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Father James Page

An Enslaved Preacher's Climb to Freedom

James Page spent the majority of his life enslaved—during which time he experienced the death of his free father, witnessed his mother and brother being sold on the auction block, and was forcibly moved 700 miles south from Richmond, VA, to Tallahassee, FL, by his enslaver, John Parkhill. Page would go on to become Parkhill's chief aide on his plantation and, unusually, a religious leader who was widely respected by enslaved men and women as well as by white clergy, educators, and politicians. Rare for enslaved people at the time, Page was literate—and left behind ten letters that focused on his philosophy as an enslaved preacher and, later, as a free minister, educator, politician, and social justice advocate.

In Father James Page, Larry Eugene Rivers presents Page as a complex, conflicted man: neither a nonthreatening, accommodationist mouthpiece for white supremacy nor a calculating schemer fomenting rebellion. Rivers emphasizes Page's agency in pursuing a religious vocation, in seeking to exhibit "manliness" in the face of chattel slavery, and in pushing back against the overwhelming power of his enslaver. Post-emancipation, Page continued to preach and to advocate for black self-determination and independence through black land ownership, political participation, and business ownership. The church he founded—Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee—would go on to be a major political force not only during Reconstruction but through today.

Based upon numerous archival sources and personal papers, as well as an in-depth interview of James Page and a reflection on his life by a contemporary, this deeply researched book brings to light a fascinating life filled with contradictions concerning gender, education, and the social interaction between the races. Rivers' biography of Page is an important addition, and corrective, to our understanding of black spirituality and religion, political organizing, and civic engagement.

About the Author

Larry Eugene Rivers (TALLAHASSEE, FL) is a Distinguished Professor of History at Florida A&M University and the author or coauthor of eight books, including Slavery in Florida: Territorial Days to Emancipation and Rebels and Runaways: Slave Resistance in Nineteenth Century Florida.

Endorsements

"This is a truly remarkable and much-needed contribution to American history. Meticulously researched, Rivers' incisive analysis gives this generation a chance to know, feel, and hear the lost voice of Page and so many others like him who were using a call from God to improve race relations in America. This will change the field."

- Chanta M. Haywood, author of Prophesying Daughters: Black Women Preachers and the Word, 1823–1913

"Rivers weaves an impressive biographical narrative that moves beyond commonly accepted Eurocentric treatments of the slave preacher and African American religion and culture in the nineteenth century. This carefully crafted, historically nuanced, and deeply engaging biography is a herculean achievement by one of the nation's most seasoned scholars. A superb piece of scholarship."

- Lewis V. Baldwin, Vanderbilt University, author of The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Based on impeccable research and written with grace and clarity, Father James Page traces the life of an amazing African American who began life as a slave and rose to prominence as a renowned clergyman. Rivers has restored Page to the influence he once enjoyed. A masterful and fascinating biography that deserves wide readership."

- Darlene Clark Hine, Michigan State University, author of Hine Sight: Black Women and the Re-Construction of American History

"Father James Page profoundly deepens our understanding of how African Americans radically reshaped Christianity in slavery and how the values of mutual aid, a hatred of exploitation, and love of family informed black politics and institution building for generations to come."

- Paul Ortiz, University of Florida, author of An African American and Latinx History of the United States

"Larry Rivers tells the gripping life story of James Page, who became an icon among members of his race during and after slavery. A truly inspiring biography of a man whose legacy paved the way for others to take up the blood-stained banner in the fight for full justice, freedom, and equality for all human beings in America today."

- Benjamin L. Crump, Esq., lawyer / social justice advocate, author of Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People

"This is the first groundbreaking biography of its kind to explore the life of a nineteenth-century slave preacher and later a free leader of his race. An exceptional achievement!"

- James M. Denham, Florida Southern College, author of Florida Founder William P. DuVal: Frontier Bon Vivant

"A strong and interesting biography that tells the story of a slave preacher and his legacy in Middle Florida throughout most of the nineteenth century through Reconstruction. A beneficial addition to the literature of antebellum slavery, slave theology, and slave biography; I heartily recommend it."

- Thomas Aiello, Valdosta State University, author of Jim Crow's Last Stand: Nonunanimous Criminal Jury Verdicts in Louisiana

"This superb book provides a fresh treatment of a personality in the slave community. Highlighting the substantial contributions and the overall significance of the slave preacher James Page, this groundbreaking work will benefit educators, challenge scholars, and force all of us to look at slave preachers anew."

- Merline Pitre, Texas Southern University, author of Through Many Dangers, Toils and Snares: Black Leadership in Texas, 1868–1898
Johns Hopkins University Press
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