Michaux, Solomon Lightfoot
Solomon Lightfoot Michaux
Solomon Lightfoot Michaux was an evangelist and founder of the Church of God. In the 1930s, he realized the potential of using the media in spreading the gospel around the world. Much public opinion of Solomon Lightfoot Michaux was focused on his charismatic preaching, his mass annual baptizing, and his colorful radio ministry, including his cross choir. The media often focused on his legal problems, considering him to be a cult leader, faith healer, and conservative in his racial views.
Michaux was born November 7, 1884, in Newport News, Virginia. His father John was of mixed French, Indian, and black heritage. John and Henry, his younger brother, became merchant seamen. They eventually settled in Newport News. John Michaux married May Blanche, whose ancestry was African, Indian, and French Jewish. Michaux became a fish peddler and grocer located on Jefferson Street, where many other Jewish and white non-Jewish merchants operated their businesses. The family lived in quarters above the family's store.
John Michaux was considered a successful, prominent businessman in the black community. Enhancing his status as a black man, he had light skin and straight hair, both considered marks of distinction, within the black community. His influence was felt as far as the neighboring town of Hampton, Virginia. All of this impacted his young son Solomon Lightfoot, who would spend most of his adult life trying to ignore the crippling realities of being treated as black in a white capitalistic society.
When Solomon Lightfoot was a young boy the family moved into quarters above their grocery store. His father's successes influenced his behavior and could be seen in his future business ventures and his religious life. To his son Solomon, John appeared to be accepted as equal among his fellow shopkeepers, but within a desegregated part of town; he could not escape the effects of racism that blanketed this period in the history of the South. Inequality in business black and white relation-ships was quite noticeable during this period; it was extremely difficult for blacks to profit.
The influence of skin color also was paramount in Solomon Lightfoot's early formative years. His mother, May Blanche, a woman with dark skin and black features, was practically unknown in the community. Her role was to make sure the household responsibilities were maintained and that the surviving ten of her fifteen children were taken care of. She suffered from a nervous condition. When Michaux was twenty-one his mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to the black mental institution, located in Petersburg, Virginia. After she returned home, marital problems continued to plague the family. Despite her illness, she influenced her son's future career by reminding him of his importance and that he was born to head a special mission. Even his name made him feel special: Solomon, for his paternal grandfather's Jewish heritage, after the wise and wealthy Old Testament king Solomon; and Lightfoot, in honor of his mother's Indian heritage.
As a youth Solomon Michaux participated in religious activities, studying in both the Baptist and Presbyterian Church, but was considered a loner who kept to himself, unable to develop lasting friendships. Unfortunately, he quit school in the fourth grade, going to work fulltime with his father and becoming a fish peddler before he was able to read and comprehend well enough to be comfortable with his future life role.
Business Opportunities and Marriage
Like many ambitious young men, Michaux believed that he could work hard, save his money, and become rich. He worked hard, long hours each day, and saved at the local black-operated Sons and Daughters of Peace Penny, Nickel, and Dime Savings Bank, planning one day to open his own seafood and poultry store.
Michaux opened his own store around 1904, including a dancing school. There he met his wife, Mary Eliza Pauline, a beautiful fair-skinned, fine-featured young woman who possessed slightly wavy long hair. She was a volatile, illiterate woman of undetermined family origins. Her father was a white man and she had given birth to a child from a previous marriage. No children survived her previous marriage. Once divorced, she and Michaux were married around 1906.
After marrying Michaux, Mary became a fanatical convert to holiness, and the couple began attending Saint Timothy Church of Christ (Holiness), where he was selected secretary-treasurer.
- Born in Newport News, Virginia on November 7
- Opens his own store
- Marries Mary Eliza Pauline
- Answers call to preach
- Licensed and ordained in the Church of Christ (Holiness)
- The Michaux congregation secedes from the Church of Christ to establish an independent church
- Arrested for singing on the streets of Newport News during early morning hours
- Begins to establish branch churches in cities along the East Coast
- Begins radio ministry at station WJSV in Washington, D.C.
- Purchases 1,800 acres of land along the beachfront in Jamestown, Virginia, to develop a National Memorial to the Progress of the Colored Race in America
- Holds baptisms in Griffith Stadium
- Purchases the old Benning Race Track in Washington, receiving $3.5 million from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to construct Mayfair Mansions, a 594-unit housing development
- Collaborates with Jack Goldberg to make one commercial film
- Acquires $6 million in FHA loans to build Paradise Minor, a 617-apartment complex adjacent to Mayfair Mansions
- Dies in Washington, D.C. on October 20
Mary was ambitious and complemented her husband well in financial matters with her qualities of diligence and thrift. Working together she and her husband accu-mulated enough savings by 1911 to build a large three-story house on Ivy Avenue at Pinkey's Beach, over looking the Chesapeake Bay.
