Theses Doctoral

nothin' but 'ligion: The American Missionary Association's Activities in the Nation's Capital, 1852 - 1875

Toler, Jr., Herbert H.

Missionary zeal in Washington, D.C. was at its height during the two decades following the opening of the Civil War. Religious organizations and their affiliates descended upon the city as its black population swelled from 10,983 in 1860 to 48,377 in 1880 - one of the largest urban black populations in the United States. Ten years after the first missionaries of the American Missionary Association (AMA) began evangelizing in the District of Columbia, AMA teachers initiated the instruction of contraband, freedmen, and free blacks in the fundamentals of education. The mission was to retool and prepare blacks in the transition from slavery to freedom. Given the numerous milestones in understanding missionary work (labor) in the rural south, little has been said about missionary activities in urban/metropolitan south by historians whose foci has been the deep south, aspects of missionary duties, and notable personnel. This study focuses on one missionary organization that significantly contributed to the urbanization of blacks in Washington, D.C. - to determine the outcome of its work in the life of free men and women in the city and to understand the origins of its historical legitimacy and legacy.
At the center of this study were more than five thousand American Missionary Association (AMA) digital frames of papers which provide a clear understanding of what took place during this critical period. From such papers, personnel, ideas, and occurrences can be closely followed to reconfigure the organization's past. Additionally, records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands provided a more concise view of the AMA's effects on the black community of Washington. Combined with more traditional sources, those materials have broadened the way to a better understanding of the nature of the black experience and the factors which shaped that urban experience in Washington, D.C. after the Civil War.
The enormity of the challenge was so great that a few missions and mission workers folded soon after they began - leaving those who most needed to be rescued to fend for themselves. For most missionaries, the call to mission work had a deeper meaning that was displayed in the inner sanctum of the organization's relief - in their efforts to normalize the lives of the freedmen and freemen with traditional institutions such as the schools, churches, and work.
The inability of the AMA's mission work among the black community in Washington to make greater social, economic, and religious strides by the end of the Reconstruction Era, is tied to the uniqueness of Washington, D.C. and the organization; the shear size of the migration and nature of the city left an overwhelming void that was impossible to fulfill. Ultimately, it was those who were first responders that failed to provide comprehensive aid in the transition from slavery to freedom - to bring a permanent program that lifted blacks in Washington out of lower class bondage. The combination of staffing issues, poor administration, high mindedness, a burgeoning missionary field, and Republican influence did not allow the American Missionary Association to commit fully to lasting change among Washington, D.C.'s black population. Thus upon the exodus of missionaries and benevolent associations, those who made it to the "promised land" were left with nothin' but `ligion.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Foner, Eric
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014