Wednesday, September 7, 2016

James D. Corrothers, Happy at Last?

James D. Corrothers, around 1910

In 1898  . . .  “a sunburst fell upon my being.

James D. Corrothers later recalled the moment when he decided to enter the ministry of the AME Church. Upon learning his first assignment would be in New York, however, he and his wife agreed they would rather return to Michigan.

Turning back the clock, Corrothers found work unloading barrels of salt and flour from freight barges. The wet salt made the skin on his hands crack open and bleed. He switched to work on a fruit farm.

Eventually James came around to the idea of taking the offer in New York. He dropped his wife and sons with her family near Baltimore and hustled to the upstate town of Bath, where he received news that his wife and younger son had died.

Corrothers had no time to grieve. He brought his older son to Bath and worked for a pittance, supplementing his income by publishing Negro dialect verse in The Century, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Sunday Herald, and other papers.

Occasionally, Corrothers contributed to The Crisis, 
newspaper of the NAACP. His poem, "A Song of May and June,"
appeared in the June 1914 issue.

Moving on, he earned success and a good living as a pastor in the New Jersey towns of Red Bank and Hackensack, and prepared to answer the call of another congregation. But then:

The black tragedy of my life fell upon me; and I staggered and groaned, like a bludgeoned traveler in the dark. I was a stranger and nearly penniless. I had sacrificed all to do good, when, suddenly, I was accused of plotting to ruin my bishop’s good name – a thing of which I was as innocent as Heaven itself!  

The bishop brought a lawsuit against Corrothers, who was acquitted. It didn’t matter. He faced the wrath of the influential leaders of the AME church. James never recovered from their viciousness. He became an outcast immediately; no home, no congregation. He could not get another job and writing opportunities dried up. Thankfully, friends took in his son.  

Shall I tell of days of hunger, and wandering; of nights spent under the open, wintry sky? Shall I tell of rebuffs and buffetings; of “friends” who forgot or who “passed by on the other side”?

Many years later, Corrothers reflected on the Black church’s domination of African-American society and culture.

No other Negro institution is so powerful; so influential. All Negro life in American centres about the church. Coloured professional and business men, as a class, find it wise and profitable to remain in the good graces of the church. Even successful race leaders, like Dunbar, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, have not disdained a hearing through the Negro church.

Sabotaged at every turn, Corrothers gave up on being a minister ever again. He returned to New York where he found a job in Brooklyn as a janitor’s assistant, working from 5am until midnight. He loved the toil, he later wrote, and relished being able to send small gifts to his son.

Then one day it came to him that he should leave AME and join the Baptist Church, which welcomed him warmly.

Eventually, Corrothers remarried; with his second wife, Rosina, he had another son. He moved his family back to South Haven, Michigan, and built a brick church with his own hands. As the area developed as a resort for whites, however, Blacks felt unwelcome and left the area; so did he. 

View of the Black River, South Haven, Michigan; Corrothers
had a lifelong affinity with the area where he spent time as a child
and started a congregation around 1910.

Landing next in Lexington, Virginia, he renounced the Baptists for the Presbyterian Church over “a matter of conscience.”

In 1916, James Corrothers was ensconced as pastor of a church in Westchester, Pennsylvania. He died one year later.

While Corrothers figures in African-American history, his story does not resemble those of his peers who traveled a neat trajectory toward success. He moved often between triumph and despair, which may have reflected his own personality (at least in part). 

The hideous treatment of Corrothers by the elders of the AME Church is shocking, but so was Corrothers' candid denouncement of its abuse of power. While he never achieved the renown of Booker T. Washington, his clear-eyed perspective on race in America sets him apart even today. 

*This post is the last of three about James D. Corrothers; see August 17 + 24.

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