The Complex Legacy of Sutton E. Griggs: From Respected Leader to Race Traitor?

Griggs was a missionary of literature, a revivalist of imaginative thought, and a champion of reading.

Rev. Sutton E. Griggs
Portrait of Sutton E. Griggs, published in E.C. Morris's "Sermons, Addresses and Reminiscences and Important Correspondence, With a Picture Gallery of Eminent Ministers and Scholars" (Nashville, 1901). (Photo: public domain)

The Rev. Sutton E. Griggs (1872-1933) was a Baptist preacher, prolific writer, and profound intellectual.

He was born on June 19, 1872, seven years to the day Union Army Major Gen. Gordon Granger informed the enslaved people of Texas about General Order Number 3, that “all slaves were free.” Such a delayed expression of freedom, long after President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, painted the reconstruction period in which Griggs came to life.

Like Father, Like Son: The Evolution of Griggs

Griggs was molded by the “loving,” “tender,” and “serene” soul of his mother, Emma Hodges, and the “rugged strength of character,” “withal,” and peaceful disposition of his father, Allen Griggs. His father had been enslaved in Hancock County, Georgia, before being brought to Texas. Four years after emancipation, he joined the Baptist Church and became a staunch advocate for education and a devoted minister, helping establish hundreds of churches in Texas and pastoring New Hope Baptist Church in Dallas and Mount Gilead Baptist Church in Fort Worth. He also contributed to multiple institutions of higher learning such as North Texas Baptist College in Denison and Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. He spent years as the corresponding secretary of the National Baptist Educational Board and president of the Texas Baptist State Sunday School Convention. His life’s work understood how brick and mortar could provide space for the sacred while fortifying the hopes of freedom.

Beyond his infrastructural investments in the educational and ministerial happenings of Black life in Texas, Father Griggs also possessed a keen grasp of literary nuance. He helped establish and edit the Baptist Journal and served as an editor for a myriad of newspapers such as the Baptist Preacher, the National Baptist Bulletin, the Dallas Christian Leaflet, Centennial Dollar Reporter, and the Western Star. Father Griggs became a transformative figure whom his son emulated, exalted, and exceeded, carrying the intellectual, literary, and educational spirit accustomed to the Griggs name.

Sutton E. Griggs attended a high school founded by his father and then went on to Bishop College. By 1893, Griggs received his Doctor of Divinity from Richmond Theological Seminary in Virginia. While there, he began pastoring First Baptist Church Berkley, met Emma J. Williams, and became the editor for the Virginia Baptist. He then moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and began pastoring First Baptist Church, East Nashville. It was in Nashville that Griggs’s literary career began.

Navigating Literary Betweenness

Griggs was a suspicious character within the African American literary canon. A pre-Harlem Renaissance writer, he authored more than 30 books, tangoing with fiction, nonfiction, social theory, and public discourse on the “Negro” existence within an imperialist, nauseating, and anti-Black world. Within a decade, Griggs wrote five novels: Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem (1899); Overshadowed: A Novel (1901); Unfettered: A Novel (1901); The Hindered Hand: or The Reign of the Repressionist (1905); and Pointing the Way (1908). Imperium in Imperio was his most notable work, as it engaged the two-ness of blackness through the lens of Black speculative fiction, revolution, and utopianism amid white supremacy in America.

Dr. Cornel West describes Imperium as “the first major political novel written by an African American.” The political tones of Griggs’s first novel were encapsulated with Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, causing Griggs to become a mean between Martin Delany (1812-1885) and Marcus Garvey (1887-1940).

In Art and Negro Literature, W.E.B. Du Bois contrasted Griggs from two of his literary colleagues in Charles Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar, suggesting that Chesnutt and Dunbar wrote for the whole nation while Griggs’s “race novels” appealed “primarily to the Negro race.” Griggs’s appeal, however, was intentional. At the beginning of his career, he deliberately targeted southern Black people, attempting to immerse them with diction, detail, and depth beyond the deadly conditions of southern living. As a result, descriptions about the Black nationalist and racialized contours of his work expanded beyond the context of his literature and rather reflected his publishing endeavors, as he founded Orion Publishing Company and the National Public Welfare League, self-publishing his work after releasing his first novel.

