Institutional Insularity of The Black Elite: The Closing of Lincoln Temple

By Sudi West

By now, the entire country has heard about the sad closing of one the nation’s oldest surviving black churches, Lincoln Temple in Shaw. The Church’s pastor, Reverend Barbara Breland delivered a parting lament - “Lincoln Temple, we are at the end of our journey. But we are not at the end of God, and God is not at the end of us.”

Such a statement of faith stands out in the face of such a stark reminder of the demographic transformation in the Shaw community over the past quarter century. The neighborhood has transformed from a mostly black, largely poor and working-class community to a mostly white, affluent, millennial community. The Church stood as a witness to that change, even as it receded as a place of worship for the masses of the community. But there is another story, a story of redemption, of growth and survival, that took place at the Church over the past five years.

For the past five years, Shaw Community Center, a local non-profit youth development program serving local youth, has been the principal tenant of at Lincoln Temple. Housed primarily in the Church building’s basement, SCC, which serves about two hundred neighborhood youth with its year-round programs, became an important anchor for the community over the past decade.

In each of the past five years, the number of youths who congregated in the basement of Lincoln Temple to attend educational enrichment programs, receive free meals, attend free after-school and summer camp, and participate workforce development training, became truly the life-blood of the congregation. Most of them did not attend religious services at the Church, but they all live in the community and gave life to what would have been an almost empty structure over the past five years.

Many of the children have watched the neighborhood transform before their eyes. Very little remains familiar of the neighborhood they knew and grew up around. Many of their neighbors have moved away. Some of the shops, beauty salons and barber shops have closed. In their place, major new condominium developments have sprung up. Homes formerly owned by a middle-class group of mostly African American residents, has given way to a largely renovated and manicured neighborhood housing an affluent, predominately Caucasian population. As a result, many of the children of Shaw have felt an intense feeling of dislocation and displacement on the same ground that they once called their neighborhood.

The sociological effects of gentrification on remaining populations has not been studied. But the experience of the youth in Shaw, who find themselves on the front lines, literally, has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand they have been able to see and experience and live amidst a professional class that they would not have experienced otherwise. Some of the local schools have been renovated or entirely rebuilt out of the tax receipts brought by higher home values and sales taxes. Some of the neighborhood parks have been renovated after decades of neglect by the city. The neighborhood is generally a safer place to live in for the youth.

As Executive Director of SCC, I have witnessed first-hand the distance, the unfriendly stares, and the social, economic and educational barriers to assimilation these youth face with respect to the newly arrived people and establishments. Amidst a host of new developments mostly serving educated, affluent millennials, the youth remaining in Shaw have felt-sidelined in their own community. We have striven to help the youth survive and thrive amidst this change.

Whether through arts education – where youth for example, were led by a renowned local artist in creating clay boats as a symbol of the journey of African Americans to this country and to this community, placed in symbolic protest outside of the Shay – an imposing structure that sits on the intersection of Georgia and Florida avenue. This was at one point a dividing line between ‘old’ Shaw and ‘new’ Shaw; many of the youth never ventured beyond it. They did not understand what was happening, and they felt confused and isolated.

Or whether through reading and writing enrichment programs held nightly during the school year, designed to help the youth excel academically. Whether it is the field trips to local restaurants, where the youth began to feel at home in enjoying some of the amenities that have sprung up around them – we strive to help youth develop the social fluency and global perspective that will enable them to assimilate within the broader community, and help to enrich the basic academic skills that will enable them take advantage of some of the opportunities for employment offered by the bourgeoning business district in Shaw.

Many of the business owners, developers and local professionals have helped us along the way. Some, like Divine Shine and Wanda’s Salon have welcomed the youth and even offered to train some of them in basic working skills. Other have contributed money to our non-profit or volunteered at the center as academic tutors during the summer or after-school. The emerging community has certainly proven to be receptive of SCC’s outreach efforts on behalf of the youth. And this has helped to bridge the gulf to some extent.

But another set of sore and intransigent set of dynamics has stymied the further development of SCC into a full-fledged community center that is truly equipped to serve the multiple constituencies that now comprise Shaw. One of the them is the leadership of Lincoln Temple itself.

Even before the rapid pace of gentrification began, the Church began to lose its vision. What had been an institution founded upon a deep commitment to social justice – initially for recently-freed slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War, and up to and through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Church eventually lost its footing. The decline in Lincoln Temple’s membership has certainly been affected by gentrification, surely, but gentrification is not the primary cause of the Church’s closing. There are other traditionally black Churches in the neighborhood, namely the New Bethel Baptist Church, that have continued to maintain thriving and growing community of members, even amidst the demographic changes. This difference? One church had a realistic and compelling vision for its role in the community, and the other did not.

This lack of vision stems from a particularly pernicious form of institutional insularity that is unfortunately plaguing many older black organizations. These include local churches like Lincoln Temple, but also extend to other black elite institutions in Shaw, such as Howard University and the United Negro College fund. This form of institutional insularity among the black so-called elite is nothing new. Noted sociologist E. Franklin Frazier documented the insular nature of black elite institutions in his seminal work, The Black Bourgeoisie. The title paid homage to what was an open secret at the time of its publication in 1957: while the black elite had taken on many of the values and mannerisms of the bourgeois class, it did not control the means of production in American society. And because of the subjugated legal and social status of African Americans at that time, the black ‘bourgeoisie’ lacked social fluidity and therefore became insular.

Thus, the black bourgeoisie was driven to create behind a the ‘iron curtain’ of discrimination and segregation its own world replete with its peculiar social institutions, leaders and values. This world of ‘make believe’ as Frazier characterized it, is an attempt to “fabricate an environment and social conditions which do not and cannot exist. Consequently, he concluded the “black bourgeoisie has failed to play the role of a responsible elite.”

The institutional insularity of Lincoln Temple leadership, not the evolving demographics of the Shaw community, is the primary factor that accounts for the closing of Lincoln Temple and its eventual repurposing as a condominium. But it is not too late. Fortunately, the roots of the dying tree have sprung a few green shoots. And those shoots are the local youth served by the Shaw Community Center.

If a broader, more realistic view of the both the challenges and possibilities available in Shaw were taken, the community could foreseeably repurpose the existing Lincoln Temple building as a full-service community center that serves the educational and social enrichment needs of the youth of Shaw, as well as that of the ‘new’ residents. Educational programs and yoga classes. It could house an accredited technology skills development center that could serve as an ‘incubator’ for new local businesses that can employ Shaw residents and help them achieve the American dream. The community could then reconstitute around an inclusive and mutually beneficial vision for social justice that aligns the interests, needs, hopes and talents that abound in Shaw.

We, at Shaw Community Center, hope to be a spearhead for that new vision.