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by Amos N. Jones

The First Black Congressmen

Another angle on Reconstruction.

Being "the first black anything," declared the Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes, Jr., in a recent sermon before a large, historically distinguished black congregation in Washington, D.C., always presents considerable challenges. Forbes should know. He was installed as the fifth Senior Minister of the Riverside Church in New York City on June 1, 1989, and retired on June 1, 2007, after a periodically tumultuous tenure. The 2,400-member congregation's first black senior pastor, Forbes—a former professor at Union Theological Seminary—is himself the son of a North Carolina pastor. Forbes' statement in 2008 is made more poignant by virtue of the fact that he had been elected to lead Riverside, that bastion of theological and social liberalism, a full 22 years after the church had resonated to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s radical speech "Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence." King had spoken there at a time when many mostly white Baptist churches would have denied membership to blacks on account of color, and had acknowledged privately that leading Riverside was the kind of position he had envisioned all through his formal religious studies and early ministry. Yet in 2008, Forbes, the Pastor Emeritus and a charismatic optimist, lamented the role of "first black," and did so after having served an Upper West Side church that proudly proclaimed itself "Interdenominational, Interracial, International, Open, Welcoming, Affirming."

If serving in an ostensibly friendly religious context over recent years proved racially vexing, then what must it have been like for a black man of distinction to break the color barrier in a secular institution designed not just by and for the dominant white culture, but also organized to preclude black participation in it—and to break this barrier in 1870 (only five years after the end of the Civil War)? This is the question Philip Dray authoritatively answers in his carefully researched and elegantly written book ...

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