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American Missionary Association


Historical Note

The American Missionary Association was established in 1846 by a network of nineteenth century abolitionists who met at the Second Convention on Bible Missions. Some of them had previously united in the legal defense of the Amistad captives in 1839. During the U.S. Civil War, the Association began founding schools for the freedmen and went on to found hundreds of schools for African Americans, as well as other minority groups and Appalachian Whites.

In 1839, 49 adult males and 4 children were taken to Cuba from what is now Sierra Leone as part of the international slave trade. During a voyage from Havana to another city, they took control of the merchant ship La Amistad and sailed up the eastern coast of the United States. Upon their landing in New York, they were put on trial. In 1841, two years of court appeals pushed their case up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they were declared free.

The settlement of the Amistad captives to Sierra Leone was administered by the Amistad Committee, which operated the Mendi Mission. Later, the supervision of the mission was transferred to the Union Missionary Society. The resettlement and care of the Mendi Mission had at first been offered to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, if that organization would adopt the principals of Christian abolitionism. The continued refusal of the American Board to adopt abolitionist principles led not only to the organization of the Union Missionary Society but also the Western Evangelical Missionary Society and the Committee for West Indians Missions. It was representatives of these three organizations, as well as other evangelical abolitionists, who came together at the convention of 1846, at which the American Missionary Association was founded. The American Missionary Association then absorbed the Union Missionary Society, the Western Evangelical Missionary Society, and the Committee for West Indian Missions.

Soon, the Association operated missions in Hawaii, Siam (Thailand), Egypt, for run-away American slaves in Canada and liberated slaves in Jamaica, for Chinese immigrants in California, and provided aid to abolitionist churches in the Northern states and territories, and in the border Southern states. As the antebellum era drew to a close, the American Missionary Association found itself contributing to individual teacher's salaries in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. It was not as financially strong as other leading missionary groups of the day and it did not yet operate entire schools. The Civil War brought the opportunity to educate escaped "contrabands" even as the Union armies made inroads through the South, the American Missionary Association was nearby, setting up schools in local facilities which the military had previously confiscated.

By 1866, American Missionary Association officials realized that normal or grammar schools and colleges to train African American teachers would be the most effective use of their resources, and within three years they had chartered seven institutions for higher learning: Berea College, in Kentucky; Fisk University, in Tennessee; Atlanta University, in Georgia; Hampton Institute, in Virginia; Talladega College, in Alabama; Tougaloo University, in Mississippi; Straight University, now known as Dillard, in Louisiana. The curriculums of these schools were modeled after the better Northern schools of the time, combining academic and industrial courses.

The American Missionary Association also aided in the establishment of Howard University and contributed the entire support for its theological department. Fourteen non-chartered normal and high schools had been opened by 1876. By 1879, 150,000 pupils in the South were being taught by graduates of American Missionary Association normal schools and colleges. And by 1888, the Association' schools had educated 7,000 teachers. In addition to training teachers, these schools had two other purposes. They were to demonstrate conclusively that African Americans were capable of mastering higher education and they were to provide African American leaders who might assist their people in the struggle for equal rights.

The Association's primary concern was to provide a liberal Christian education among African Americans, even during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when public opinion ran strongly in favor of vocational training for the race. However, the American Missionary Association did not lose sight of the African American community's need for economic independence. Consequently, manual labor departments enabled the students to pay for part of their educational costs. In the process, the schools often harvested their own food and raised their own livestock, and they sometimes built and maintained their physical stock of buildings as well.

Following Reconstruction, the American Missionary Association adopted the policy of divesting itself of its primary and secondary schools as rapidly as public authorities in an area could be brought to accept responsibility for African American education. This policy, which sprang from the Association's conviction that education is primarily a public responsibility, allowed for the increase in expenditures toward the improvement of its institutions of higher learning. In an effort to encourage the acceptance of public responsibility, the American Missionary Association frequently turned over its buildings and grounds to local school boards without receiving any financial compensation for the properties. The South, however, was slow to accept this responsibility and as late as 1946, the American Missionary Association was still supporting seven of the region's high schools and academies.