Griggs was a missionary of literature, a revivalist of imaginative thought, a champion of reading. He was a foot soldier for words, orchestrating them in ways that encouraged his audience to reckon with the woes of whiteness and its unwavering devotion to Jim Crow.

It often requires more courage to read some books than it does to fight a battle. - Sutton E. Griggs

As an itinerant preacher, he traveled from church to church, door-to-door, selling his literature for “pennies,” garnering wages beyond the earnings of his books, even though both would have been commendable. However, Griggs believed that Black people should find companionship in lectures, newspapers, magazines, and books while developing a “habit of reading.” He believed such a habit would strengthen the mind and facilitate cooperation within the community to combat social and political injustices, especially across the South.

Despite Griggs’s insistence for Black people to develop a habit for reading, when Du Bois gauged the state of American Negro literature between 1900 to 1913, he surmised how the Negro’s literary output was circumscribed by racial and economic stresses, prohibiting them from indulging voluminous and vivid depictions bound within Negro storytelling.

“On the whole, the literary output of the American Negro has been both large and creditable, although, of course, comparatively little known; few great names have appeared and only here and there work that could be called first class, but this is not a peculiarity of Negro literature. The time has not yet come for the great development of American Negro literature. The economic stress is too great and the racial persecution too bitter to allow the leisure and the poise for which literature calls.”

The Identity Crisis of a New Negro

Perhaps Du Bois’s words are not limited to the embracing of Negro literature alone but an encompassing expression of freedom’s yearnings within the souls of Black folks. Four decades removed from enslavement’s end, yet facing the beginning of Jim Crow, the “Negro” writer, artist, educator, intellectual, and preacher canvassed dimensions of thought, time, and travel to make sense of a peculiar, precarious world. Amid such precariousness was the rise of the “New Negro,” a term that has been used to describe Griggs.

In Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, Dr. Henry Louis Gates describes the “New Negro” as “young, educated, post-slavery, modern, culturally sophisticated, and thoroughly middle class” and equipped to “combat the mounting injustices” Black people faced throughout the South amid “racist Redemption policies.”

Griggs believed that a community’s longevity depended on the championing of strong leadership, a central “New Negro” concept. By 1906, Griggs had joined Du Bois in the Niagara Movement, a progenitor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), representing Tennessee as a congregation of Black people joined together to advocate for social and political rights. The Niagara Movement stood in tactical contrast to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist approach to southern survival through industrial education. On an ideological pole between Du Bois and Washington, Griggs has been characterized as a “middle-man.”

While Griggs believed that Washington’s emphasis on industrial education was wise, he did not believe it had brought the nation “any nearer to the solution of the [Negro] problem.” Despite Griggs’s slight differences with Washington, the place where they shared common ground can be found in what their critics called them, from a “White Man’s Negro” to an “Uncle Tom.”

These terms came from Griggs’s nuanced expressions about how Black people could survive and thrive through tenants of cooperation, which he forged in the “science of collective efficiency,” where he rejected individualism and championed collectivism. While his collectivist theories channeled conceptual aspirations for Black togetherness and cultural fulfillment, they often projected tap-dancery tones for the sake of inclusion and White acceptance.

Griggs and the Science of Collective Efficiency

The science of collective efficiency combined tenets of anthropology, psychology, history, and philosophy to espouse moral, mental, and temperamental goals to achieve social uplift between Black and White people, especially in the South.

Griggs formed the contours of this social theory by assessing the works of Du Bois, Washington, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Kidd, Herbert Spencer, and others. Griggs’s nonfiction work, such as The Science of Collective Efficiency, illuminated how such a theory could forge freedom, justice, and peace.

