." I'll never forget, my mother in her own kind of academic innocence, said to me, "Son, why do you want to be a doctor? God has called you to be a preacher." She could not understand that to go to get my doctorate did not mean that I was becoming a physician. It meant that I was becoming more proficient at being a minister of the gospel. And so I explained to her. And just two months before she died, she was able to see her son graduate from the doctoral program, a straight A student from one of the finest theological centers in this nation. And so the journey for her had come complete. The son of an illiterate sharecropper and migrant family had now graduated from a historically white university with a doctoral degree. The child of fate who had sat on her knees at three years old watching the preacher and absorbing all of the spirit and power of his message, who looked up to her at three years old and said, "Mama, what does it take to be a preacher?" She had relayed that to me all these years and for her, that child-like inquiry, which had been blessed with the power of prophetic fulfillment, was now full circle. The little child who sat on her knees at three years old and said, "What does it take to be a preacher."
VC: What does it take to be a preacher? What, what's, one of--. What are some of the challenges in being a preacher here?
JS: The thing about being that, Vickie--.
VC: It's a big congregation, too.
JS: Yes.
VC: ( ).
JS: The thing about being a preacher that comes to mind when one asks me that is my experiences when I was called. I resisted the call as many ministers do because of the tremendous responsibility, because of the image and because of the person of the pastor in the black community. It was a position which I felt I was not worthy. And so when I examined my call and wrestled with it, I met with my pastor and I said to my pastor, "The Lord has called me to preach, but I have one problem. I'm not worthy." And he said to me, I'll never forget, he said, "Son, if you had told me you were worthy, I'd tell you you're not. But because you say you're not, I'm convinced that you are." That liberated me. And so when you ask me what does it take to be a preacher, I have to say it takes an abiding awareness of your own unworthiness. The, the, the ability to understand that the tremendous responsibility of the office of the ministry, especially in the black community, it is more than any person, individual or personality can ever fulfill. What it takes then is not a sense of accomplishment or sense of one's own ability to be able to be that which the minister is called to be, but it takes a burning desire to forever be in pursuit of the ability to become that which the minister is called to become. And once a minister senses that he or she has achieved or have arrived at the place where you really can say, that you have what it take to be a minister, it is at that moment I'm sure that they have lost it. I say that because the role of the black minister in the black community is by and far the greatest, the most demanding, the most significant, the most enduring, the most celebrated, yet most vilified, the most, the most public and yet the most spiritual office that exists in any community in any culture among any people. The black minister is leader, teacher, doctor, lawyer, confidante, friend, brother, father, educator, organizer, community activist. The list goes on and on. How can we be all things to all people. But yet the black minister historically has been called to be just that. And so ask me- I've been in ministry now for twenty years- ask me twenty years hence and I may be better able to answer the question.
VC: Oh, that was a wonderful answer. [Laughter] Absolutely wonderful. Let me ask you to skip ahead and talk about the church in contemporary times and talk about the recent church bombings and what--. Get your ideas about that.
JS: I think that the, the role of a church in our time is in the midst of, of being redefined. We're at a historical watershed in the life of the church. Historically, the church has been at its best when it has been the, the symbol of hope, the symbol of spiritual and religious dominance over the lives of the people whom it serves. Today the church has, the role has diminished somewhat. The respect, the reverence, the sense of reliance upon the church in the black community has changed. I see that as being important because the traditional role of the people, the black people in American society has not changed. And if black people are going to be totally liberated it is not going to be through affirmative action, through the welfare, through the Democratic or Republican party. It's not going to be even through the amassing of educational and academic degrees which I wholeheartedly champion. It is going to be because of the role and because of the moral and spiritual and ethical teachings of the black church. The black church historically has been the purveyor of a worldview of hope. It has given a sense of transcendence to a people who had little transcendence. For instance, historically, when our people came to America after the diaspora from west Africa, our people were cast into a setting wherein the triumph of evil over God was apparent in every aspect of their lives: the rape of our sisters, the mutilation of our brothers, the killing and lynching of our fathers and the oppressive enslavement of our mothers, the selling of our children. Everything that the African spirit had championed in God was now transformed into a world wherein total evil had won ultimate triumph over God. And so the African in America had little, if anything, with which they could look to with a transcendence degree of hope and feel that ultimately good would win out over evil. For centuries this endured. Three hundred and fifty years there was utter hopelessness and despair. Perpetual slavery as practiced nowhere else in the history of the civilized world was practiced in this country over our people in a day supposedly when men and women had already been enlightened. After the period of this enlightenment, our people lived, I say again, in a world wherein there was the ultimate triumph of evil, not just over good, but over every God that they knew. The spirit of our animistic thinkings and culture and raising that there was God in everything had now been triumphed over by ultimate evil. There was evil in everything. The arrival of the church was an opportunity for the black mind and spirit to be freed from the ultimate triumph of evil in America. For instance, African people through the church who had historically in their culture what is called a historical faith, a faith which believed that God was in your ancestry, which believed that God was in the land in which you ancestors had lived. God was in the midst of the forest. God was in trees. God was in the water. God was in--. God historically was in the midst of everything. And so even through your ancestry, there was the presence of God. Historically our people in America expressed this by songs that they would sing, say, "He woke me up this morning. He started me on my way. He put food on my table, clothes on back, roof over my head, shoes on my feet." This is a manifestation of the historical faith that African people brought to the New World with them, that God was actively alive and at work in the world within slavery. This evidence of this ever-present historical God seemed to have