The American Missionary Association established the Race Relations Department at Fisk University, under the directorship of Dr. Charles S. Johnson, in 1942. This met the needs of a climate that contained increased racial strife, both as a result of increased expectations for social participation by World War I veterans of color, and by the increased northern urban immigration by African Americans. After the Second World War, the bi-racial staff of the Race Relations Department endeavored to bring about better human relations through social research, education, and community action. The annual Race Relations Institute, held at Fisk, served as a training ground for many civil rights activists.

The Association's work with Native Americans was interrupted by the Civil War, but was resumed and expanded during the Reconstruction Period. The work with Asian Americans, white residents of Appalachia, and Puerto Ricans also received a significant portion of the American Missionary Association's attention.

In 1934, the Congregational and Christian Churches merged and the American Missionary Association, with Dr. Fred L. Brownlee as General Secretary, became part of the portfolio of the new organization, the Board for Homeland Ministries. The Board had had its own non-American Missionary Association missions in higher education, the Division of Christian Education, headed by Bryant Drake since 1940. Brownlee was succeeded in office by Rev. Philip M. Widenhouse, in 1954, and then by Wesley A. Hotchkiss, in 1957.

At this point, the American Missionary Association was absorbed again, into the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, and became a part of the Division of Higher Education and the American Missionary Association. This organizational restructuring was the result of a further merger between the Congregation and Christian Churches, and the Evangelical and German Reformed Churches. Other prominent officers in the campus ministry efforts of the Division were Hartland H. Helmich, Verlyn Barker, Rev. William K. Laurie, Rev. Paul H. Sherry, and Robert Mayo. In addition, Herman H. Long and Rev. Galen Weaver headed the Association's projects concerning race relations; Joseph T. McMillan, Jr., managed college relationships; Robert Newman managed the American Missionary Association's concerns with church and culture; Rev. Yoshio Fukuyama and Rev. Paul H. Sherry tended to the General Secretary's planning and strategy; Dr. Clifton H. Johnson established and operated the Amistad Research Center, the official repository for the American Missionary Association's archives.

Wesley A. Hotchkiss continued to act as the American Missionary Association's General Secretary through this 1957 merger and beyond, and he retired in 1983. At this point, Verlyn Barker succeeded Hotchkiss as Acting General Secretary and in 1984, Nanette Roberts assumed the official office and was succeeded in 1987 by Rev. Theodore H. Erickson, and in 1989 by co-General Secretaries, Rev. B. Ann Eichhorn and Rev. L. William Eichhorn. Other officers in the office of the General Secretary were Rev. Boardman W. Kathan, Rev. James A. Smith, Jr., and Rev. Grant Spradling.

Even after the first absorption of the American Missionary Association, into the Board for Homeland Ministries, in 1934, the purpose of the American Missionary Association was maintained. Truman B. Douglass, the Board for Homeland Ministries' Executive Vice President, cooperated with General Secretary Brownlee to maintain the education ministry. In 1963, the American Missionary Association's schools were transferred to the Council for Higher Education of the United Church of Christ. Douglass' oversight was succeeded by Howard Spragg, the former Board for Homeland Ministries Treasurer, in 1968, and then by Shelby Rooks, in 1984. In 1985, Division of Higher Education was eliminated and became the Division of Christian Education and the American Missionary Association. And in 1987, the Association's financial endowment, which had been carried and maintained intact since 1846, was fully absorbed by the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries.

Author: Lester Sullivan

Found in 25 Collections and/or Records:

American Missionary Association archives

Identifier: 001
Scope and Contents This collection is a valuable resource for the study of the abolitionist movement. It includes approximately 350,000 manuscript pieces. The mass of these was written during the period from 1839 to 1882, but several thousand are dated before and after that time. The manuscripts include some of the treasurers’ papers and minutes of Executive Committee meetings, as well as other items such as sermons, statistical reports, drawings, photographs, and essays; however, letters make up the large...
Dates: Created: 1828-1969; Other: Majority of material found in 1839-1882; Other: Date acquired: 08/22/1968

American Missionary Association archives addenda

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: 001-1
Scope and Contents The 1969 addendum and later addenda to the American Missionary Association archives are mostly twentieth century in scope, covering two main subject areas. The first is the association's numerous schools. These are considered "field" records, or, the fruits of the Association's missionary work outside of its New York City office. The Addendum is divided into three series: Series 1 covers field-related work, mainly the AMA schools; Series 2 covers projects that were run directly form the New...
Dates: Created: 1849-1991; Other: Date acquired: 03/31/1969

