On the Heels of Freedom

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On the Heels of Freedom

The American Missionary Association's Bold Campaign to Educate Minds, Open Hearts, and Heal the Soul of a Divided Nation

Learn how devoted missionaries overcame widespread bias and apathy to open ministries and schools among black slaves in the South—where teaching slaves to read the bible was illegal. These schools helped the black churches become centers of community and empowerment.

This saga opens with the mutiny of captured Africans on the Amistad in 1839, follows the path of missionaries who risked their lives to establish schools among emancipated slaves in the South, and culminates with the testimonies of descendants of those who were freed. Documenting a stunning, but little known, story of rare courage and interracial partnership, this story will inspire anyone seeking to be faithful in challenging times.

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“After a schoolhouse in Namsemond, Virginia, burned to the ground, forty-five African American men gathered among the ashes and sent for the teacher. They told her that they would ‘build her a large and better house of timber, so green that it could not burn, and would keep her supplied with green schoolhouses as long as she would stay.’”

On the Hells of Freedom, p. 74

The American Missionary Association supported this teacher and thousands like her, in educating former slaves in the years after the Civil War. The association – a largely Congregational enterprise – built schools, established colleges, sent money and clothes, preached the gospel, lived the gospel, and made a difference in the lives of thousands of men, women and children.

James Pennington, a black Congregational minister, and Arthur and Lewis Tappan, two white Presbyterians, founded the AMA in Albany, N.Y., in 1846, partly in response to the Amistad incident on 1839. The association respected and welcomed African American leadership in a society that, overwhelmingly, did not.

Other societies and associations were started by Congregationalists in the 19th century, but none placed abolition of slavery at the center of its work as did the AMA. Ultimately, the AMA would focus its efforts on educating freed slaves and their descendants, as Congregationalists extended their long-standing educational emphasis to the post-bellum South. Many of the schools and colleges they founded there still thrive today.

On the Hells of Freedom is Joyce Hollyday’s excellent history of the AMA’s work. She begins with the story of the Amistad, takes us through the Union Army’s early efforts to respond to fugitive slaves’ request for schooling, and through the first decade of Reconstruction, when AMA missionaries taught basic literacy skills all over the South. “In the first decade of its work,” she notes, “the AMA commissioned 3,470 teachers and ministers, serving 321,099 students in schools.”

Hollyday then focuses her story on the long-term narratives of a few of the hundreds of schools established in that time. Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi, are two of the success stories of the AMA’s work. When the AMA began its efforts, many whites, North and South, didn’t believe blacks could be educated. Fisk, Tougaloo, and other institutions like them have demonstrated otherwise for nearly 150 years.

Where a school was planted, there usually was a Congregational church as well, and these churches are still strong anchors in their communities. Hollyday interviewed their members, many of whom are graduates of AMA-founded schools, or the children or grandchildren of graduates. Formed by the same understanding of the gospel that brought education tot so many, the churches have stayed involved with their communities.

We, who belong to small churches, especially, can relish these words from Deborah Harris of Plymouth Church in Charleston, South Carolina: “Everyone knows Plymouth as a strong driving force in the community. We’ve never had over a hundred members, but the entire community is aware of who we are and what we’re all about.”

All of this was made possible by gifts from Congregational churches, form believers willing to give of their time and money to change the world, to bring justice, to build the kingdom. This is our story one we should share with pride. On the Heels of Freedom is a book which tells that story with fervor, truth and love.
—The Rev. Cathy Schuyler, The Congregationalist Magazine

On the Heals of Freedom is the amazing story of Christian faith mobilized for freedom and justice. Faced with the horrors of slavery, the uncertainties of emancipation, the failures of reconstruction, the inequities of segregation, and the injustices of discrimination, the American Missionary Association (AMA) became an inspiring force for social transformation.

Joyce Hollyday’s portrayal is full of revealing insights that clarify how the AMA succeeded against virulent resistance. As a story about the AMA, the book is a treasure. Added to this are the stories of educational institutions, religious auxiliaries, congregations, and individuals that labored to make religious vision a social reality.