The couple had no children of their own to occupy that big house with them, but Jenny and Ruth, Michaux's two little sisters, lived there to help ease the burden on their ailing mother and to lessen Mary's anxiety about being without a child.
Their marriage developed out of an arranged courtship that was convenient for both. Michaux, like so many aspiring black men before him, had taken a light-colored, white-looking woman to be his wife, according himself more status in the black community. By marrying this aspiring man of good reputation, Mary agreed to an image of respectability, a good address, and comfortable living conditions. Michaux did not need a continuously intimate and physically passionate attachment; his primary passion was the pursuit of business interests.
Michaux never fought in World War I. He obtained government contracts to furnish food provisions to defense establishments. This enterprising businessman took advantage of every opportunity to make money. Because of profits, he was able to invest in branch stores in nearby Norfolk and in the Petersburg-Hopewell area. In 1917, he closed down operations in Newport News and Norfolk and moved his business headquarters to Hopewell, Virginia.
After moving to Hopewell and with the success of the business, Michaux's wife became concerned regarding their spiritual state. She felt that the worldly environment that existed in Hopewell led to corruption. Spiritually she became somewhat fanatical, praying and evangelizing throughout the day. The Michauxs became dissatisfied with the churches in Hopewell and in order to satisfy her, Solomon built a church where she would be able to conduct the type of services she wanted.
The church that was built had a small, white frame. The DuPont Company donated the land for the church. The church was interracial, nondenominational, and evangelical. She named it "Everybody's Mission." This church was very successful in its nightly worship service, conducted by visiting elders and Mary Michaux.
Receives the Call to Preach
At his wife's insistence, Michaux began attending church again on a regular basis. To him religion and business were not in harmony, according to his experiences that were rooted in the Protestant tradition. However, in 1917 and in 1918 he was licensed and ordained in the Church of Christ (Holiness) U.S.A, receiving counsel from Elder W. C. Handy, a Church of Christ preacher, advising him on scriptural interpretation, pastoral duties, and church doctrine and practices. As an ordained evangelist, he had the authority to pastor Everybody's Mission, and the church became a Church of Christ affiliate.
With the guidance of his wife Michaux was steered back to the Church of Christ (Holiness) which they had attended in Newport News before going to Hopewell. Both were impressed with the teaching of Bishop C. P. Jones. The Holiness movement, which was popular among southern whites late in the nineteenth century, encouraged excitable religious experiences of conversion. Mary influenced Michaux to become affiliated with the black, southern-based Holiness convention.
Makes a Fresh Start
With the signing of the armistice in 1918, World War I came to an end. There was an immediate decline in Michaux's business ventures. Early 1919 saw a decline in employment in the Hopewell area and a rapid decline in population. There had been rapid growth in Newport News during the war and greater opportunities awaited him; he returned and went into business with his father.
His business interests and his ministry began to conflict regarding his time. He decided to leave the business with his father and to organize a local Church of Christ (Holiness) mission. This would take care of the concerns of his wife, and he and Mary would subsist on savings and income from church offerings.
In 1919, Michaux pitched a tent for his first revival on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Nineteenth Street, in the heart of the black community. He and his wife held revivals there for three months, where at least 150 people became members of his church. These 150 poor, non-property owners and mostly uneducated individuals formed the nucleus of his congregation.
Michaux believed that his own intellectual abilities far exceeded the intelligence of his congregation, and he felt comfortable leading this group. By the end of December, Michaux had managed to gather enough money to move the church into a rented storefront, one block east of Nineteenth Street and Ivy Avenue.
Organizes Church of God
In 1922, when the Church of Christ (Holiness) met in Jackson, Mississippi, Michaux notified the bishop that he was seceding. When he returned he surprised the congregation with the news of their secession from the Church of Christ (Holiness). He proceeded to establish an independent church, calling it the Church of God. He chose this name, because in his view that was what holy assemblies were called in the Bible. This church, along with its other related operations, was incorporated under an umbrella grouping known as the Gospel Spreading Tabernacles Building Association. Michaux had been planning this move for some time; the corporation purchased the building, a three-story structure built by Ben-son Phillips, who was an acquaintance from Michaux's childhood.
During this year Michaux experienced two personal losses, his father died and he no longer had the support and relationship that he had established with Bishop Jones, the man who had been his spiritual father for many years. Still, Michaux's mission was to build this new church and establish a chain of churches, which would eventually be an empire unsurpassed by other religious groups. Also in 1922, Michaux and several of his members were arrested for singing on the streets of Newport News, during the early morning hours, while inviting people to join the church. For his action he was fined; he later appealed in vain to the Virginia Supreme Court.