American Missionary photograph collection

Identifier: 018
Content Description The collection contains photographs that were gathered for use in the monthly magazine American Missionary, published by the American Missionary Association. Photographers include W. Knighton Bloom, Laura Kincheloe, and Frank Moore. These photographs document various ethnic groups and communities, both urban and rural in various sections of the United States. Also included are numerous photographs related to Ellis Island in the 1920s.Photographs taken and collected by W. Knighton...
Dates: Other: 1922-1934

H. Paul Beam-Douglass collection

Identifier: 037
Content Description Letterbooks, 1907-1908; correspondence, 1906-1918; writings, notes, speeches, reports, programs, photographs, teaching materials, collected materials, and American Missionary Association publications. The items were generated during the period that Harlan Paul Douglass was executive secretary of the A.M.A.This collection supplements the A.M.A. archives and the H. Paul Douglass papers. Photographs and a scrapbook on rural life document the work of the A.M.A. missionaries and...
Dates: Other: 1906-1918

Augustus Field Beard papers

Identifier: 038
Content Description Predominantly correspondence (1923-1935), also one speech (Dec. 10, 1930), a short memoir (undated), and a few clippings (1929-1931). With three exceptions all outgoing letters (156) are addressed to Frederick Leslie and Ruth Brownlee. The Rev. Brownlee (1883-1962) was Dr. Beard's sucessor as Corresponding Secretary of the American Missionary Association and Mrs. Brownlee, a distant cousin. There are eight incoming letters. Among the subjects discussed are the publication program...
Dates: Other: 1873-1935

Frederick Leslie Brownlee papers

Identifier: 059
Content Description

Frederick Leslie Brownlee was the General Secretary for the American Missionary Association from 1927 to 1950. Materials include correspondence, scrapbooks, photos, clippings, and other documents, many of which pertain to American Missionary Association institutions.

Dates: Other: 1894-1966

John Allen Buggs Papers

Identifier: 061
Scope and Contents The papers of John Allen Buggs document his career as an educator and school administrator. The collections consists of 4,000 items or 3.2 linear feet. There are 2,560 pieces of correspondence, 46 multi-page reports, 240 general single-page reports, 25 essays, and approximately 1,000 general items such as financial reports, bulletins, pamphlets, invitations, announcements, photographs, newspaper clippings, contracts, lists, press releases, and biographical sheets.The papers...
Dates: Created: 1939-1964; Other: Date acquired: 12/01/1973

Mary Carver and Marion Russell scrapbook

Identifier: 074
Scope and Contents In the summer of 1933, Marion Russell and Mary Carver of the Home Mission Board in Boston took a trip by car throughout the eastern and southern United States visiting projects of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and Congregational Christian Churches. This scrapbook and photo journal comprises a rich documentary source of religious and rural life in and around the Appalachian Mountains in 1933.  Ephemera and photographs depict the home of Chief Justice Roger Brooke...
Dates: Created: 1933; Other: Date acquired: 08/01/1989

Nellie De Spelder diaries

Identifier: 575
Content Description This collection consists of approximately 200 photocopied pages from the diaries of Nellie DeSpelder during her tenure as an American Missionary Association (AMA) teacher at Daniel Hand Preparatory School in New Orleans, Louisiana. DeSpelder was a teacher who journeyed from Greenville, Michigan to work in the AMA schools. During her tenure she visited the school at Orange Park and that at King's Mountain. Interesting sidelights are revealed in her brief trips to the nearby Mississippi Gulf...
Dates: Other: 1895-1899

Dodd Family papers

Identifier: 123
Content Description The Dodd Family papers contain 23 items of correspondence to and from members of the family (1862-1866), 15 sermons (1848-1864), 1 printed extract from a speech by Alexander H. Stephens (1861), 1 abolitionist pamphlet (n.d.), 3 clippings (1863, n.d.), 4 photocopies on 2 sheets including 2 photographs of Helen M. Dodd (1868, n.d.), 1 pass issued by the Office of the Superintendent of Negro Affairs (1864), and 1 oath of loyalty (1863). Most of the correspondence is from Helen Dodd, with one...
Dates: Other: 1848-1868