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Second Baptist Church of Detroit, the oldest African-American church in Michigan, was organized in 1836. It is located at 441 Monroe Street, east of the intersection of Gratiot and Woodward Avenues, within the Greektown Historic District, which encompasses part of what was once called Paradise Valley or Blackbottom, the home, until the 1940s, of most of Detroit's black population.
To paraphrase Robert Frost, one can say that the church functions as an ongoing "stay against confusion." This is especially true for blacks, for whom the church has historically been a social and political as well as a spiritual mainstay. Second Baptist, more than most other black churches in the city, can claim recognition as a pivotal force in black history.
According to the church's Web site, Second Baptist, at its formation, "claimed a mission to free slaves and have them enjoy the full privileges of American citizenship." Toward this goal, Second Baptist, from its beginning "to the end of the Civil War…served as a 'station' on the Underground Railroad" and helped over 5,000 slaves gain their freedom "in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Laws." It also "established Detroit's first school for black children" ("History"). Moreover, during the times when blacks found it particularly difficult to find jobs, Second Baptist was instrumental in getting blacks hired at the Ford plant. According to Sheryl James, in 1919, "Henry Ford asked the Rev. Robert Bradby [then pastor of Second Baptist] to recommend good workers from his congregation-a referral system that lasted more than 20 years" (A-8). This is but a brief account of the church's activism, but it is sufficient to give an indication of the church's zealous efforts to uplift its people.
Until Paradise Valley was destroyed by urban renewal, Second Baptist was an integral part of life in the community that surrounded it. In addition to its impact on the collective black community, Second Baptist strongly influenced individual residents in various ways. One of these individuals was the poet Robert Hayden. Hayden's experiences in the community, in his own words, remained "a part of his consciousness as an artist, forever a source for his poems, and forever a source of joy and pain never to be assuaged" by his many awards and accomplishments (Collected Prose 21). This dichotomy is reflected in his ambivalent attitude towards his poetic characters, and it is evident in the poem, "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday" (Collected Poems 38).
Hayden says that when he was a youth, he and his foster father "were members in more or less good standing" (26) of Second Baptist Church. Despite his youthful attendance at church, the adult Hayden admits, "I am not very pious, certainly not in any sense a goody-goody. Indeed, I still struggle with my faith…" (27). Apparently, Hayden endured too much of the "squalor and ugliness and humiliation" of Blackbottom to accept unquestioningly the religion it offered. Frank Rashid says Hayden was "acutely aware of the supposed [emphasis mine] differences between the sinners and the saved, and he knew, too, that some who on Sunday worshipped with his family at Second Baptist Church behaved differently the rest of the week" (201).
Hayden's moral uncertainty restrained him from being judgmental toward his neighbors as well as toward Lula Butler Hurst, the historical "queen" in the poem. Hayden refers to Hurst as the Lord's "mockingbird." She was one of those stellar songbirds who, "when she rared back her head and sang," could "sing Jesus down." However, the Queen of Sunday was murdered by her lover: "Satan sweet-talked her,/four bullets hushed her." This stuns the churchgoers, who wonder, "Who would have thought/she'd end that way?" While the speaker does not criticize either the "Queen" or the churchgoers, he does seem to think the congregation's response is rather naive. For despite the sordidness, poverty, racism, and violence that pervade Blackbottom, the congregation seems unable to believe that this violence happened to one of its own or that the Lord's "fancy warbler" was capable of such perfidy. The speaker repeats the question three times. And the final time, the speaker emphasizes the churchgoers' anguished bewilderment by repeating "Who would have thought, / who would have thought [emphasis mine] she'd end that way?"
Appalled as they are by the queen's fall from grace, the congregation, nevertheless, rallies and provides a "big bronze coffin" and a "pillow of chill gardenias" for her funeral. Although the churchgoers' moral certainty has been shaken by the incident, they are unwilling to give her over to Satan. They funeralize her in the church, and imagine that "any moment she'd lift her head/….and turn this quiet into shouting Sunday / and make folks forget what she did on Monday." Rashid believes that the poem's form "suggests that the purpose of the ritual is not to separate the congregation from Sunday's fallen queen, but to find a way to include her and all sinners, to return to the fold" (212). Rashid's observation echoes Hayden's comment, "But I never thought of the people I knew as being anything but human" (26). Although, at that time, Hayden was not referring to spiritual faith, or anything to do with religion or morality, the comment seems to reflect his attitude toward the churchgoers in the poem.
After 160 years of service, Second Baptist Church still declares that its mission is to help blacks enjoy the privileges of full citizenship. The residential areas are gone now, and the church is surrounded on all sides by commercial businesses. Viewed from the outside, the building looks like it is being slowly squeezed to extinction. This view, however, is deceiving. Once inside, visitors will find present-day "mockingbirds" who are capable of making "old hardened sinner men tremble" and the "righteous rock."
Ollie Mitchell received a B.A. in English and psychology at Marygrove College and an M.A. in English from Wayne State University. For several years she taught writing and literature at Marygrove and at the University of Detroit Mercy. On Sundays she sang in the choir at Friendship Baptist Church on Detroit's East Side. Ollie Mitchell passed away on March 31, 2008.
Photos by Anna Fedor.
Hayden, Robert. Collected Poems. Ed. Frederick Glaysher. New York: Liveright, 1985. Print.
- - -. Collected Prose. Ed. Frederick Glaysher. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993. Print.
"History." Second Baptist Church. October 2002. Web. 31 Mar. 2003.
James, Sheryl. "Ford Turns 100." Detroit Free Press 12 May 2003. Print.
Rashid, Frank. "Robert Hayden's Detroit Blues Elegies." Callaloo 24.1 (2001): 200-22.
JSTOR. Web. 5 June 2014.
Originally posted September 2003