But Griggs believed that there could be no peace in America “until there is such a transformation as makes possible a life that is rich in the fruits of cooperation, the chief joy of nature’s heart.” He saw cooperation as a “final test” of a person’s life, discerning whether they were individualist or cooperators. Such a final test also applied to groups, where the spirit of communalism judged whether a group—of races, organizations, or congregations—were “cursed with individualism,” “harboring nests of individualists,” or “blessed with the associative spirit.”

His goal for collective efficiency was to bring “attention to reducing our deathrate, to caring for orphans, to providing avenues for expansion for our young people, to the teaching of the habit of saving, to the reduction of our percentage of criminality, to the amassing of property and to matters of education.”

Griggs recognized the collective gravity in the individual power of Black preachers, intellectuals, and writers such as Fredrick Douglass, Du Bois, Washington, Dunbar, Kelly Miller Smith, William Moore Trotter, and John Mitchell, Jr. but wanted to put aside that individual power for the common good:

“We have come forward as individuals…We can now accept the challenge to come forward in our social capacities. We can decide to try to heal needless breaches in our life as a race which unduly tax our energies with contest with each other.”

The success of collective efficiency depended on those who had a “passion for right, for truth, for justice for kindness,” a noble group of people — regardless of their race — Griggs searched for his entire life.

As a staunch advocate for education, Griggs served as the corresponding secretary of the National Baptist Convention’s Education Board. He used his influence to solicit funds from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1913, becoming the first African American to speak at their annual convention and encouraging their aid in forming the American Baptist Theological Seminary, known today as the American Baptist College (ABC). Griggs served as the seminary’s first president from 1925 to 1926.

Its first building was built in 1923 and named “Griggs Hall,” an honor bestowed to both Allen and Sutton E. Griggs. Beginning as an administrative building, Griggs Hall would become a residential home for many foot soldiers and civil rights activists who attended the institution in the 1960s. Whether as teachers or students, preeminent civil rights leaders like Kelly Miller Smith, C.T. Vivian, John Lewis, and Bernard Lafayette are products of the historically Black college.

Perhaps Griggs’s spirit was somehow inculcated within the school’s brick-and-mortar and then metamorphosed into the philosophy of resistance found in Nashville, Memphis, and across the South in the mid-twentieth-century, decades after his death.

Griggs’s Prophetic Connections to the Civil Rights Movement

Griggs’s literary work and social theory, while painted within a particular plot in American history, transcended time and thus is worthy of contemporary application and review. For example, Griggs abhorred apathy amid injustice, condemning such an attitude with perennial language:

“There is nothing more fatal to a democracy than an attitude of apathy. It is the mother of corruption and machine politics. Autocracies and oligarchies thrive where the masses of the people are apathetic.”

Apathy was a threat to collective efficiency, a threat that existed beyond Griggs’s lifespan. While not directly connected, Griggs’s resistance to the limited imagination of White southerners and urgent call of Black people to assemble together in a common spirit of collectivism was a precursor to the work of Martin Luther King Jr. While bearers of different eras and influences, both of them were troubled by the presence of complicity and docility.

In his Letter From the Birmingham Jail, King told a group of White ministers that he was in Birmingham, Alabama, because the races of people were “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Using nonviolence and direct action, King sought to shape freedom and justice through a spirit of collectivism, embodying the theoretical contours of Griggs’s science of collective efficiency, making King’s work a reasonable hypothesis for such a theory.

Other hypotheses for Griggs’s science of collective efficiency could be found in organizations such as the Niagara Movement, the NAACP, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, The Congress of Racial Equality, Montgomery Improvement Association, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and additional organizations committed to civil rights, racial uplift, and communal togetherness throughout the twentieth century.

