Griggs, Sutton Elbert

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Griggs, Sutton Elbert

January 2, 1933

Novelist and preacher Sutton Elbert Griggs was born in Chatfield, Texas, raised in Dallas, and attended Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. Following the path of his father, the Rev. Allen R. Griggs, he studied for the Baptist ministry at the Richmond Theological Seminary (later part of Virginia Union University) and was ordained in 1893. Griggs's first pastorate was in Berkley, Virginia, and he went on to serve for more than thirty years as a Baptist minister in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee. In addition to his career as a pastor, he soon established himself as an author of novels, political tracts, and religious pamphlets. In the period following Reconstruction, marked by a fierce resurgence of segregation, disfranchisement, and antiblack violence in the South, Griggsalong with such African-American writers as Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harperresponded with positive portrayals of black Americans and demands for civil rights.

Griggs wrote more than thirty books, most of which he published himself and vigorously promoted during preaching tours of the South, as he describes in The Story of My Struggles (1914). His five novels are technically unimpressive, weakened by stilted dialogue, flat characterizations, and sentimental and melodramatic plot lines. Even as flawed polemics, however, they are distinguished by their unprecedented investigation of politically charged themes of African-American life in the South, such as black nationalism, miscegenation, racial violence, and suffrage. Above all else a religious moralist, Griggs was critical of assimilationist projects, calling instead for social equality and black self-sufficiency, but he was equally impatient with radical militancy in the quest for civil rights.

His fiction often centers on such ethical concerns. In Imperium in Imperio (1899), Griggs's best-known work and one of the first African-American political novels, the integrationist Belton Piedmont chooses to die rather than support a militaristic plot to seize Texas and Louisiana from the United States as a haven for African Americans. In Overshadowed (1901), Astral Herndon, discouraged by the "shadow" of racial prejudice both in the United States and in Africa, chooses exile as a "citizen of the ocean." Dorlan Worthell in Unfettered (1902) wins the hand of the beautiful Morlene only by offering a plan for African-American political organization. The Hindered Hand (1905) is pessimistic about the possibilities of reforming southern race relations: The Seabright family encounters violent tragedy in striving to "pass" in white society in order to transform white racist opinions, and their one dark-skinned daughter, Tiara, flees to Liberia with her husband, Ensal, who has refused to participate in a "Slavic" conspiracy to destroy the Anglo-Saxons of the United States through germ warfare. While Baug Peppers attempts inconclusively to fight for voting rights for southern blacks before the Supreme Court in Pointing the Way (1908), Letitia Gilbreth, who believes that "whitening" the race through assimilation is the only way to effect racial equality, is driven mad when her niece refuses the mulatto Peppers and marries a dark-skinned man.

Similar themes also appear in Griggs's political treatises, most notably Wisdom's Call (1909), an eloquent argument for civil rights in the South that comments on lynching, suffrage, and the rights of black women, and Guide to Racial Greatness; or, The Science of Collective Efficiency (1923), with a companion volume of biblical verses entitled Kingdom Builders' Manual (1924); these together offer a project for the political organization of the African-American southern population, stressing education, religious discipline, employment, and land ownership. At the end of his life, Griggs returned to Texas to assume the position his father had held, the pastorate of the Hopewell Baptist Church in Denison. He soon departed for Houston and, at the time of his death, was attempting to found a national religious and civic institute there.

See also Chesnutt, Charles W.; Dunbar, Paul Laurence; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins; Literature of the United States


Fleming, Robert E. "Sutton E. Griggs: Militant Black Novelist." Phylon 34 (March 1973): 7377.

Gloster, Hugh M. "Sutton E. Griggs: Novelist of the New Negro." Phylon 4 (fourth quarter 1943): 333345.

brent edwards (1996)

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