been triumphed over evil. But with the advent of the Christian experience, the black spirit reached out and laid hold onto stories about children of Israel being freed from Egypt. Stories about Daniel coming our of a lion's den, the three boys out of a fiery furnace. Stories about prophets who prophesied about justice and freedom and liberty. The triumph in the resurrection of Jesus Christ who was crucified and now had been resurrected, who was dead and now is alive. Everything about the Christian experience gave the historical faith of our African ancestors an ability to transcend the historical hardships that they endured. And so our people began through the Christian faith to understand that there was another kind of faith which was also operative within this world. When historical faith no longer satisfied their spiritual needs, an eschatological faith was born, a faith which is not rooted in this world but a faith that is rooted in the world that is to come. So our people who were working in the fields, in the cotton fields, and in the tobacco fields, and on the plantations and the farms of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Arkansas and North and South Carolina and Virginia could stand on the banks of the Mississippi River and look over that river and say, "In Jordan's stormy banks I stand, And cast a wishful eye. On Canaan's fair and happy land, Where my possessions lie." In the middle of the midday sun they could look up in the oppressive heat of the sweltering Delta and say, "Over my head I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere." In the middle of the, of the moans and the wailings and the lamentings of our people suffering under the plantation systems throughout this land, they would stand up, drop their hoes and rakes and shovels and plows and say, "Hush, hush. Somebody's calling my name." This is the eschatological faith which the black church has expressed with such beauty and resonance that even the oppressors had to stop and listen to them sing their sweet songs of Zion. And so as Bishop Walls of the AME Zion church once raised, he said in the Old Testament the Jews said, "They that carried us away captive required of us a song." How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land. But when we, the children of Africa, found ourselves in a strange land, requiring of us a song, we sang how can we but not sing the Lord's song in a strange land. And so we sung. We sung with such beauty that even those who denied us the right to read and write and to learn and to be classified as human beings, even they were overcome by the enchanting beauty of the black voice raised in honor and in praise to its God. And so for us, our historical faith, which was born in Africa, was met with an eschatological faith in the New World which brought about the synthesis of two religious perspectives and gave birth to the black church as we know it today. And so for black people the reading of the Bible and the scriptures was a new spiritual revelation. The children of Israel in the Bible became the children of Africa. The Jordan River for the children of Israel of, of, of God in the Bible became the Mississippi River for the children of Africa. Canada became for the children of Africa as Canaan was for the children of Israel. And Jesus Christ, he himself suffered, shamed, crucified, mutilated and hung on a tree for crimes he had not committed became a fellow sufferer and a brother when introduced to the black psyche. And so for the black church, Christianity is more than European spiritualism. For us the Bible and the, the ministry of Jesus Christ has more parallel and correlation than it does for others in this society. For instance, for the white church, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is but a ceremonial killing of the sacrificial lamb. But when we as a black church look upon the crucifixion, we see more than the Son of God being sacrificially slaughtered for the sin of the world. We see a black brother who was hung on a tree and lynched as many of our mothers, brothers, fathers, and daughters were hung and lynched. And so the cross for us becomes more than a sterile symbol of our spiritual wonder. It becomes the very concrete reminder that as Jesus was hung on a tree and lynched, so were we hung on trees and lynched. And so for the black church we have more than the spiritual symbolism. We have the power of historical passions and eschatological hope which is rooted in the sufferings that we have endured. And so for us, when we see the cross, we can never see just an empty ornamental symbol of a sacrificial killing. We see the poignant reminder of all of the men in this country of African descent who were unjustly lynched on trees throughout the South and the North for crimes they did not do. And so we hear the song "Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there?" Yes, we were there. We were there when they hung Emmett Till. We were there. We were there when they butchered and brutalized, yea, hundreds and thousands of our men. We were there. The cross therefore becomes for us not a symbol of hate, but it becomes a symbol of hope. A symbol of hope that our lynching, that our crucifixions will be as atoning for those who have wrongly afflicted us as is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for the millions and multitude of sinners who have wrongly afflicted him.
VC: So now the church bombings that have happened, as you make it very clear--. I mean the church is the epicenter of life and culture in our community.
JS: If you wish to kill a body, you pierce the heart. If you wish to cripple an individual you break the spine. If you wish to render one clinically dead, you destroy the brain waves in, within the mind. And so it is within the black community. If you wish to destroy the black community, you can never do it with drugs. You can never do it with prostitutes. You can never do it by cutting off welfare programs. You can never do it by miseducating our young people. You can never do it by putting us on the unemployment roll, because we are the children of suffering. Suffering does not destroy us. Suffering strengthens us. But if you would to destroy the black community, you pierce its heart. You back its back. You shut down the very nerve center of its brain, and that is the black church. The bombings are but a, an attempt to demonstrate that the enemies of peace and freedom and equality in this country know where those epicenters are. They know where those pressure points are, and it is the black church. My only hope is that out of this bombing will come some blessing. And that is that as the enemies of the church know where that center is, that the children of the church will be reminded also where it is. And that the black men and women who have left the church, who have gone into other lifestyles and other manners of living and other behaviors and other practices and other ungodly ways of life will likewise be remembered. If the enemy of the community recognizes the eminence of the black church then why should not we. And where they tear down, we build up. And where they bomb, we build. And where the curse, we bless. And where they destroy, we come together and we rejoice because the black church is not just the heart, the spine and the brain of the black community; the black church is the black community. For without it, the black community and the black church will cease to exist.