The molds of prophetic gumption in Griggs’s work that exist within these organizations’ struggle for human and civil rights are both insightful and heartbreaking. One of the most troubling illustrations of this heartbreak could be found in the “I AM A MAN” campaign — a cause of which Griggs and King were familiar.

Forty-six years before King visited Memphis, Tennessee, to join its sanitation workers in a march for humanity and dignity through an “I AM A MAN” campaign, Griggs wrote about the frailties of such a cause in a world unwilling to adhere to the sounds of a Black voice. Wrestling with pessimism, Griggs said, “The Cry ‘We are men. We think and feel as you do,’ no longer has weight.” And while he did believe that a “new chorus from the throats” of various races could shift the cognitive dissonance within whiteness, he knew how difficult and precarious such efforts could be, especially in the South.

To combat such perilousness, Griggs, through sermonic expression and combative theology, delineated how collective efficiency could eradicate the racist gaze that failed to see Black people as human.

Preaching a sermon titled “A Hero Closes A War” in the late 1920s, Griggs told the story of how an “unknown Negro” man ended a race war in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay by showing signs of good faith and cooperation. A crew of White and Black men were upended by a wave, causing an open boat to upturn. Some White members of the crew gained access to the boat but denied their Black crew members access until one of those members saved the lives of multiple White members struggling to swim to safety.

“The race war was over. That unknown Negro, in the dark of night, in the water, menaced by death, was willing to bear the temporary implication of being a traitor to his race, a thought that must have flashed through the minds of his fellows because of the war that was raging. But he had their ultimate good in mind, and so persisted. With us, it is day, not night.

Such an act of racial reconciliation was met with a hymn of laying down burdens and studying war no more through an accommodationist approach to survival. Griggs’s troubling homily encompasses an eerie reckoning with humanism and realism amid the dehumanizing inequities of whiteness, alienating Griggs from some members of his community, ordaining him with a provocative clerical tittle: the “Negro Apostle to the White Race.”

A Convoluted Man Who Left A Complex Legacy

Griggs was a convoluted man, living in an era consumed by fear, surrounded by lynchings, trying to survive. His penmanship tried to theorize tales of living in a strange land while residing in a regional arc that stretched from Texas to Tennessee to Virginia.

More than 60 secondary sources about Griggs, in literature and scholarship, attempt to describe and define who Griggs was to himself, his community, and the world—yet his legacy is subject to an ever-growing inquiry and investigation. Perhaps he was neither a saint nor a prophet, but he was indeed a theorist, a lover of science and a puzzling theologian.

By 1930, Griggs pastored Tabernacle Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, where he attempted to use his influence to expand the church’s infrastructure with an office, gymnasium, and pool. However, the financial woes of the Great Depression and his tensions with city leaders forced Griggs to return to Texas, where he would pastor Hopewell Baptist Church in Denison, Texas, like his father, until his death.

Griggs believed America was “the world’s greatest nation.” Before his death, Griggs was scheduled to give a speech supporting Herbert Hoover amid the Great Depression but didn’t take an “active” part in the campaign’s endeavors. Such a move raises skepticism about where exactly Griggs’s ideology metamorphosed from his Imperium imagination to the beliefs of his last days. He went from being an “Eminent Negro Leader” to a “race traitor,” and his autobiography, The Story of My Struggles, acknowledges the cost of his muddy attempts at race reconciliation.

As the search for the real Griggs continues, one thing has been unabashedly clear about Griggs—the man, the writer, the theorist, and the preacher: he was a southern Black man who spent his life searching and yearning for freedom in the valleys and shadows of death, often troubled, and failing much, yet trying until his last breath.


Editor’s Note: You can find further information on a website dedicated to Sutton E. Griggs.

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Written by Christian Crawford

Christian G. Crawford is a writer, scholar, and theologian from Birmingham, Alabama. He earned a Master of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt University Divinity School, receiving graduate certificates in American Studies and Black Church Studies. His research navigates the nuances of religious ethics and society and African American politics, religion, and resistance in the American South.

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