As members migrated north in search of employment after World War I, Michaux began to establish branch churches in the cities along the east coast. In 1922, Michaux was a thirty-eight-year-old, mission-oriented preacher. His many successes in business, combined with the growth of his ministry, made him believe in himself and his purpose. He embarked upon a plan of action that merged the religious, social, and economic interests he had pursued before. He also discovered that he had the ability to appeal to the masses, articulating their most intimate feelings and concerns.
Michaux traveled from city to city as an evangelist. He, organized churches, and used the media and his talent for showmanship to spread the gospel, believing that combining religion with entertainment would result in the most conversions to his church.
In 1929, Michaux ventured into radio programming at station WJSV in Washington, D.C., and became famous as a radio evangelist, despite being denied an opportunity to broadcast by most stations. It was through determination and perseverance that he succeeded. The broadcast moved to the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1932, the eve of radio's golden era. As a result of the radio program's signature song, "Happy Am I," Michaux became known from coast to coast and overseas as the "Happy Am I Preacher." His fundamentalist sermons of hope and good neighborliness caught the attention of millions, appealing to all classes of people. His wife continued to be a powerful influence in his ministry, an exhorter and the lead broadcast soloist. She was a regular on the radio program, too. The radio program became so popular that local, national, and foreign dignitaries attended his live, theatrically staged radio broadcasts. To Michaux's surprise even the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) contracted with him for two broadcasts in the United Kingdom, in 1936 and 1938. A third broadcast was considered but because of Michaux's legal problems it was cancelled. Michaux was sought after by booking agents and movie directors, who offered him contracts, but all were refused by Michaux. In 1942 he collaborated with Jack Goldberg to make one commercial film, We've Come a Long, Long Way.
Michaux's political activities and other business endeavors continued to grow. He used his preaching via the radio to offer free housing and employment services to poor people, both black and white. In return for meals at the Happy News Café, he invited them to sell copies of Happy News, the church's paper.
Michaux became actively involved in the political arena when President Herbert Hoover evicted the Bonus Army (fifteen thousand unemployed World War I veterans and their families who converged on the capital in 1932 to demand immediate payment of bonuses that were not due until 1945) for which Michaux had been holding worship services. Then too Michaux used the radio to campaign for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, 1936, and 1940. He is now credited with influencing some of the first African Americans to leave the Republican Party and enter the Democratic fold in 1932.
Yet, in 1952, Michaux switched sides and campaigned as vigorously for Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower as he had for Roosevelt and Harry Truman. This led many to believe that Michaux was an exploiter and opportunistic in his religious and business practices.
Michaux's annual baptisms were considered one of the highlights of the season. Crowds would attend these ceremonies. Because of his knack for taking advantage of entertainment opportunities, he moved the ceremony, from the Potomac riverbank in 1938 into Griffith Stadium until 1961. The significance of this move was that this was the first time that an all black organization was permitted to use Griffith Stadium. These patriotically elaborate stadium services were full of pageantry, fireworks, and enthralling precision drills and choral singing from the 156-voice Cross Choir. Singing was accompanied by the church band, while hundreds were baptized center field in a canvas-covered tank.
Michaux had made lucrative deals in real estate, such as the 1934 purchase of 1,800 acres of land along the beachfront in Jamestown, Virginia, where he intended to develop a National Memorial to the Progress of the Colored Race of America. His plans for selling investment shares, however, fell through when lawsuits that alleged mismanagement of monies were filed against him.
Michaux moved his church's headquarters to the nation's capital in 1929 mainly due to the success of his radio ministry there. He bought the old Benning Race Track in Washington sometime in 1940 and received $2.5 million from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to construct Mayfair Mansions, a 594-unit housing development. This project was completed in 1946. In 1964, he was granted $6 million in FHA loans to build Paradise Manor, a 617-unit apartment complex adjacent to May-fair Mansions. This growth shows just how well received and favored he was because in the 1950s he had come under investigation for favoritism from federal lending agencies. These successes were due in part to his friend-ship with prominent people in Washington, some of whom were honorary members of his church.
While Michaux initially preached race consciousness and stated that all races were brothers, he became more and more conservative as he aged. He criticized the civil rights and black nationalist movements in the 1960s, and preached that the activities of Elijah Muhammad and Martin Luther King Jr. contributed to racial polarization.
During the forty-nine years of his career he established seven churches and several branches, and membership numbered in the thousands. By the time he died in 1968, he had acquired and left to his church a considerable estate of temples, apartment dwellings, cafes, tracts of land, and private residences in several cities. His worth was estimated to be in excess of $20 million. When Michaux died in Washington, D.C., his radio program was estimated to be the longest continuous broadcast in radio history. The religious institution, the Church of God, which he founded, continued to operate into the early 2000s. He made a significant contribution in religious broadcasting by using electronic and print media for worldwide evangelism.
Ashcraft-Webb, Lillian. About My Father's Business: The Life of Elder Lightfoot Michaux. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.
Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.
Williams, Ethel L. Biographical Directory of Negro Ministers. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1965.