Betty Livingston Adams T’05 explores the history of African-American women in Northern New Jersey.

June 2016 – Betty Livingston Adams’ new book, Black Women’s Christian Activism: Social Justice in a Northern Suburb, explores a previously little-known chapter of New Jersey history.

The story is equal parts history and religion and explores how non-elite African-American women impacted northern New Jersey, the state and beyond. This is the first book from Adams, who earned an MDiv from Drew Theological School and MPhil and PhD from Yale University. Here are four things you should know about Black Women’s Christian Activism.

1. It was never intended to be a book.

Adams’ new book uncovers a piece of American history.
Adams’ new book uncovers a piece of American history.

After moving from Evanston, Ill. to Summit, N.J. more than 30 years ago, Adams joined the Fountain Baptist Church and grew curious about its history. As Adams put it, “How could a 100-year-old African-American church flourish in what looked like a homogenous white space?” To her surprise, though, she found little on the church’s origins. She then immersed herself in historical research and helped the church rediscover its roots, eventually turning her passion project into a book.

2. The story shines a light on a key figure.

Violet Johnson, a domestic servant who moved to Summit in 1897, founded Fountain Baptist a year later, making it the first African-American church to exist in the mostly white suburb. With the church in the center of the city, African-Americans then “became a permanent presence,” Adams said. “Others who moved there could feel there was a community. [Johnson] signaled that this is a place where we will become visible citizens.”

3. Another key figure is connected to Drew.

The book explores the public activism of women like Johnson and Florence Randolph, one of the first African-American women to take courses at Drew Theological School. Randolph helped forge a relationship between Drew and Livingstone College, a historically black college in Salisbury, N.C. Both Johnson and Randolph used their religious convictions to campaign for broad societal change, helping turn the New Jersey woman’s suffrage movement into a “multiracial, cross-class movement” and starting a statewide women’s Republican club, Adams said. “Women like Violet and Florence had optimism after the Civil War that this could be a multiracial nation,” she added.

4. Drew Theological School was an inspiration.

“It’s a Drew Theological School book because of the school’s commitment to understanding the interaction between religion and society and exploring the role of people of faith in society,” Adams said. Questions raised in the classroom prompted Adams to look at the suburban mystery through an intersectional lens and realize that the story of Fountain Baptist, Violet Johnson and beyond needed to be told. “If I had not stepped into The Forest,” Adams added, “I wouldn’t have seen it as a part of American religious and social history that really needed telling.”