But one of my central scholarly concerns--so central that it shaped the title of my book Unexpected Places--is the need for all of us to think about African American presences throughout our history. This sense pushes me, when diving into current news, to ask about these kinds of traces and to think about the Black pasts not being discussed.
Accounts of the Flint water crisis, for example, made me ask what we’d need to understand not only the state’s massive environmental racism and the repeated failures to think through possibilities for urban renewal (especially in cities with significant Black populations) but also the roots of Black Flint.
Much popular media has, if commenting on such at all, traced Flint’s African American population to the massive migrations North in the early and mid-twentieth century--migrations that Isabel Wilkerson has rightly recognized as attempted escapes from racist structures and the pervasive culture of violence and oppression in the South.
But there were African Americans in Flint long before those crucial developments. Among them were folks who founded Quinn Chapel AME Church in the mid-1870s, a community critical in setting up the AMEC’s Michigan Conference in 1887 (an event presided over by AME lion Jabez Pitt Campbell). More on that early church community can be found at http://www.mycitymag.com/the-historical-quinn-chapel/, and, in beginning to learn more about them, I found the gem below in the Christian Recorder.
A combination of a biography and funeral sermon, the text appeared in the 7 April 1887 Recorder. It was submitted by the Reverend David A. Graham, who folks may know not only as a longtime AME minister but also as the father of Shirley (Graham) Du Bois.
Graham, who had been born in January 1861 in Princeton, Indiana, and had helped build and pay for a new parsonage while charged with Flint’s AME Church, spoke of Robert Burrell, whose life story has diverse powerful resonances. It is at once the story of the horrors of slavery and the difficulties faced by antebellum free African Americans. It reminds us of African Americans’ presences in the War of 1812 and in the “early West” of Indiana. It is the story of Black mobility in times when, as Graham reminds us (using a phrase many will know from Dred Scott on), African Americans “had no rights that the white man was bound to respect.” It is the story, too, of the impact of print on African Americans able to engage with it--as it not only embodies that impact in Graham’s act of remembering Burrell in print but also speaks to Burrell’s love of Pilgrim’s Progress.
And in the account of the elderly Burrell’s death--trapped in the second floor of a burning building, at which “the fire department hadn’t arrived”--it has eerie and all-too-expected echoes of the ways government has often failed and continues to fail folks in need, especially folks of color and folks with economic troubles. Even though the sermon ends with the to-be-expected nineteenth-century ministerial turn to celebrate heavenly entrance over earthly life, the circumstances of Burrell’s life, it seems to me, so heavily emphasize the “changing same” of surrounding Black folks’ experiences in these United States that they call us all to remember and to act today.
Here’s the piece, with some paragraphing added for readability and some brief cuts made due to space:
Funeral of Rev. Robert Burrell
By Rev. D. A. Graham
Sunday, March 20th, at 3 P.M. every available foot of the A.M.E. Church of Flint, Mich., was occupied and the doors and windows surrounded by a congregation consisting about equally of colored and white people of every station in life, assembled to pay the last respect to the charred remains of one of Flint's most worthy citizens. The pastor, Rev. D.A. Graham, chose for his texts, Jas. 2, 5, "Hath not God chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?" and 2 Cor. 5, 2, "For in this we groan earnestly, desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven." The following is the sermon:
I will not on this occasion read you a biography and then preach a sermon, but the biography is the sermon. Rev. Robert Burrell was born in Jonesboro, Ky., about the beginning of the present century. He was with his master as body servant in the war of 1812. In the cruel bondage of the time he continued until he had married and began raising a family. The act which caused his freedom was the selling of his dear child by the master. The mother, with an agony that can only be approached by that of the mother who lays her first precious cherub in the cold, cheerless grave, went into the garden to pour out her soul to Him whose ear is always open to the cry of the oppressed. As she told Jesus all about it, the weight grew too heavy, the strain too great; the heart-strings broke and the blood-bought spirit was borne on the wings of angels beyond the reach of the master.
