The Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural and Events Center recently hosted a conversation with the Presiding Bishop of the Shrines of the Black Madonna, D. Kimathi Nelson, and the head of its national chain of Cultural Centers/Book Stores, Nailah Nelson.
The conversation was the latest in a series of six such Q&As on the topic “Religion in Houston’s Pan-African Community.”
The series of community discussions has been organized by Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen, senior minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church, and his wife Sade Perkins, founder of the Freedmen’s Town Farmers Market.
Bossen and Perkins are Princeton University Fellows who have received funding to hold this series of conversations on the topic.
Bishop Nelson shared stories from his childhood about mentors who encouraged him to learn about Pan African history, and who helped his high school Black Student Union group claim a space for themselves in the hostile environments of 1960s/70s Detroit and the nearly all-white school to which they were bussed.
He also shared stories about the church’s founder, Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr., whose honorific title and African name is Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman. Bishop Nelson, a graduate of St. Thomas University and Yale University’s School of Divinity, counts the tutelage and mentoring he received from Cleage/Agyeman as his greatest education, especially regarding what Cleage saw as the roll God called the church to play in the empowerment of Black people.
“The Shrine started because our founder was concerned with the church being relevant to the growing struggle for liberation,” said Nelson. “1953 was a time of rising expectations among Black people. It was the advent of the civil rights struggle. It was a time when people were looking for change and expecting change. And our founder felt that the church was still locked into its plantation orientation. He didn’t see how a religion designed to control Black people could liberate Black people.”
Additionally, the Bishop shared insights into the Shrine’s early days in Houston as part of the Shrine’s 10-year national expansion program, expanding out of its home city of Detroit, Michigan.
“The first city we went to was Atlanta in 1975,” said Kimathi Nelson. “And so, Houston was just another step in that program. So, in 1977, a cadre of members who were trained in various specializations were sent to Houston to begin organizing.”
A couple of weeks before that cadre was scheduled to leave Detroit and head to Houston, Kimathi Nelson was tapped by the Shrine’s founder, Cleage, to join the group and serve as a negotiator, to serve as buffer between the church and Texas law enforcement and members of the general Houston Black community wary of progressive Black individuals and organizations.
“A lot of [Blacks in Houston] didn’t know that we had relationships at the top of the Black community; people like John B. Coleman, Mack Hannah, Judson Robinson and his brother Jim,” said Nelson. “We had connections with people with whom we did business. But most of the Black community didn’t really understand who we were. Those established members of the Black community helped us quite a bit in explaining to the powers that be who we were and what we were doing.”
Nailah Nelson shed light on the long history of the Shrine’s Cultural and Events Center, and how Houston’s Cultural Center started as a converted bowling alley.
Nationally, the chain of cultural centers/book stores were all about providing Black writers and artists with a place where their books, clothing and artwork could be sold to the public. For, before Black books, clothing and art could be found at Target, Walmart and Marshalls, or purchased online, many Black professors, researchers and intellectuals literally had to sell their books Master P style—out of the trunks of their cars—as there were only a handful of Black bookstores nationally.
The Shrine’s first cultural center and bookstore opened in Detroit in 1971. And not only did it provide a venue for Black books and art to be sold, and for Black people to purchase those things while supporting a Black-owned business, these institutions were literally centers of cultural and historical expression and celebration. The list of Black scholars, activists, poets, artists, elected officials, etc. who have given speeches, led workshops, participated in conferences, etc. at the Shrine’s cultural centers in Detroit, Atlanta and Houston read like a who’s who of Black history.
Some of those names include Dr. Betty Shabazz (wife of Malcolm X), Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Dr. Yosef Ben Jochannon (Dr. Ben), Ashra Kwesi, Dr. James Smalls, Dr. Leonard Jefferies, Dick Gregory, Hill Harper, Susan Taylor (former editor of Essence), Gabby Douglas, Tyra Banks, Tony Martin, Anthony Browder, Alice Walker, Elaine Brown (Black Panther Party), Terry McMillan, and countless others.
Both Nelsons also discussed the Shrine’s role as an “enlightenment center” for the Greater Houston area, hosting the award-winning Buy Black Marketplace, participating for decades as a member/host of the Citywide Kwanzaa celebration and allowing organizations of all kinds who are working towards a better reality for Black people to hold events in the cultural center space—a space that’s not only rented out by organizations and individuals for various events, but which also annually hosts free tax preparation sessions led by longtime tax professional William Perry.
Other topics discussed included how the Shrine expanded in Houston, the Shrine’s battle with COINTELPRO, “liberation” theology vs. “slave” theology.