During the Civil Rights decade—the 1960s—Reverend Cleage became increasingly Afro-centric in his thought. He began to preach and write extensively about the idea that Jesus Christ was a black revolutionary leader who had come to liberate Africa. On Easter Sunday, 1967, he unveiled a large painting of the Madonna as a black person and then changed the name of his church to the Shrine of the Black Madonna. He changed his name to Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, a Swahili name meaning holy man and savior of the nation. He continued to write about an Afro centric version of Christianity. He contended that Christ and many of his disciples were African in origin and suggested that Europeans had captured and twisted Christianity to assist in their enslaving Africans. He argued strongly for African American control of their own fate.
Although not directly linked to the Republic of New Africa (RNA), his name and his church were often spoken in the same breath as the RNA. This organization was founded in Detroit in 1969 by militant African-Americans who demanded that blacks be given control of five states—South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana—and be paid 400 billion dollars by the federal government in reparations for slavery. Many observers interpreted the rhetoric of this organization as suggesting that the RNA would advocate the use of force to get their demands if peaceful strategies did not succeed in their quest for reparations and for five southern states. The FBI and other federal agencies targeted the leaders of RNA and arrested some of them.
When you look back at his programs and policies, you are reminded more of a militant Marcus Garvey than H. Rap Brown. Reverend Cleage consistently emphasized the need for blacks to firmly and rapidly take control of the political, social and economic institutions that determined their fate. As a result, he was very active in trying to put African Americans in control of Detroit. The denomination, now called the Pan African Orthodox Church, but also identified as Shrine of the Black Madonna, has churches in Atlanta, Calhoun Falls, South Carolina, Detroit and Houston. I believe the members of this denomination still refer to Reverend Albert Cleage as “The Holy Patriarch.”
It is interesting to note that the Shrine of the Black Madonna is located on Linwood just north of Grand Boulevard. Just a few blocks down Linwood, you will find the Sacred Heart Seminary—the Catholic seminary for Michigan. An impressive and very visible statue of Christ stands on the campus of that seminary. During the racial violence of July, 1967, someone painted the statue to show Christ as an African. When you drive by the corner of Linwood and Chicago today, you will see Christ depicted as black.
Architect for church: Unknown to me
Architectural style: Gothic
Date of construction: About 1925, I think
Use in 2009: Church
Website for the denomination that includes the Shrine of the Black Madonna Church: www.shrinebookstore.com/
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description Revised: April 22, 2019
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