From farm to feud: Evangelist’s black ‘mecca’ faces uncertain future

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In 1926, John D. Rockefeller started buying up land to restore Colonial Williamsburg. Ten years later, an African American radio evangelist named Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux bought land in James City County for a project he called the National Memorial to the Progress of the Colored Race in America. Michaux envisioned the memorial as a "Mecca" for all African Americans and an inspiration for future generations. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)
In the late 1920’s, John D. Rockefeller started buying up land to restore Colonial Williamsburg. A decade later, an African American radio evangelist named Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux bought land in James City County for a project he called the National Memorial to the Progress of the Colored Race in America. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)

About 10 years after the millionaire son of an oil tycoon bought up land in Williamsburg to create a living museum, another wealthy American purchased land in the neighboring James City County for his own historical project – one dedicated to the future, not the past.

While John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s name is easily recognizable and his involvement in the re-creation of Colonial Williamsburg well-documented, the other man’s name and aforementioned venture are less familiar.

In 1936, Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, an African-American radio evangelist with over 25 million listeners across America in 1934, bought 500 acres of land located along the James River with the purpose of creating the National Memorial to the Progress of the Colored Race in America.

According to the memorial’s original plans preserved in the Colonial Williamsburg archives, he was drawn to the land’s proximity to Jamestown, where it is believed enslaved Africans first arrived to British North America in 1619.

Michaux envisioned a “mecca” for African-Americans seeking “musical, educational, and spiritual” programs. Some of the attractions planned included a hall of fame for African-American leaders, a monument to Booker T. Washington, a church, a radio broadcasting station, college buildings, and a farm.

Michaux’s elaborate vision never came to fruition, but the land remains. 

The idyllic image of cows grazing in a field encased by a white fence can be glimpsed while driving down the Colonial Parkway, but the peaceful vignette masks generations of tension within the property. 

Since Michaux’s death, the land has been entangled in land rights disputes between the farm’s residents and his church’s leadership. The land intended to bring his people together has sown more discord than unity.

Leonardo Da Vinci's painting, "The Last Supper," hangs on the wall of the barn alongside a portrait of Elder Michaux and his wife, Mary Eliza Pauline. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)
Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting, “The Last Supper,” hangs on the wall of the barn alongside a portrait of Elder Michaux and his wife, Mary Eliza Pauline. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)

A unique vision

Michaux was born in 1884 in Newport News to a merchant sailor with French, Indian, Jewish and African ancestry and his mixed-race wife.

According to Lillian Ashcraft-Eason, a former member of Michaux’s Church of God who wrote about him as a subject for both her PhD from the College of William & Mary and one of her books, Michaux displayed an affinity for business early on in his life.

He met his wife, Mary Eliza Pauline, while teaching classes at a dancing school he owned. She encouraged him to open his own church and eventually preach to their congregation. After the conclusion of World War I, Michaux opened the Church of God on the corner of 19th Street and Jefferson Avenue in Newport News.

Some families in Michaux’s church joined the Great Migration of over six million African Americans relocating from the rural South and Jim Crow segregation to the urban North, Midwest and West. While visiting these families, Michaux and his wife established additional branches of his church in areas such as Baltimore and Pennsylvania.

According to Ashcraft-Eason, Michaux believed God had appointed him to carry out the “Great Commission” by propagating the gospel as far as possible.

“Under the burden of this prophetic mission, Michaux traveled from city to city, calling sinners to repentance and eternal life,” Ashcraft-Eason wrote in her book “About My Father’s Business: The Life of Elder Michaux.”

Michaux was so determined to carry out his mission that he preached at an “all-white, KKK-infested congregation” and was apparently so convincing that one klansman joined the Church of God in Baltimore.

“He tried to reach out to all people,” said James City County Historian Col. Lafayette Jones Jr. “He tried to reach out to all social groups, whether they were klansmen or not, to bring them together as a community.”

In Virginia, where racially separate seatings in all places of public entertainment or assembly was required, Michaux invited white parishioners to his predominantly black congregation.

He was arrested and charged in 1926 for holding “illegally … integrated baptisms,” according to Ashcraft-Eason. His appeal to the Virginia State Supreme Court was denied, but he continued to violate the segregation statute.

Michaux’s dedication to reaching as many people as possible was rewarded in 1929, when he finally persuaded a radio station owner to give him a program slot — after being rejected by numerous stations because of his race.

The station owner, James S. Vance of WJSV, also printed the KKK publication “Fellowship Forum.” He was so convinced by Michaux he granted him a one-hour weekly broadcast from a U Street storefront in Washington, D.C.

In 1929, the Great Depression ushered in radio’s golden era. Within three years, Michaux was broadcasting daily to millions of listeners across the United States, his signature “Happy Am I” song opening and closing the show.

Along with his status as a national religious phenomenon, Michaux entered the realm of politics. Some newspapers at the time credited Michaux with aiding black voters’ historic shift from Republican to Democrat after he urged his largely African-American listenership to vote for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

Michaux’s enthusiastic, vocal support of the New Deal on his radio show earned him an in-person meeting with Roosevelt himself. He would later pen personal letters to Roosevelt, then Truman and Eisenhower.

“He had a very close relationship with them,” Jones said of Michaux’s connection with the three presidents. “They confided in him and he confided in them.”

According to Jones, Jr., Roosevelt supported Michaux’s plans for a memorial in James City County. With Roosevelt’s support — as well as backing from several prominent African-American leaders — Michaux began a fundraising drive for the project in 1937.

