Alabama’s Nineteenth-century Slave-evangelist and My White Privilege

In this era of secrets coming to light, I thought I would share an insight I gained in graduate school. While reading the book, Slave Religion, for a class, I discovered the Alabama, preacher James McLemore. Rev. McLemore has three claims to fame: he was an itinerant Baptist preacher of some merit; he owned the plantation that provided 500 acres for Auburn University in Montgomery; and he owned Caesar Blackwell, one of the preeminent slave preachers in the antebellum South. Blackwell at times preached alongside McLemore, and upon McLemore’s death, the Alabama Baptist Association purchased Blackwell so that he could continue to start churches and preach.

A document confirming Caesar’s popularity was written by B. F. Riley, who in his History of Alabama Baptists provided this commentary:

A Negro slave, named Caesar, a bright, smart, robust fellow was ordained to preach. His ability was so marked, and the confidence which he enjoyed was so profound, that Rev. James McLemore would frequently have Caesar attend him upon his preaching tours. He was sometimes taken by Mr. McLemore into the pulpit, and never failed of commanding the most rapt and respectful attention….

To the credit of the Alabama Association, it is written that they bought this man and gave him his liberty that he might preach among them the gospel of Christ, and it is said, that though he was as black as a crow, he traveled alone and unharmed on the mission of life.

I claim that I am a third or fourth generation Disciples pastor, but clearly, the preacher tradition runs deep. I have so much privilege in my life…and almost certainly more privilege than Caesar’s family. I have a tradition of higher education in my family and a tradition of faith. I grew up in a mostly stable household with “enough.” As I have been reflecting recently on privilege and reading more deeply about biological effects of long-term poverty, I have become more and more convicted about fighting the inequality of our system. I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague about budgeting as privilege…to budget you have to have some certainty about income and expenses from one month to another. Family history, faith, and the human existence convict me both of privilege and to the responsibility of change.

Eighteen months ago the Spiritual Life Center offered three sections of a discussion group on White Privilege for faculty and staff. (You can find the curriculum for free download at http://privilege.uccpages.org). In January, we will offer sections again. The 2018 invitation to the conversation is for students, faculty, and staff. We will try to find the times that best suit those who are interested. Please add your name to the google doc at: White Privilege Conversation Group Interest List.

Blessings, Stephanie

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