The Presbyterian Historical Society kicked off 2023 by introducing a new blog series that features African American Presbyterians throughout the denomination’s history. The series, "African American Leaders," will be published the first week of each month on the PHS website. PHS hopes the blog series will offer Presbyterians a location to access biographical information about a group that remains under-represented in the annals of Presbyterian history.
The series launched in January with a feature on the Rev. Dr. William Lloyd Imes, human rights advocate, organizer and pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem. In February, PHS will honor the life of the Rev. Dr. James H. Costen as part of its Black History Month celebration.
Imes was born in Memphis in 1889 and ordained by the Presbytery of Elizabeth in 1915. His leadership at St. James, beginning in 1925, helped the congregation flourish, including food cooperatives, six children’s choirs and pulpit exchanges with Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church to demonstrate what life in a just and integrated society would look like.
Imes’ leadership extended beyond St. James. In 1935, he led a march of 20,000 people against the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia at a time when fascist sympathizers were organizing in New York City.
The blog features a transcript of an oral history with Imes, recorded by the Rev. Dr. J. Oscar McCloud and saved at PHS in the 1980s.
In recent years PHS has recommitted itself to saving and sharing a more complete history of the denomination through the African American Leaders and Congregations Collecting Initiative (AALC). Launched in 2018, the initiative brings human and capital resources to bear on collecting records of the Black Presbyterian experience — both the personal records of longtime church workers and the original records of Black congregations.
Through the AALC, PHS has collected the records of the Rev. Dr. Gayraud Wilmore as well as other Black denominational leaders; partnered with the Center for Womanist Leadership at Union Presbyterian Seminary and the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (Columbia University Libraries) to digitize the complete records of the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon; and offered free digitization services to historically Black congregations in the PC(USA).
As work continues through the AALC, you can visit the PHS website and Pearl Digital Collections to explore African American Presbyterian history.
Learn more about the African American Leaders and Congregations Collecting Initiative and stay up-to-date on the African American Leaders blog series.
Want to learn more about the national archives of the PC(USA)? Get to know PHS!