SUMMIT, NJ — In her new book, “Black Women’s Christian Activism,” Betty Livingston Adams, a resident of Summit, explores issues of social justice such as race, religion and gender. It is a nonfiction piece that explores the lives and contributions of ordinary, working-class black women, which helped create a better life for future generations. It focuses specifically on how religion paved the way for equality.
“Religion made a difference in black working women’s organizational strategies and their search for social justice in the first half of the twentieth century. Women like Violet Johnson, a black woman living and working in an overwhelmingly white and affluent New Jersey suburb, entered public space through their church work. Their willingness to challenge hegemonic assumptions of gender, race and class amid the nationalization of Jim Crow segregation mattered in the churches they founded, the institutions they created and the communities they sustained,” said Johnson.
Jim Crow refers to the racial caste system which operated primarily in the south. It suggested that blacks were second class citizens and contained anti-black laws. Many Christian ministers and theologians taught their followers that whites were the chosen people, blacks were cursed to be servants and God supported racial segregation.
“I was introduced to these significant historical actors and their unwritten historical moment when, in 1998, my local congregation, Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, held its centennial anniversary,” said Johnson. “In the course of documenting the church’s history, I discovered that Violet Johnson, the twenty-seven-year-old founder of the church, had a commitment to social justice that extended beyond the church she founded and the suburb in which she lived and worked.”
Black women such as Violet Johnson and Florence Randolph, though they both worked for a living, were also judged by prevailing middle-class social standards and gender boundaries. When they became leaders of the church, they transgressed social constructs of race and gender. The importance of following these women’s guidelines in the pursuit of social justice is the theme of the book. Violet Johnson established a Baptist church in a Protestant community, which paved the way for religious justice and granted black Americans an equal place in Christianity.
Had it not been for the actions of women such as Violet Johnson, women may never have gained an equal place in society. By the 1920s, women were granted the right to vote. By questioning social constructs, people were able to take a second look at who should be able to vote and which votes counted.
Betty Livingston Adams earned her Ph.D. from Yale University and a Master of Divinity from Drew University. She has served as a visiting assistant professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and an assistant professor at Southern University in Baton Rouge. A former corporate manager, she is now following the footsteps of those she admires by working as an associate minister at Fountain Baptist Church.
“I would like the world to be a better place for my granddaughter,” said Johnson. “That requires we learn from the past, including the lessons taught by flawed choices and missed opportunities.”