Agyeman, Jaramogi Abebe 1911—
Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman 1911—
A 1968 Detroit Free Press poll found the Reverend Albert Cleage, Jr., later known as Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, to be one of the most well known and influential leaders in his community. Establishing member churches of his Pan African Orthodox Christian Church in cities across the United States helped win Agyeman respect on a national level as well. The new denomination was part of the minister’s Black Christian Nationalist Movement, launched from his Detroit church in 1967. With its community-service programs, the movement—as well as Agyeman’s Shrine of the Black Madonna—sought to provide a framework for the economic self-sufficiency of its members. Agyeman’s energetic leadership style and the well-organized political volunteer sector of the Shrine furthered the early careers of several African American politicians in the Detroit area—including that of the city’s first African American mayor, Coleman Young.
Agyeman was born Albert Buford Cleage, Jr., in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1911, one of seven children born to Albert, Sr., a physician, and Pearl Reed Cleage. The family relocated to Kalamazoo, Michigan, a few years later, and then to Detroit. Cleage’s father became the first African American doctor on the city payroll in 1930, a post he held for 16 years while at the same time operating his own practice. Dr. Cleage also helped found Detroit’s first African American hospital, and he worked tirelessly with a number of civic and church groups in his community. Inspired by his father’s drive, Albert, Jr., studied sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit and was employed as a social caseworker for the Detroit Department of Public Health. He graduated in 1937 and earned a divinity degree from Oberlin College Graduate School of Theology in 1943.
By then Albert Cleage, Jr., had been ordained in the Congregational faith and was a minister at the Chandler Memorial Congregational Church in Lexington, Kentucky. He later moved to California, where he headed the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, a San Francisco interracial congregation, and attended film school at the University of Southern California. In 1946 Cleage was appointed pastor of St. John’s Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. This was one of the oldest African American congregations in New England and one that played an active role in the surrounding community.
Cleage became known as an outspoken activist during his tenure at St. John’s for his involvement with the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the overseeing of the church’s extensive social service programs. In a published history of St. John’s that was excerpted in Hiley S. Ward’s biography of Cleage titled Prophet of the Black Nation, the minister was recalled as “a courageous
At a Glance…
Born Albert Buford Cleage, June 13, 191 1, in Indianapolis, IN; son of Albert Buford (a physician) and Pearl (Reed) Cleage; married Doris Graham, 1943 (divorced, c. 1955); children: Pearl, Kris. Education: Attended Wayne State University, 1929–31, and Fisk University, 1931–32; Wayne State University, B.A., 1937; Oberlin College Graduate School of Theology, B.Div., 1943; attended University of Southern California Film School, mid-1940s.
Detroit Department of Public Health, Detroit, Ml, social caseworker, 1936–38; Union Congregational Church, Painesville, OH, minister, late 1930s; ordained Congregational minister, 1943; Chandler Memorial Congregational Church, Lexington, KY, minister, 1942–43; Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, San Francisco, CA, pastor, 1943–44; St. John’s Congregational Church, Springfield, MA, pastor, 1946–51 ; St. Mark’s Community (Presbyterian) Church, pastor, Detroit, 1951 53; formed Central Congregational Church, 1953; launched Black Christian Nationalist Movement, 1967; established Shrine of the Black Madonna, late 1960s; created Pan African Orthodox Christian Church denomination, 1970s.
Addresses: Home— Houston, TX.
fighter for equal opportunities for Negroes in the field of employment, and he did much during his ministry at St. John’s to open up new avenues of work for qualified job applicants.” The examples set by the community service programs at the esteemed church, such as its youth athletic leagues, provided valuable lessons for Cleage when he arrived back in Detroit to head another church.
Cleage was named pastor of St. Mark’s Community Church, a Presbyterian ministry on Detroit’s west side, in 1951. Two years later, he led its congregation in the formation of a new religious organization called the Central United Church of Christ (CUCC). Cleage’s concept of a church as the focal point of the community—especially in the political and educational spheres—was increasingly put into practice. In 1957, politicians tried to rezone a primarily African American congressional district in an attempt to diminish its influence. Cleage and the CUCC were vocal opponents of the gerrymandering. They also opposed the reclassification of certain school zones, a move seen as a step toward a more segregated—thus unequal—educational system.
The civil rights movement found an increasing base of support among Cleage’s churchgoers. In June of 1963 Cleage, along with civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, codirected a “Walk to Freedom” through Detroit. By the mid-1960s, both Cleage’s church and the surrounding community had changed; in some ways, African Americans in Detroit had benefitted from the prosperity provided by the automobile industry and become more affluent, educated, and politically aware. Such gains only exacerbated the always-present hostilities between the black and white communities of the city.
Realizing that blacks were becoming increasingly politicized, Cleage began studying earlier African American religious movements. The tenets of Malcolm X, then an important leader in the Nation of Islam, held great relevance for Cleage. Malcolm X warned of the pitfalls of the integration that King espoused in the struggle to become fully equal members of American society. He pointed out that such integration was not possible without also giving up a part of one’s own heritage.
