February 20, 2024

The Black Church is a Cultural Laboratory

A Conversation with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The church, as an institution and a physical gathering place, is the force that made Black culture, music, and art what it is today, according to acclaimed historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. In 2024, the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund’s Preserving Black Churches program awarded $4 million in grants to 31 historic Black churches to support much-needed preservation projects and ensure they remain for future generations.

In this conversation, Dr. Gates discussed how he came to serve on the Action Fund’s National Advisory Council, and how his own work on the history of the Black church, including his most recent PBS docu-series Gospel, has been informed by the need to preserve these sacred spaces.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. looking at the camera on the set of Gospel.

photo by: McGee Media

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the set of his show Gospel on PBS.

How did you get involved with the Action Fund?

[Action Fund Executive Director] Brent Leggs thought that the goals of the Action Fund and my own interests were in alignment. He asked if I would consider serving, and I said of course. The idea of restoration is part of my DNA. My academic work has in part been characterized by restoring the canon of African American literature and art, finding lost works, and beating up on English departments and art departments to teach works produced by our people. So, the idea of extending that work to three dimensional spaces was a no-brainer, and I loved it. Brent is a brilliant leader.

You’ve worked on a wide range of topics across Black history and culture. Where have you seen the impact of Black churches, and their preservation, in that narrative?

Our whole cultural and metaphysical universe swirled around the Black church from slavery times. It's where you worship God. It's where you got married, it's where you were baptized. It's where your soul was blessed on its journey to the other world. The church was a cultural laboratory. You learned how to write poetry by creating the lyrics of spirituals. You learned how to sing, you learned how to harmonize. You learned how to engage in oratory, you learned how to preach.

Anything we can do to restore [these churches], we have to do. But we're not going to be able to restore every physical structure. Creating 3D [scans] as it were, is going to be very, very important too. And if you have a 3D, a virtual [preservation], anybody can see it anywhere. We're going to have to make some hard choices between what's restored physically and what's restored virtually. But everything should be preserved virtually, that goes without saying. And even when you restore a physical structure, there's maintenance and upkeep. Then you have to raise an endowment if you're going to do it properly. And that takes a lot of work.

But I think that we have to preserve, preserve, preserve. Every day should be Black History Month. And by that I mean our history should be integrated seamlessly into the narrative of America.

Tyrell Bell and the Belle Singers, featuring Ian Johnson, perform "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus", for GOSPEL.

photo by: McGee Media

Tyrell Bell and the Belle Singers, featuring Ian Johnson, perform "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus", for the new PBS show Gospel on PBS.

Turning to some of your recent work in this area, you produced the PBS documentary series The Black Church in 2021, published your book The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song in 2022, and your latest PBS docu-series, Gospel, just premiered on February 12. Is this a trajectory that you had planned to explore from the beginning? Or did one thing lead to another as you worked through these projects?

Well, in retrospect, as a scholar, everything is inevitable. But no, it was one thing following the others. Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by Black preaching and Black singing and how they're inextricably intertwined. I love the way preachers use language to generate emotion, to inspire conversion to the point of people getting up by the droves and coming up to the altar or just getting the Holy Ghost and doing the holy dance right down the aisles. Something real is happening in both of those situations. How do these guys get these effects? You're not born knowing how to move people through oratory. It's a learned thing. I wanted to trace the evolution of how Black preachers preach, how they learn from each other, how they steal from each other in the good sense of when T.S. Eliot said “bad writers borrow, great writers steal,” and preachers steal from each other all the time!

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. sits down with Bishop Yvette Flunder, Lynette Hawkins-Stephens, and Shirley Miller for GOSPEL.

photo by: McGee Media

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. sits down with Bishop Yvette Flunder, Lynette Hawkins-Stephens, and Shirley Miller for Gospel on PBS.

And then I always loved gospel music, Black gospel music, and I wanted to trace that history. This new series looks at the evolution of Black gospel music from the Great Migration when it was born in Chicago in the early 1920s, through the double helix powerhouse of Thomas A. Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson, and a lot of other influences all the way up through Kirk Franklin’s Stomp in 1997.

Each one of these innovations elicited the wrath of the church establishment. Every time there is a major formal or structural innovation, it's deemed to be the devil's music, right? But preachers are also practical and when they see that their constituents like a form of worship, they loosen up. Those dynamics, between the spoken word, the language of music, and the music of language, form Black gospel music and the music of Black preaching.

Beyond your work, you mentioned in the documentary that the church has impacted your own life as well?

We had a hundred members in our little church, Walden Methodist Church, in Piedmont, West Virginia. That was the church where I worshiped ‘til I was 14 years old. Then I joined my father's church, the Episcopal church across the bridge in Maryland. I loved that church. It was very magical to me, both of them really.

When I went back to film at the end of The Black Church, I was amazed at how small Walden Methodist was because when I [recited] my first piece there when I was three or four or five, it seemed like Yankee Stadium! At [the Black church’s] heart was the formation of our people's culture. And it wasn't just the Black culture in Piedmont, West Virginia. This community formation ritual was being replicated over and over again throughout Black America. And I love that. That's how a people is formed. That's how a culture is formed.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

A headshot for a woman with long dark wavy hair against a neutral background.

Morgan Forde is an editorial consultant for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. In her free time, she is earning a PhD in urban history and Black studies at Harvard University.

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

Learn More