This book is about conviction, sacrifice, persistence, and courage. In our current time when many wonder if people of faith can be a bold liberating witness, the AMA story needs to be remembered. On the Heals of Freedom is therefore a resource for discovering the power of faith in history and the power of history for faith.
Luther E. Smith, Jr., Ph.D., Professor of Church and Community Candler School of Theology Emory University


The profound impact of the graduates and parishioners of American Missionary Association schools and churches on breaking racial barriers in the Deep South is frequently overlooked in accounts of the Civil Rights Movement. Through careful research and oral histories, Joyce Hollyday draws connections between a cadre of activists, and the institutions which nurtured them. On The Heels of Freedom is an important addition to the literature of race relations in the South.
Odessa Woolfolk, President Emerita, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute


On the Heels of Freedom provides a rare, well-researched, anecdotal history of the blossoming of education among former slaves in the post-Civil War South.  It is the story of the sacrificial and heroic lives of students, teachers and visionaries alike. It is also the truthful history of the pervasive racism that has marked the soul of this country. And it is a call to all who read to reconsider what it means in our own day to be a Church eager to join God's reconciling work. I was riveted to and challenged by every page.
Stephen A. Hayner, Ph.D., Peachtree Professor of Evangelism, Columbia Theological Seminary (former president of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship)


Joyce Hollyday's On the Heels of Freedom tells an important and fascinating story about the painful but persistent struggle of African Americans to emerge from slavery aided by courageous and visionary members of the American Missionary Association. Of particular interest to members of the United Church of Christ which carries on the legacy of the AMA today, this book will also be important for those interested in the social and cultural history of the Civil War and Reconstruction era as well as for those searching for the roots of the modern Civil Rights movement. Rev. Hollyday doesn't shrink from an honest and sometimes critical appraisal of the AMA, but her lively account of the teachers, students, pastors, missionaries, and benefactors who founded the schools and organized the churches provides a story that, in the end, inspires and instructs.
—Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ


Because long-term race issues in our society are so vexed and complex, we choose amnesia. We prefer to forget. For that reason, the recovery and retention of memory in all its specificity is an urgent enterprise among us. The recovery concerns not only the deep brutalizing trouble, but also the daring initiatives taken in faith toward an alternative. Hollyday has rendered a peculiar and valuable service in the interest of that recovery. The book is packed with nuance and detail that will serve well our memory that will in turn fund a healthy possible future society.
Walter Brueggemann, Ph.D. Professor Emeritas of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary and author of The Prophetic Imagination, Intro to the Old Testament and many other books


To "hear" the story of the AMA churches and schools from the voices of those who were the beneficiaries of this tremendous effort is a blessing beyond compare. Those who sacrificed to make sure that the newly freed African slaves would receive an education paid a tremendous price. To hear what their sacrifice meant to the Africans (and their children) who had their lives changed forever by that effort (to read it and experience it "first hand") will change your life forever.

Joyce Hollyday has made an invaluable contribution to the field of African American history, African American Church history, the history of the Congregational Church in the South prior to the Congregational-Christian merger in 1931, and the history of the United Church of Christ in North America. Because the AMA believed in people and believed in God, what their missionaries did among Africans recently released from bondage has shaped the American "story" (both black and white) in ways that defy description.

When you read the stories of those whose lives were blessed by this AMA effort, you will have a glimpse of the glory of God, the fruit of the missionaries' hard labor and the joy of Victory in Christ Jesus in spite of the harshness of racism at the end of the 19th Century!
—Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., Trinity UCC, Chicago, Illinois


Joyce Hollyday tells a stirring story about a courageous band of men and women who struggled to transform an unjust culture.
E. Brooks Holifield, C. H. Candler Professor of American Church History, Emory University


Joyce Hollyday is an artist, crafting a vivid portrait of the daring and holy dream of peace and equality in our land.
—Rev. Nancy Hastings Sehested, Prison chaplain and Co-pastor, Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC


Stories such as these pierce, revive, and save us. Thanks be for those who lived them.
Bill Wylie-Kellermann, Director, Graduate Theological Urban Studies Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education


As wickedness in high places ravages the earth today, Joyce Hollyday emerges as the persistent chronicler of decency and courage
Daniel Berrigan, S.J., author, poet, activist

Paperback / 240 pages
Dimensions: 5 3/8 x 8 1/4