In March of 1967, Cleage took a step that was to have far-reaching implications for both his parish and the city: he installed an 18-foot religious painting that depicted a black Madonna and infant Jesus. The work was officially dedicated on Easter Sunday. During the service, Cleage spoke of the need for a separate Christian denomination for the African American community, one that worshipped a savior who, according to biblical references, may have indeed been of African heritage. “For nearly five hundred years the illusion that Jesus was white dominated the world,” the pastor said that day. “The resurrection which we celebrate today is the resurrection of the historic black Christ and the continuation of his mission. The church which we are building and which we call upon you to build wherever you are, is the church which gives our people, black people, faith in their power to free themselves from bondage, to control their own destiny, and to rebuild the Nation.”
The Black Christian Nationalist Movement that Cleage established soon attracted legions of followers in Detroit. Cleage’s new creed took the tenets of Black separatism—drawn from the teachings of Marcus Garvey, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammed, and Malcolm X—and joined them with religious inspiration from the bible to give birth to a new Christian denomination that spoke directly to the African American community. A few months after the movement’s inception, the city of Detroit was ravaged in vicious rioting that lasted four days in the summer of 1967. A mostly white police force, notorious for its racism and aided by a National Guard culled from the state’s rural counties, seemed to take advantage of the lawlessness of the situation to brutalize—and fire on—members of the city’s African American community. The devastation left by the mayhem galvanized Detroiters to an even greater degree: whites began moving out en masse to the suburbs, and membership in African American political and social organizations skyrocketed. Cleage and the Shrine of the Black Madonna, as his congregation was soon christened, became the focal point of a new era for the city.
One of the most important tenets proposed by Cleage, based on his own scholarship and writings, was that Jesus was a black revolutionary. He wrote that the religious leader was descended from a dark-skinned tribe of Israelites and that his teachings preached a radical new order. Such tenets eventually made Jesus a political prisoner and a martyr for his cause, and whites had appropriated his teachings to establish a creed for themselves alone. In Cleage’s biography, Ward quoted the minister as saying: “Jesus was the nonwhite leader of a nonwhite people struggling for national liberation against the rule of a white nation…. That white Americans continue to insist upon a white Christ in the face of all historical evidence to the contrary and despite the hundreds of shrines to Black Madonnas all over the world, is the crowning demonstration of their white supremacist conviction that all things good and valuable must be white.”
For a 1990 Detroit Free Press article on the history and influence of the Shrine, reporter Dori J. Maynard interviewed local educator Clifford Watson. “It got to your psyche,” Watson said of the Black Madonna mural in Cleage’s church. “If you thought you were … nothing and you walked into the church and you saw a black woman holding a black baby, the Mother Mary, it got to your psyche. And [when] you saw a picture of a black man being crucified on the cross, that had to hit your psyche. Those kind of impressions stayed with you for a lifetime.”
Such declarations, combined with Cleage’s outspoken political activism in the city, soon earned him a reputation as one of the foremost leaders of the black nationalist movement in Detroit. His tactics and pronouncements readily earned him the vilification of the white community. To them, Cleage was once quoted as saying, “When we take over, don’t worry. We’ll treat you like you treated us.” In the years after the riots, Shrine membership swelled to the thousands, and the organization was soon able to establish several groundbreaking programs.
A communal living center, where members were able to pool their resources and become active participants in the Shrine’s social-service outreach programs, was one such experiment. Cleage dreamed of economic self-sufficiency for the African American community, and the Shrine set up a neighborhood supermarket with competitive prices as an example of such economic independence. The Shrine also established a bookstore to promote the works of African American authors and the Black Nationalist movement.
Cleage’s battles with the Detroit school administration to hire more African American teachers and initiate a curriculum beneficial to the district’s growing majority of African American students evolved into even more ambitious political goals. Shrine members campaigned heavily to elect African American city council members, city and county judges, and state representatives by distributing their “Black Slate” literature across the city. Their efforts were considered crucial to the 1973 election of the city’s first African American mayor, Coleman Young. Barbara-Rose Collins, an early member of the Shrine, was working in an office when her discussions about her dissatisfaction with her children’s schooling led Shrine leaders to suggest that she herself run for a seat on the school board. From there Collins was elected to a city council seat, and by the mid-1990s, she was representing Michigan’s 13th Congressional District in Washington, DC.
The era of black militancy, for both Detroit and the rest of urban America, waned as the civil rights struggles of the 1960s seemed to be making strides. Gains made by African Americans—for better housing, schools, and employment opportunities—were celebrated by some as a positive step towards integration. More militant adherents, such as the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, had become targets of an FBI campaign to negate their effectiveness. By the 1990s, official membership in Detroit’s Shrine of the Black Madonna had declined considerably, though similar shrines had been established in cities like Houston, Texas, and Atlanta, Georgia.
Nonetheless, the Detroit branch continued to be active. The Detroit Free Press cited Cleage—who had since renamed himself Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman—and the church for helping alter the political landscape of the city. “He wasn’t just an important figure around Detroit,” the Reverend Will Herzfeld told reporter Maynard. “He was a pretty important national figure during the black power movement and the subsequent rise of black theology and its subsequent connection to black power. He was right out front.”
The Black Messiah, Sheed & Ward, 1968.
Black Christian Nationalism, Morrow, 1972.
Chafets, Ze’ev, Devil’s Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit, Vintage Books, 1990.
Melton, J. Gordon, Religious Leaders of America, Gale, 1991, pp. 7–8.
Ward, Hiley S., Prophet of the Black Nation, Pilgrim Press, 1969.
Detroit Free Press, June 3, 1990, p. 1F; July 18,1993, p. 7J.
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