When Robert Burrell, then strong in manhood, realized the situation and contemplated the awful probabilities of human slavery, he formed the resolution that he and his remaining three children should be free or die in the effort to be. Being rich in faith and strong in body, he set his face toward the North star, and after many dangers and privations he reached Wayne county, Ind., where, among the Quakers, (the only religious sect of that day which recognized the golden rule as a Christian precept), he was comparatively safe for many years.
It was during these years that he did much of his most lasting work. Though not a member of the conference, he was associated with Bishop Paul Quinn in holding meetings in eastern Indiana and western Ohio. To appreciate the work done here, you must remember that those were the days when the "black man had no rights that the white man was bound to respect." The meetings were usually held in the groves, God's first temples, and, as a rule, were disturbed greatly, if not entirely broken up by white roughs. Though mobbed and persecuted in all manner of ways, Brother Burrell preached the unsearchable riches of Christ with God-given power, and eternity alone will reveal the full result. One thing I know, that at least ten men who came up in that section in that time are now members of the Indiana and Michigan Conferences, and it is very doubtful whether this is half the number which might be named. Some of these men may never have known Father Burrell and yet may be, spiritually, his grandchildren. . . . But his usefulness in this section was brought to a close in 1851, when Indiana called upon every colored person on her soil to produce proof of his freedom. Though Brother Burrell had accumulated some means, he was compelled to leave all for safety and he removed to Cincinnati. . . .
Again was he compelled to flee, this time to Canada. He settled in Amherstburgh, Ont., where he remained till 1879 when he came to this city. For several years past he has suffered from disease and the infirmities of old age until he was unable to care for himself. In this condition only two of his seven children have remembered the first commandment with promise--Mrs. Maggie Birch and Mrs. Susan McCleary. The latter, a young widow, has kept house for her father and has worked hard, day and night, to give him comfort in his declining years. Her devotion stands out in striking contrast to the faithlessness of older brothers. For months Father Burrell has been confined to his house, but when I first called on him, as well as on all subsequent visits, I found him patient in tribulation, rejoicing in hope, shining with glory, trusting in God. . . . His voice was weak, but it was heard in heaven; his sight was dim, but "he could read his title clear to mansions in the skies."
I was impressed with the fact, in spite of surrounding evidences of poverty, that I was in the presence of a child of God, a brother to the prince of glory. . . .
Yes, he was always in smiles and seemed to be happy in Jesus. "Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?" He was a great lover of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and I never had a conversation with him in which he did not mention some character in that wonderful book. Every one mentioned in that work was to him a living character and the example of each life was the same as if he had been personally acquainted with all the incidents thereof. On my last visit he dwelt long on Christian's passage through the river. As the good father told of the angel band meeting him on the other shore, he seemed to follow the happy company through the pearly gate and to almost peep in and see the golden streets, and to hear the heavenly voices singing, "Come in, come in." I shall never forget the rapture which shone through the dim windows of the soul, while he contemplated that grand reception and anticipated the same. . . .
After prayer he asked me if I thought it wrong for him to want to go home to rest. I told him I thought not, for Paul said, "In this we groan earnestly, desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven." The following Thursday evening about 11 o'clock, the building--in the second story of which was their home--was found to be on fire. Soon the only avenue of escape was shut off, but the faithful daughter at the peril of her own life succeeded in getting him to the front window, but alas! There was no ladder and no men present to assist.
The fire department had not arrived. The floor beneath them was already burning. Flames and smoke came rolling in the back door. Friends shouted "jump," and the daughter, at the last moment, leaped to the pavement below. Although her ankle was severely sprained, she made wild endeavors to get back to the rescue of her father, but was restrained by those who saw that it was impossible, and the aged sire was left to his fate. But there amidst that stifling smoke and lurid flames, where men did not dare venture, a shining company of the heavenly host, fresh from the King of Glory, hovered round and waited till the last fetter was burned away. Then with songs of triumph they carried that child of the King to Abraham's bosom. . . .