HDS Students Create Exhibit on Black Church Arson

May 16, 2022
Students with their back to camera work facing a white board.
Students in HDS Professor Todne Thomas's class, "Black Church Burning," work on laying out items for a library exhibit they created. Photo by Caroline Cataldo, HDS Communications

Students in Professor Todne Thomas’s course, “Black Church Burning,” curated and created items for the exhibit on display at the Harvard Divinity School Library.


On a visit to an art museum while conducting research on Black church arson, Harvard Divinity School Professor Todne Thomas encountered many powerful pieces influenced by the targeted acts of violence, but felt something was missing.


“I felt like the artwork needed some deeper context,” said Thomas, Associate Professor of African American Religious Studies. “And I wondered: rather than just engaging in sort of deconstructive critique, what does a constructive response look like?”


That visit, and inspiration from the work of her colleague, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America Catherine Brekus, whose own course on slavery and Christianity culminated in a student-curated library exhibit, led Thomas to create a course that would also result in a student-driven exhibit and offer that deeper context.


The students enrolled in Thomas’s spring course “Black Church Burning,” curated and created items for the new exhibit, “Black Church Arson: Testimony and Witness,” on display now on the second floor of the Harvard Divinity School Library.


Thomas, who is conducting ethnographic research on Black church arsons for her upcoming book, designed the course around different representations of Black church arson as well as different methodologies of religious studies, from history to social science to visual arts and poetry, to theology and sermonic texts.


“Black church arson isn’t just historical. It’s a phenomenon that’s still happening,” said Thomas. “With this exhibit, we’re creating places for public contemplation that have the kind of context we’re very well situated to provide while using the resources of the Divinity School and the Harvard Library system.”


Students researched, curated, or created all of the items appearing in the exhibit, which include oral histories from the Rev. Robert Turner, Senior Pastor of Vernon A.M.E. Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was burned during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and Cal Brown, the stepmother of Michael Brown, Jr., the teenager fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Other items include student-created stained glass inspired by the Wales Window given to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, following a deadly 1963 bombing there, but reinterpreted to depict a Black Saint Rachel as the central figure.


A student in a white T-shirt and dark baseball cap holds up a work of stained glass next to students and a library staff member.

Kristina Reinis, MTS ‘23, crocheted a garment inspired by the image Ten Shards of Stained Glass collected from the destroyed windows of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church following the bombing. Nadia Milad Issa, MTS ’22, who researched Ten Shards of Stained Glass, provided the color palette for the crocheted garment. Issa also choreographed a dance to “Alabama” by John Coltrane, which incorporated ring shout and Black Christian liturgical dance and praise elements, and wore the garment. As a collective project, the garment visually represents the spatial violence and fragmentation that Black church arson inflicts.


A student helps another student wear a multicolored crocheted robe.

The Rev. James Arnold Lewis, MDiv ‘23, a former lawyer and Army veteran, described himself as an artist since childhood. For the exhibit he created a sculpture entitled "Living On After the Flames" using recovered materials. The sculpture depicts a couple following the burning of their church and communicates that what is physically lost to arson on one level continues to live on in arson survivors' minds, hearts, and souls.


“There are so many stories about the actual losses occasioned by church arsons … it’s really hard to wrap your mind around the totality of it,” Lewis said. “It’s so much more than just the buildings and the pews that are lost. It's also generations of religious and other education, it's the celebrations, the lessons of love, the meaningful ceremonies like weddings, baptisms, and even funerals. What's lost can also include one's sense of peace, safety, and innocence - especially when one considers that there is often so much hatred that manifests in the intentional burning of Black churches. Such a deep hatred can come from a lack of understanding. When this lack of understanding is coupled with a lack of love, what can clearly result is a blind desire to destroy.”


For Lewis, Thomas’s design of the course and incorporation of the exhibit project opened up doors of understanding.


“For many of us who haven't experienced Black church arson, this exhibit makes the subject much more real. It made what we've learned in this course much more personal, and it emphasizes the need for a greatermore reallove in America,” said Lewis. “I grew up in a Baptist church ... It was a place of safety, a place where we could come together and learn about what love truly means: how it looks and how we as Christians are required to demonstrate it. When I was a child, it was also a place where adults could register to vote; to engage in a basic civic duty during a time when Black voter participation was at times forcefully discouraged. Within the Black church, many who lacked opportunities to really make their marks on society because too many doors were locked by racism could showcase their creative and performing arts and other talents and also be leaders in their communities. In short, the Black church was and continues to serve as a kind of blessed incubator out of which can be birthed inspired people who dare to dream greater dreams for themselves, their communities, and for their nation."


In April, just before the exhibit opening, students met with staff from Harvard Divinity School Library and the Weissman Preservation Center who helped them determine how to display the items.


Professor Todne Thomas and students standing in the Harvard Divinity School Library.

Thomas said the students exceeded her vision for what was possible.


“HDS students have a real vocational sincerity,” said Thomas. “When it comes to topics like this, there’s reticence to take it fully on. There’s a search to kind of soften the blow, to put it in the past, and I think what’s really impressive is that the students I’ve had have not walked away from those difficulties. They’ve run toward them. They’ve really modeled to me, to us, how to be better citizens in terms of how we apprehend the very troubled past and present of our country.”

—by Michael Naughton