Black Women’s Christian Activism

Seeking Social Justice in a Northern Suburb

240 pages

2 halftones

February, 2016

ISBN: 9780814745465



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Betty Livingston Adams is Research Fellow and Adjunct Faculty in the Department of History. She was previously Associate Fellow at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, Global Scholar at the Institute for Research on Women, and Associate Fellow of the Yale Initiative for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion. 

All books by Betty Livingston Adams

When a domestic servant named Violet Johnson moved to the affluent white suburb of Summit, New Jersey in 1897, she became one of just barely a hundred black residents in the town of six thousand. In this avowedly liberal Protestant community, the very definition of “the suburbs” depended on observance of unmarked and fluctuating race and class barriers. But Johnson did not intend to accept the status quo. Establishing a Baptist church a year later, a seemingly moderate act that would have implications far beyond weekly worship, Johnson challenged assumptions of gender and race, advocating for a politics of civic righteousness that would grant African Americans an equal place in a Christian nation. Johnson’s story is powerful, but she was just one among the many working-class activists integral to the budding days of the civil rights movement.
In Black Women’s Christian Activism, Betty Livingston Adams examines the oft overlooked role of non-elite black women in the growth of northern suburbs and American Protestantism in the first half of the twentieth century. Focusing on the strategies and organizational models church women employed in the fight for social justice, Adams tracks the intersections of politics and religion, race and gender, and place and space in a New York City suburb, a local example that offers new insights on northern racial oppression and civil rights protest. As this book makes clear, religion made a key difference in the lives and activism of ordinary black women who lived, worked, and worshiped on the margin during this tumultuous time.


  • "With care and nuance, Betty Livingston Adams illuminates the social worlds and religious activism of a group of ordinary black working women who made extraordinary contributions to black public life. Well researched, engaging, and accessible, Adams’s work adds new dimensions to our understanding of the history of the black women’s club movement, their participation in interracial social reform and political organizing, and leadership in black churches. She has done a great service in restoring these women to a place of importance in the narrative of African American religious history."

    —Judith Weisenfeld, Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion, Princeton University

  • "This lucid and engrossing reframing of the suburbs adds to a growing body of research uncovering the overlooked and courageous social activism of working-class African-American women. Adams's work should fundamentally alter the way we talk and write about the civil rights movement in the United States, from where and when it happened, to who contributed to its real momentum."

    —Morris Davis, Drew University