Part of Michaux’s motivation for the venture – specifically the farm – was an ominous prophecy he had about the future.

“He said America’s going to suffer another depression that’s going to be 10 times worse than 1929,” said Howard Smith, the current overseer of the farm. “There’s going to be plenty of money but no food, so if people can get to the farm and get a piece of bread and a glass of milk, they will be able to survive.”

One of 30 cows left on the farm relaxes in the shade of the barn. Michaux included a dairy farm in his plans for the memorial because he prophesied that America would be hit by a depression ten times worse than the Great Depression. The farm, therefore, would provide refuge as well as a "glass of milk and a piece of bread" to suffering Americans. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)
One of 30 cows left on the farm relaxes in the shade of the barn. Michaux included a dairy farm in his plans for the memorial because he prophesied that America would be hit by a depression ten times worse than the Great Depression. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)

By the end of World War II, Michaux had acquired another 500 acres of land (deeded to the James City County Bible and Agricultural Training School, Inc.) and sold about 40 to the federal government so the Colonial Parkway could be built.

Two decades later, fundraising for the memorial had long since stalled and interest in the memorial had waned after years without tangible progress. The land ultimately failed to reach the heights of Michaux’s original vision, and he passed away in 1969.

Today, all that remains of Michaux’s original plan for the property is a sign denoting the entrance to the memorial and the original dairy farm, down from 70 cows when Michaux was alive to 30. 

His legacy, nonetheless, continues to live on in the people who still live on the farm today.

A fractured legacy

Howard Smith wears suits like a second skin. His height is imposing and his white mustache neatly trimmed.

He often pauses for dramatic effect when speaking on topics he’s passionate about, punctuating and drawing out certain words as though he’s delivering one of his sermons.

One such subject is his the fact that he is a direct descendant of the farm’s original residents. He is one of twelve children of Marion O’Connell (Okie) Smith, who began overseeing Michaux’s farm in 1943. After Okie Smith’s death in 2015, Howard Smith took his father’s place as head of the farm.

Howard Smith is a direct descendant of the original residents of the farm. His father, Okie Smith, came to work on Michaux's farm in 1943. Howard Smith is currently the overseer of the farm and pastor of the Church of God at Williamsburg. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)
Howard Smith is a direct descendant of the original residents of the farm. His father, Okie Smith, came to work on Michaux’s farm in 1943. Howard Smith is currently the overseer of the farm and pastor of the Church of God at Williamsburg. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)

Okie Smith was a conscientious objector to World War II because he “didn’t want to kill a man,” so the then 21-year-old Okie Smith was sent to Michaux’s dairy farm to carry out “work deemed important to the nation.”

He often shared an anecdote that Michaux came to the farm shortly before his death in 1968 and made Okie promise to stay on the land and to keep his sons on the land. Okie’s son Howard credits his father with the fact that the farm is still operational today.

Howard Smith was raised in Michaux’s Church of God, but broke away from the organization in 1980 because he believed the church no longer adhered to a “standard of living … above sin.” He claims there was a shift in priorities and ideology that deviates from Michaux’s standards.

“They don’t have a church, they have a business,” Smith said of the current iteration of the church. The Gospel Spreading Church did not respond to requests for comment.

In order to preserve Michaux’s dedication to a “life above sin,” Smith opened his own church in 1998 named the Church of God at Williamsburg, where he is currently the preacher. It is located on Longhill Road, about six miles away from the farm.

Smith claims that the Gospel Spreading Church, which Michaux founded, has deviated from the Elder's religious ideology. Smith opened his own church, The Church of God at Williamsburg, which he believes adheres to Michaux's standards more faithfully. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)
Smith claims that the Gospel Spreading Church, which Michaux founded, has deviated from the Elder’s religious ideology. Smith opened his own church, The Church of God at Williamsburg, which he believes adheres to Michaux’s standards more faithfully. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)

“We have maintained the integrity of the foundation set by Michaux by our living and constantly preaching the living of Christ in a dying world,” Smith said.

This split between the overseer of Michaux’s farm and Michaux’s original church, however, has created tension that lies beneath the surface of a seemingly serene farm.

Smith says that the Gospel Spreading Church refused to rebuild his house after it burned down in 1982, so he had to find a new residence outside the farm. In the intervening years, the homes of several other farm residents, as well as barns, have burned down.

When the home of Howard Smith’s brother Paul was court ordered for demolition in 2004, the rift with the church led to a lawsuit.

Despite Okie Smith’s testimony in court that he and his family had been tending to the farm since 1943, Judge Samuel Powell ruled in the Williamsburg-James City County Circuit court that the land belongs to the church corporation.

The farm's residents and the leadership at the Gospel Spreading Church have been involved in legal disputes over building permits and land rights for years. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)
The farm’s residents and the leadership at the Gospel Spreading Church have been involved in legal disputes over building permits and land rights for years. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)

Smith claims that Michaux made the Smith family heirs to the farm in his will. WYDaily was unable to locate the will in county court records. Smith did not have access to a copy. 

Smith believes that he and his family are the rightful heirs to the property, not only because of the aforementioned will, but also because he views his congregation to be the true ideological successors to Michaux’s legacy.

Obedience, love, reverence, and respect. Four words, taken straight from Michaux’s original religious ideology, are etched throughout the Church of God at Williamsburg, decorating the preacher’s pulpit and hanging on cloth decorations.

“If more people were to honor these principles,” Smith said, “the world would be a better place.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the home belonging to Howard Smith’s brother Paul burned down in 2004. The house burned in 1981, but was court ordered for demolition in 2004. 

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