When we ask black people about their relationships to land, churches are a primary consideration for African-Americans. When asked “Where do black people in your town call home?” a frequent answer is “Church.” A black pastor described his relationship to land and place by saying “Where I live and this church are inextricably bound together.”
Stories of fried fish dinner fundraisers leading to mortgage-burning celebrations mark the history of black churches as a form of collective land ownership. Black church archives hold not only the history of births and baptisms, but also the histories of community leadership and church funds loans to members for the purchase of homes and land. They remain one of the few private spaces for black people to hold community conversations about aspirations for social and economic self-determination.
With this ear to black churches as markers of black autonomy and authority, we watched this Southword multimedia story, broadcast on NPR, of the Centennial Baptist Church in Helena, AK. Their relationship to landemphasizes the economic and cultural value of black controlled places, as well as the value of the history of the people on that land. This quest for a self-determined future in the face of an under-resourced present is a story greater than Helena Arkansas: it is the story of the values of an African-American community, and the values of those who would be their allies, and the very different relationships they hold to black land today.