Excerpt of interview by scholar Paul Lee with Edward Vaughn, who explains how he oversaw the creation of Detroit’s world-famous Black Madonna and child chancel mural at Shrine of the Black Madonna #1 of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church (PAOCC), 7625 Linwood at Hogarth, conducted at the church’s Black Theology room, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013.
Known as Mwalimu (Kiswahili for “teacher”), Vaughn happened to be visiting Detroit, where he once owned a nationally-known “black” bookstore on Dexter Avenue ( from his hometown of Dothan, Ala., on the first Sunday of the PAOCC’s Anniversary Month, which this year celebrates the church’s Diamond, or 60th, anniversary:
Mwalimu Vaughn stopped by the Mother Shrine, as PAOCC members call it, to see his old friend and fellow Nashville University classmate Cardinal Karamo Omari, a. k. a., Ronald Hewitt.
FROM WHITE PILGRIM TO BLACK MADONNA
In late 1966, the church’s pastor, Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, then known as the Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr., who was often called “Rev.” by his parishioners, directed Mwalimu Vaughn, chairman of the Heritage committee of what was then known as Central United Church of Christ (UCC), to replace the church’s chancel mural.
Installed when it was the all- or mostly-“white” Brewster-Pilgrim Congregational church, it portrayed the 1620 landing at Plymouth Rock by Elder William Brewster, who had sailed aboard the “Mayflower” to the “New World.”
Mwalimu Vaughn commissioned artist Glanton V. Dowell to paint an 18-by-nine-foot oil chancel mural of a Black Madonna and child. It was inspired by “Black Madonna,” a poem by Detroiter Kofi Harun Wangara, then known as Harold G. Lawrence, published in “Negro Digest” in June 1962, which could be read online here:
However, Mwalimu Vaughn first had to persuade Jaramogi Agyeman to abandon his idea of a mural of a Black Messiah, or Christ, which he wanted Jon (later Onye) Lockard to paint. Dowdell chose as his model Rose Waldron and was assisted in painting the mural by local activist General G. Baker, Jr.
AN IMPOSSIBLE CONCEPTION
Jaramogi Agyeman unveiled the mural on Easter Sunday, March 26, 1967, when he proclaimed the Black Christian Nationalist Movement, or BCN, which sought self-determination in a “black nation within a nation.”
“We really don’t need a sermon this morning,” Jaramogi Agyeman began. “We could just sit here and look at the Black Madonna and marvel that we’ve come so far…; that we can conceive of the possibility of the son of God being born by a black woman.
“And that’s a long way for us ’cause it wasn’t so long ago when that would’ve been an impossible — an impossible — conception because our idea of ourselves was so distorted. We didn’t believe that even God could use us for His purpose because we were so low, so despised, because we despised ourselves. We despised ourselves.
“And to have come to the place where we not only can conceive of the possibility, but to have come to the place where we are convinced, upon the basis of our knowledge, of our historic study, upon the basis of all the facts, that we are not only capable of conceiving of the idea, but we are convinced that Jesus was born to a black Mary; that Jesus, the Messiah, was a black man; [and] that the nation that he came to save was a black nation.”
A portion of his sermon could be heard online here:
The church was rechristened the Shrine of the Black Madonna in January 1968.
OLD AND NEW MURAL
Photos of both murals could be seen online on “Finding Eliza,” the blog of Kristin Cleage Williams, the eldest of Jaramogi Agyeman’s two daughters, here:
‘GREAT PAX WHITIE’
In the summer of 1967, Mwalimu Vaughn and Cardinal Karamo invited fellow Fisk graduate Nikki Giovanni, then a rising poet in the Black Arts Movement, to attend the Second Annual Black Arts Convention (also Conference), which Mwalimu Vaughn’s black nationalist discussion group, Forum ’66, held at Central UCC from June 29-July 2. Giovanni saw the new mural and later mentioned it in her 1968 poem “The Great Pax Whitie,” which could be read online here:
Before leaving the church to return to Alabama, Mwalimu Vaughn was warmly received in the pastor’s study by PAOCC Presiding Bishop Demosthene Nelson, a. k. a., Jaramogi Menelik Kimathi. “I got half my education in your bookstore!” the presiding bishop told Mwalimu Vaughn.
(Paul Lee Video)