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.
"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
"Adams follows the fascinating careers of Violet Johnson (1870-1939) and Florence Spearing Randolph (1866-1951), black women born in the South following emancipation, who traveled to New York City to find work."
—Christian Century Magazine
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